“Orlando Bosch, a prominent Cuban exile militant charged and then acquitted in the bombing of a Cuban jetliner in 1976, died in Miami Wednesday.”
The Miami Herald, April 27, 2011.
Orlando Bosch’s release from a Miami jail in 1990 marked the beginning of a decade of renewed attacks on Cuba by exile militants. This excerpt from Sting of the Wasp, my nonfiction book-in-progress, offers a profile of the man—as well as the mindset—that made what went before comprehensible, and what came after possible.
July 17, 1990
Only in Miami! Watching his triumphal, hero-home-from-the-wars televised press conference this afternoon, a casual viewer might have puzzled over how to square the image of this smiling old man in the charcoal-grey suit and open-collared shirt—blinking through thick, over-sized spectacles into the blinding glare of the TV lights while his adoring wife and four children, along with a gaggle of cheering supporters, looked on—with the sobering reality of just who this man had once been. And who he might still be.
Dr. Orlando Bosch Ávila was a convicted felon, a parole jumper, an accused mass murderer, a man who had spent all but six months of the last 14 years behind bars, a man who had most recently entered the United States illegally, a man the FBI agent who’d rummaged through the recesses of his life had labeled “Miami’s number one terrorist,” a man the United States Associate Attorney General had described as “resolute and unwavering in his advocacy of terrorist violence,” a man 31 other countries had already refused to allow to set foot inside their borders and, of course, a certifiable legend and hero in much of Miami’s el exilio community.
Only in Miami. To the rest of the world, Orlando Bosch was a terrorist. But in Miami, the world’s worst terrorist could still be Miami’s most beloved freedom fighter, provided he waged his terror on behalf of la causa. La causa—overthrowing Fidel Castro, killing him if possible, wiping his hated communist dictatorship off the face of the earth by any and all means necessary, and restoring Cuba to its once and future glory—had been Orlando Bosch’s fight, his guiding, sole mission in life for 30 years.
One of the most intriguing twists on their mutual loathing was that Orlando Bosch and Fidel Castro had once been allies. They were Cuban contemporaries, born within a week of each other in 1926. During the 1940s, they’d both studied at the University of Havana. Castro was president of the law students’ association, Bosch headed up the medical students’ group. Both took part in the struggle to topple Cuba’s hated dictator Fulgencio Batista. After the triumph of the rebels, Castro, the revolution’s leader, had rewarded fellow traveler Bosch, who’d returned from a pediatric internship in Ohio to join the fight, with an appointment as governor of his native Las Villas province.
But relations soon soured. Bosch quit and returned to the hills to lead an armed rebellion against Castro’s revolution. By the middle of 1960, he’d fled to Miami with his wife, also a doctor, and their four small children. Like many of his fellow exiles who assumed they would return home soon, Bosch arrived on a 60-day tourist visa.
He eventually found a job as an assistant director at a small Coral Gables hospital, bought a fixer-upper house in Little Havana, a “beat-up blue Cadillac,” and even watched enough TV to claim that a quirky spy drama called Mission: Impossible was his favorite television show. But la causa remained his primary—some might say only—obsession. (How obsessed? Bosch was eventually fired from his job at the hospital for storing explosives on hospital property.)
He’d signed on for the ill-starred Bay of Pigs invasion, then joined the CIA and became a case officer for Operation 40, a White House-sanctioned, CIA-run covert operation to mount a Cuban exile invasion force to depose Castro.
On the side, Bosch also ran something called the Insurrectional Movement of Revolutionary Recovery (MIRR), one of a plethora of violent, transplanted-from-Cuba exile groups that made their bones by launching attacks against their former homeland. MIRR’s tactics included dropping incendiary devices from small planes on Cuba’s sugar cane fields in order to destroy the country’s agricultural lifeline. According to a CIA document, one 1963 MIRR air strike killed a father and his three children. Bosch denied he had anything to do with the attacks, but also claimed they were carried out at the direction of the CIA.
In 1964, he was arrested in Miami for “towing a homemade, radio-operated torpedo through downtown in rush-hour traffic;” in 1965, he was arrested for trying to smuggle bombs out of the country; in 1966, he was arrested twice more, first for ferrying “six dynamite-stuffed, 100-pound surplus aerial bombs” up the Tamiami Trial “to a secret base where there was a boat we could use to bomb Castro,” and then for trying to extort $21,000 from a fellow exile to finance his various anti-Castro operations.
