Guardian comment: The world is watching
Campaign News | Tuesday, 14 June 2005
Washington can no longer brush aside Venezuelan and Cuban demands to extradite a client terrorist
Tuesday June 14, 2005
As the condor flies, Texas and Cuba are not all that far apart, and yesterday they were linked by two unfolding parallel dramas. The man common to both was Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban-born citizen of Venezuela who has spent most of his adult life in the service of Washington but is now its biggest embarrassment.
At the Palacio de Convenciones in Havana, it was the start of another week of hearings into the evidence that surrounds the terrorist career of Posada. This is a kind of truth and justice commission without the participation of those deemed to be in need of redemption. Fidel Castro is a constant attender and interjects occasionally as witnesses give their testimonies about Posada's alleged misdeeds and the labyrinthine political and criminal connections linked to them.
Meanwhile, in El Paso, Texas, 77-year-old Posada was resisting efforts by the Venezuelan authorities to extradite him to stand trial for his alleged part in the blowing-up of a Cuban airliner in 1976 that killed 81 people. The Venezuelan interest does not end at the fact that the plot was allegedly hatched in their country. There were Venezuelans on board and Posada (albeit in somewhat different political times) had opted to become a Venezuelan citizen.
An attempt to enter the US illegally from Mexico, where he has been resident in recent years, led to Posada's detention by immigration officials in March. This sparked off mass demonstrations in Havana and demands from both Cuba and Venezuela for his extradition. Significantly, however, Cuba wanted him back for other alleged terrorist offences and Castro said it was Venezuela that should deal with the aircraft bombing.
When Posada was active within its borders, Venezuela was a military dictatorship and client state of Washington. Matters could now hardly be more different, and it seems likely that the eradication of Hugo Chávez's erratic but socially progressive Bolivarian republic would come third on the Washington wish-list - behind only the detention of Osama bin Laden and the demise of Castro himself. Even in Latin America, however, it is not as easy to remove elected governments as it was in the old days.
Cuba can feel comfortable about Caracas being a suitable place for Posada to be called to account, since Venezuela is now its best friend and biggest trade partner. Crucially, however, past history means there has been an extradition treaty between the US and Venezuela since 1922, whereas none exists between Washington and Havana.
Since then there have been two massive changes to the context within which Posada's fate will be determined. First there is the whole Chávez phenomenon in Venezuela. In times past, Chávez would have been dead meat long ago - and Posada would probably have been active in the cause.
Washington's natural instincts towards the Chávez regime - which has since been bolstered by a successful referendum - also have to be tempered by the fact that Venezuela is a very substantial oil exporter to the US. In this instance, Chávez's threats to cut off diplomatic links with Washington unless Posada is sent back to face a Venezuelan court represents something more substantial than the mouse that roared.
Meanwhile, the relationship between Cuba and Venezuela grows ever stronger. In the centre of Havana, a block of pre-revolutionary luxury flats has been transformed into the biggest hotel in town - occupied almost entirely by Venezuelans, most of them flown over to Cuba for state-of-the-art medical treatment. When a friend recently received a laser operation to his eyes, the rest of the waiting room was filled with Venezuelan peasants, some of them blind for years. There is not much doubt who they are going to vote for.
Venezuela supplies Cuba with oil on favourable terms. In return, the Cubans send thousands of doctors and teachers to Venezuelan villages. The Cubans are also increasingly involved in food distribution within Venezuela. It is all enough to give Washington palpitations, but there is not a lot they can do about it while the world is watching.
Back at the convention centre in Havana, every Latin American misdeed in the past 40 years is being linked to Posada and his colleagues. The Cubans claim that more than half the attacks carried out by anti-Castro organisations linked to Posada took place on America's own soil - including the 1976 car bomb that killed Orlando Letelier, the Chilean foreign minister. They also claim that the route taken by Posada to enter the US from Mexico was the one used by the cocaine cartel with which he was deeply involved.
The second relevant change in political context took the form of 9/11 and the war against terrorism, led from Washington. While laxer attitudes undoubtedly did prevail in the 1970s, the US is now unambiguous in its opposition to blowing up civilian planes as a weapon of political argument. However they resolve the Posada difficulty, they can be sure that some parts of the world will be watching with interest for evidence of continuing double standards - with more than a little encouragement from Havana.
· Brian Wilson is a former trade and Foreign Office minister