US tiptoes between terror, Castro's policies

The detainment of a Cuban exile is complicated by 9/11.

Just when it seemed the Bush administration had removed any gray from the definition of "terrorist," along comes a Cuban exile accused of terrorist acts to muddy the waters.

Luis Posada Carriles, a longtime opponent of Fidel Castro's communist regime, a former CIA spy, the suspected mastermind of the bombing of a Cuban airliner in 1976, and the admitted author of a rash of Havana hotel bombings in 1997, was taken into US custody this week for immigration violations and has been seeking political asylum.

Although immigration authorities were to have made an initial decision on Mr. Posada's status by Thursday afternoon, a broader question has arisen: Just where does the naturalized Venezuelan fit on the terrorism spectrum, and how does that fit with President Bush's assertion since 9/11 that "terrorism" is black and white?

President Castro says Posada is a "terrorist" - and this week he paraded before the offices of US diplomatic representatives in Havana with throngs of other Cubans to make the point. But for thousands of Cuban exiles in Florida and elsewhere, the anti-Castro stalwart is a "freedom fighter" and someone who should be protected by an administration that is forcefully promoting freedom in the world - and not deported or prosecuted by it.

Posada, who admits to entering the country illegally over the Texas border in March, was detained by US officials after meeting with members of the press in Miami on Tuesday. He denies connection to the airliner bombing that killed 73 people aboard, but FBI documents place him at a meeting where the bombing was planned.

Venezuela is seeking Posada's extradition to face trial for the 1976 bombing, but US officials suggest it is unlikely he would be sent to a country with such close ties to Castro's Cuba. Another option - one Posada's critics say they anticipate - is that he could eventually be sent to a country on better terms with the US, such as El Salvador, where Posada could also face other, minor charges.

But that would at least remove a political hot potato at a time when the Cuba issue is regaining national sensitivity. Interest groups favoring relaxed relations with Cuba are twinning the Posada asylum request with the battle over UN ambassador nominee John Bolton.

Critics of Mr. Bolton say he sought to bend US intelligence to convince Congress that Cuba poses a threat of biological warfare. But conservative supporters, led by columnist Robert Novak, counter that Bolton's opponents see him as standing in the way of their goal of opening up US-Cuba ties.

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