None of the allegations stuck. Welcome to Miami.
In 1970, Bosch was finally convicted for firing (misfiring, actually) a bazooka at a Polish (which is to say communist) freighter docked at the Port of Miami. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was paroled four years later, soon after a re-election-seeking Florida Governor Claude Kirk boasted to a Latin Chamber of Commerce dinner he had been “quietly and effectively” working to get their hero released. “When I think of free men seeking a free homeland,” Kirk declared, appropriately misty-eyed, “I must necessarily think of Dr. Bosch.”
Back in Miami, Bosch came under police scrutiny again, this time in connection with the mysterious 1974 assassination of an exile leader named José Elias de la Torriente. By the time police showed up to question him, Bosch had skipped the country, thus violating the terms of his parole.
By then, Miami didn’t matter. His first wife had divorced him, he’d lost his job and he’d essentially abandoned any pretence of practising medicine. La causa had become his city—and his life.
Before he left Miami, however, Bosch had had $10-million worth of bonds printed to finance a new scheme to overthrow Castro. He peddled them—in denominations of $10 to $1,000—throughout Little Havana. Three million dollars of the money raised, Bosch claimed, was to be specifically set aside to assassinate the Cuban leader. The bonds, in fact, were only redeemable upon the death of Fidel Castro.
Though Bosch seemed to disappear from public view for the next two years, the American government and CIA kept remarkably careful track of their sometime asset’s whereabouts—and his activities—as he wandered Latin America, changing identities as often as he changed countries. Not that they wanted him back. Between 1974 and 1976, American authorities turned down offers from Venezuela and Costa Rica to return the parole-violator to the United States.
Bosch was arrested in Venezuela after someone tossed dynamite into a meeting of Cuban and Venezuelan diplomats, but he was released—with a new fake passport—after he turned over the key to his apartment, a weapons-filled arsenal, to local authorities.
He then moved to Chile where he lived in a military safe house under the protection of Chile’s military dictator Augusto Pinochet. U.S. Government documents say he filled his days painting naïve Cuban landscapes and his nights mailing bombs to Cuban embassies in Peru, Spain, Canada and Argentina.
In January 1976, Bosch showed up in Costa Rica where U.S. Secret Service agents questioned him in connection with a plot to assassinate Henry Kissinger during a visit to the Central American country. Bosch told Costa Rican authorities his target wasn’t Kissinger at all, but the nephew of Chile’s deposed Marxist President Salvador Allende. Costa Rica packed him off to the Dominican Republic anyway.
There, in June 1976 at a secret gathering in the town of Bonao, Bosch helped found Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations (CORU), an umbrella organization for the most violent of the violent anti-Castro groups. “I told them that we couldn’t just keep bombing an embassy here and a police station there,” Bosch would explain later. “We had to start taking more serious actions.”
According to U.S. government documents, CORU would be responsible for more than 50 terrorist operations during the next few years, “including bombing attacks against Cuban territory; setting off a bomb in front of the Panamanian embassy in Caracas, Venezuela; blowing up the Viasa [Venezuela’s airline] office in Puerto Rico; setting off a bomb at the Mexican Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina; and planning the murder of two Cuban diplomats in Argentina who subsequently were kidnapped and disappeared.” CORU’s bloody fingerprints also turned up on the September 1976 car-bomb assassination of former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier in Washington.
CORU’s most “serious”—and deadly—action came on October 6, 1976, when two bombs blew a Cubana Airlines plane out of the sky just west of Bridgetown, Barbados, killing all 73 people aboard. The victims included two dozen Cuban fencers, most of them teenagers returning home with pockets full of gold medals they’d won at that year’s Central American and Caribbean Fencing Championships.
For the next 25 years—until 9/11, in fact—the attack on Cubana Airlines Flight 455 would carry the dubious distinction of being the worst incident of air terrorism in the Americas. The CIA quickly identified Bosch and his CORU co-founder Luis Posada as its masterminds. According to a CIA cable, an informant had overheard Posada boasting a week before the bombing: “we are going to hit a Cuban airliner… Orlando has the details.”
Within a day, Barbadian authorities had arrested two Venezuelan men—Hernán Ricardo and Freddy Lugo—as the actual bomb planters. They’d bought tickets on the Guyana-Havana milk-run but had gotten off the plane during its Barbados stop. Ricardo, who was traveling on a false passport, had done work for Posada’s Caracas-based private investigation company and served as Bosch’s driver. He fingered Posada and Bosch as the men who’d directed the plot.
Ricardo and Lugo were eventually returned to Venezuela where—after several trials—they were found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The Posada and Bosch cases dragged on much longer. In 1980, a Venezuelan military judge acquitted both men, but the prosecutors successfully appealed, arguing the trial should have been held in a civilian court. While awaiting retrial, Posada—with help from rich exile friends in Miami—escaped, disguised as a priest, and disappeared.
Bosch wisely waited for the legal process to run its course, which only solidified his martyr status in Miami exile circles. While he was still in prison, Miami’s mayor led a highly publicized (it was an election year) pilgrimage to visit him in his cell. When Bosch went on a hunger strike to protest his incarceration, a dozen sympathizers set up a tent city in Little Havana and joined his fast. City fathers in Miami, Hialeah and Sweetwater even designated March 25, 1983 as “Orlando Bosch Day” to celebrate his lifetime of unstinting devotion to la causa.
In 1986, Bosch was finally acquitted, largely on a technicality: the Venezuelan court refused to allow Barbadian evidence to be used in his trial because it had been submitted too late and only in English. The judge also made the fascinatingly beside-the-point argument that Bosch must be innocent because he wasn’t with Hernán and Lugo “at the moment in which the Cubana plane was destroyed.”
The next year, Bosch, proclaiming “I have a loving wife who resides in the United States and five American children with whom I want to share the last years of my life,” resurfaced in Miami, a city that must have seemed dramatically different—and not—from the place he’d abandoned 13 years earlier.
By then, Miami, as the noted American writer Joan Didion put it in her 1987 nonfiction book, had become “our most graphic lesson in consequences.” Most of those consequences were a direct result of the presence in the city of close to 500,000 Cubans, many of whom had arrived in the years since Bosch left.
The first Cubans to flee to Miami following the triumph of Fidel Castro’s revolution, not surprisingly, had been the most wealthy and most powerful members of the old Batista regime, along with the American mobsters who’d made Havana their own. They were soon followed by the country’s business elite, many of whom already did business with the United States, or who whose companies were owned by Americans. Cuba’s professional classes were next to seek their exit. Many had opposed Castro from the beginning, but others—like Bosch—were early supporters who changed their minds, either because of what they saw as the excesses of the revolution or because of Castro’s quick embrace of Soviet-style communism.
By the end of 1962, close to 250,000 Cubans had landed in the United States. Most settled in south Florida. They saw themselves not as refugees or would-be immigrants but as exiles who had relocated temporarily to wait out the madness that had gripped their homeland. Miami—with its shared sub-tropical climate and an already established Cuban community of close to 30,000—made a natural haven. Havana’s upper classes were hardly strangers to Florida’s charms, of course; before the revolution, many vacationed in Miami Beach. And Miami was conveniently close to Havana—just a 55-minute flight across the Florida Straits—meaning they could return quickly once the political situation improved. They were so confident they would return soon many left their valuables behind in Cuba.
Why wouldn’t they have been optimistic? The American government seemed committed to helping them get their country back. Under cover of an organization code-named JM Wave, the CIA set up shop on the south campus of the University of Miami, doling out $50 million to hire a permanent staff of 300 who would oversee the insurrectionist work of more than 6,000 Cuban exile agents.
Their dismal failure at the Bay of Pigs in the spring of 1961 initially only seemed to make the American devotion to la causa stronger. The CIA shipped off cadres of bright young Cuban exiles—including Bosch’s eventual CORU compatriot Luis Posada; Felix Rodriguez, who would gain fame as the CIA operative responsible for killing Che Guevera and for running Oliver North’s Iran-Contra network; and Jorge Mas Canosa, who would one day become chair of the politically influential Cuban American National Foundation—to American military bases where CIA instructors helped them master the fine arts of bomb-making and sabotage.
But the exiles’ dream turned into a nightmare after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis when the Kennedy administration—as part of the price for getting the Soviet Union to remove its missile bases—agreed not to invade Cuba. Bosch himself wrote “a long bitter letter to Kennedy, charging betrayal.”
By then, however, the exile genie was out of the bottle. Even if it wanted to, the American government couldn’t magically take back all the support and training its CIA had provided to the anti-Castro militants. Not that it wanted to. The Americans were still just as eager for their exile proxies to topple Castro; they just couldn’t be seen to be directing the process any longer.
The result was that militant exile groups flowered in Miami’s hothouse, becoming a law unto themselves as they launched raid after raid against Cuba from the safety of their bases in Florida. Despite the undeniable reality their actions violated the U.S. Neutrality Act—which says paramilitaries can’t organize or carry out attacks against other countries from U.S. soil—the FBI rarely investigated. When police did file charges, prosecutors rarely prosecuted. If they did, juries in exile Miami even more rarely convicted.
It was probably no accident, for example, that Orlando Bosch had been stopped five times in five years before finally being convicted for terrorist activities, mostly because firing a makeshift bazooka at a Polish ship from Miami’s busy downtown MacArthur Causeway made him impossible to ignore.
By the 1970s, this growing culture of lawlessness had also turned inward as various exile groups tried to prove they were purer, more committed to la causa than the others.
In 1978, for example, a respected Cuban-American banker named Bernard Benes brokered a secret, White-House-encouraged deal with Fidel Castro that led to the release of 3,600 Cuban political prisoners and opened the door for Cubans to finally, if briefly, reunite with their relatives in the United States. For his efforts, Benes became, in the words of the New York Times, “the most prominent—and in anti-Castro circles the most hated—member of Miami’s community of 430,000 Cuban exiles.”
Benes, Robert M. Levine reported in his book Secret Missions to Cuba, “remained under FBI protection, surviving at least one and possibly two assassination attempts, and wearing a bulletproof vest… His bank was picketed and firebombed and… he lost almost all of his assets. For years, he could not even visit Little Havana without people refusing to shake his hand or look him in the eye.”
Why? For trying to free Cuban prisoners? For allowing exiles to see their families again? Why did Benes become such a pariah? Andrés Nazario Sargen, one of the founders of the militant Alpha 66 group, put it succinctly in an interview at the time with the Miami Herald: “When an American citizen talks to Castro, or helps a person in Cuba in any way,” he explained, “it gives the Cubans hope, which postpones their need to risk their lives to overthrow him, which hurts the cause.”
One result of that dictum was a frightening outbreak of internecine warfare. During one 18-month period in the mid-70s, there were more than 100 bombings and an average of an assassination a week in Miami. In a report, the FBI described Miami the “terrorist capital” of the United States.
Whoever killed José Elias de la Torriente—the 1974 murder investigators had wanted to question Bosch about before he disappeared—issued a statement calling the exile leader a “traitor to the fatherland” and promised to kill any other leader who got in the way of the “process of liberating their homeland by working only to advance their own bastard ambitions.” They’d been as good as their word, murdering four more exile leaders and blowing the legs off a fifth. The FBI eventually arrested three individuals who, according to the Miami New Times, “had one thing in common. At one time or another, they were all connected with a man named Orlando Bosch.”
Soon after returning to Miami, authorities clapped Bosch into jail for his long-ago parole violation. Before he could finish paying that debt to society, the Justice Department challenged his petition to be allowed to stay in the country. It turned out that when Bosch lived in Miami during the sixties and early seventies, he’d never actually applied for permanent residency. And now, based on more than 700 pages of classified U.S. government evidence cataloguing Bosch’s involvement in terrorist activities, the Justice Department of Justice wanted him deported. The problem was that no other country wanted him, except Cuba, and American authorities refused to send him there.
Thanks to that impasse, Bosch had spent the last two years in limbo at the Miami Correctional Center as prisoner No. 92690-131 while friends in high places lobbied for his release.
Despite—or, more likely, because of—his terrorist track record, Bosch had many friends in high places, friends like Jorge Mas Canosa, the Chair of the Cuban American National Foundation, the most powerful exile lobby group in the U.S.. Florida Congressional Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Connie Mack wrote letters on his behalf. Ros-Lehtinen’s campaign manager and wannabe Florida governor Jeb Bush talked to his father who was, conveniently, the president. Even the former chair of the Dade County Democratic Party—Bosch was a bipartisan cause, after all, for vote-hungry politicians— spoke out in his favor. Why? “The Cuban community believes the struggle against Castro is a war,” Alfredo Duran explained simply, “and in a war that kind of activity is not frowned upon.”
That kind of activity? Blowing an airplane out of the sky, killing 73 people? Organizing an umbrella group for militant anti-Castro exiles implicated in “more than 50 bombings and, possibly, political assassinations?”
Regardless, the lobbying worked. In early July 1990, the Justice Department—under pressure from an exile-friendly White House and pushed by a federal judge to either deport him or release him—offered a surprise deal for Bosch’s “temporary immigration parole.”
The three-page agreement called for Bosch to wear an electronic monitoring device, have no contact with “convicted felons or members of groups that advocate the use of violence for achieving political goals,” remain in his wife’s modest bungalow on Seventh Street in northwest Miami for 21 hours a day, have his phone calls monitored and maintain a log of every visitor to his house.
At first, Bosch balked at the requirement he keep a log of visitors; he didn’t want to be seen as a chivato, a hated government informant, his lawyer told reporters. After 10 days of negotiation, Bosch finally relented but in his own unrelenting way. Bosch, the Miami Herald reported, “said he would hang a banner on the front of his tiny pink home warning any visitors away: ‘Do not knock. Please go away. No chivato lives here.’”
It wasn’t much of a concession, but it was enough for beleaguered Justice officials. Bosch finally signed the agreement and the Department signed off on it. At 1:45 p.m. on July 17, 1990, Bosch walked out of prison and into his lawyer’s red convertible Mercedes, a sort-of free man. His release had become a subject of such intense public fascination that Miami television stations broke into afternoon soaps to announce it. Several were even broadcasting live his 23-minute press conference from the lobby of his lawyer’s office in Coconut Grove.
Although his lawyer had issued a required boilerplate statement—“Dr. Bosch reaffirms his previous statement that he has renounced terrorism in any form whatsoever as a means of political action and as a means to free Cuba from communism”—Bosch himself sounded remarkably unrepentant.
During the three hours a day—11 a.m. to 2 p.m.—he was permitted to leave his house, Bosch told reporters he would wander Little Havana’s Calle Ocho and Flagler Streets. “I will speak to anyone I want, I will embrace anyone I want and I will answer any questions they might have.”
He also wasn’t allowed to have contact with members of the Bay of Pigs’ veterans’ group, Brigade 2506, because of its support for Castro’s violent overthrow, but Bosch couldn’t help but praise them while slagging the American government for betraying them so many years before. “On April 17, 1961, the United States took and abandoned the Brigade 2506 at the Bay of Pigs… Those that died there are heroes of Cuba and heroes of mine.”
Although Bosch told the assembled throng and those watching on TV that he was extremely grateful to his friends and supporters in Miami—“I said I couldn’t find the words to reciprocate, but in the end I chose one, which is what we all say when God grants our wishes: Gracias, muchas gracias”—he remained scornful of the American government for failing to appreciate, or support, the exile cause.
“In my long history fighting for the freedom of Cuba,” Bosch declared, “the government of the United States has built an enormous file giving me the face of a terrorist. But the United States never wanted to go into the depths of that file to understand that my insistence, my persistence, even my intransigence are products of a shameful pact where the destiny and sovereignty of my country was compromised.”
Was he really ready to live up to the terms of his deal with the Justice Department, agreeing not to “own a firearm nor participate in criminal activity.” Could he really give up la causa? Bosch was coy: “They have bought the chain,” he said enigmatically, “but they don’t have the monkey.”
The Cuba government, of course, wasn’t amused. “We cannot calmly take the news of the release of Orlando Bosch, who is a terrorist,” explained a spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section in Washington D.C.
Havana had no intention of waiting quietly for the monkey’s next trick.