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16 July 1998 Edition

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Exile group set Cuban bombs

By Dara Mac Neil

A prominent Cuban exile has accused the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation of directly financing terrorist attacks on Cuba.

According to Luis Posada Carriles, the Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF) was behind a series of no-warning bomb attacks on hotels, bars and restaurants in Havana last year.

Significantly, Luis Posada Carriles is a former close associate of the CANF founder and head, Jorge Mas Canosa. The CANF founder - who died of cancer last year - is believed to have employed Posada Carriles as a bodyguard.

The Havana bombing campaign resulted in the death of 32 year old Fabio di Celmo, an Italian resident of Canada. Mr di Celmo was visiting Cuba as a tourist.

Last September, Cuban authorities arrested a Salvadoran national in connection with the bombings. The authorities later said that Raul Cruz Leon had confessed to planting five of the six bombs that exploded in Havana, from July to Sepember.

There were no warnings given for any of the explosions and no claims of responsibility. All six occurred in popular tourist hotels and restaurants.

The Cuban police claimed to have discovered explosive traces on Mr Cruz Leon's hands and clothes, and plans detailing the layout of prestigious tourist outlets in Havana.

Cruz Leon was believed to have smuggled a quantity of C-4 explosive onto the island with him, which was later used in three hotel explosions on 4 September. It was one these explosions which killed Fabio di Celmo. Mr Leon is alleged to have been paid £4,500 for each bomb placed.

At the time of his arrest Cuban authorities voiced the suspicion that Cruz Leon was in the employ of right-wing exile groups in Miami, although they did not specify the CANF. They also accused the US government of complicity in the bombing campaign, with Cuban vice-president Raul Castro claiming US authorities were informed of the campaign before it began.

The bombs had deliberately targeted the island's booming tourist industry. Last year, Cuba earned almost $1.5 billion from tourist revenue, as much as 50% more than the revenue earned from the island's traditional money-spinner, sugar.

According to Luis Posada, Jorge Mas Canosa - the head of CANF - spent close to a quarter of a million dollars on these `extra-curricular' activities in recent years.

The money was often collected on the pretext that it was to be used to fund church activities in Cuba.

Since its formation in 1981, the Cuban-American National Foundation has dominated and driven US policy on Cuba.

A powerful lobby group, CANF was formed by wealthy Cuban exiles. It received financial backing from successive US administrations, while also regularly donating large sums to both the Democratic and Republican parties.

The CANF was run virtually as a private fiefdom of its founder, Jorge Mas Canosa. A multi-millionaire Mas Canosa was among the property owners and Batista supporters who fled in the isle after 1959. His father was a functionary in the Batista regime.

Over the years, the CANF enjoyed strong links with successive US administrations and Mas Canosa was said to have strong ties to former presidents Reagan and Bush.

The influence of CANF on US policy was particularly noticeable during the Reagan-Bush era, as the campaign to isolate and overthrow the Cuban Revolution was stepped up significantly.

However, in recent years the power of the CANF has declined significantly. Indeed some within the US administration now find the organisation's virulently right-wing objectives increasingly embarrassing.

In recent years, the Cuban exile community in the US has been seen to move away from the CANF and its insistence that the Revolution must be destroyed. Thus several exile groups now advocate - and have participated in - talks with the Cuban government.

Indeed in 1993 the head of one exile group - Cambio Cubano - confronted the CANF at an open public debate and charged that its leadership was interested solely in ``making money from a new Cuba.''

This was a none-too-subtle reference to the hierarchy of the CANF, many former businessmen who lost property to the revolution. Such a public challenge to the all-powerful CANF would have been unthinkable a few years previously.

And last November, Jorge Mas Canosa himself shuffled off this mortal coil. His death shattered the CANF, leaving it bereft of leadership at a crucial time. This will further exacerbate the decline and fall of a once-powerful monolith.

As if that was not enough, the CANF is currently under investigation by US authorities: several of the organisation's members are accused of participating in an alleged plot to assassinate Fidel Castro during his visit to the Ibero-American Summit in Venezuela last November.

Thus the allegations made by Luis Posada Carriles would at least appear to fit a pattern for CANF activity. That pattern appears to indicate a growing desperation on the part of the Mas Canosa leadership, a desperation attributable to the realisation that Cuba was not, after all, on the verge of collapse.

Hence the decision to place no-warning bombs in Havana hotels, thereby targeting Cuba's largest single source of income.

And there is also circumstantial evidence to link the Miami zealots to the bombing campaign.

Three of the explosions targeted hotels that are run - in a joint venture with the Cuban government - by the Spanish Sol Melia group. There are also said to have been explosions at Sol Melia hotels in the nearby resort of Varadero.

When the Helms-Burton dictat was signed into law by President Clinton, the Sol Melia group announced its opposition to the extra-territorial (and illegal) measures it contained.

Significantly, the hotel group declared that if it was forced by the new legislation to choose between investments in Cuba and the US, Sol Melia would choose the former. If necessary the group would sell off its hotels in Florida.

Naturally, that didn't go down too well with the exiled brethren in Miami and the group became a target for boycotts and protests.

According to Luis Posada Carriles, the CANF appear to have been more forceful in signalling their disapproval.

What makes Posada Carriles' allegations credible - apart from his association with the CANF - is the fact that he is no stranger to this activity himself.

In the 1960s, he was trained - along with other Cubans - in counter-insurgency tactics and the use of explosives, by the CIA.

In 1976, Posada Carriles put his mentor's training to good use when he blew up a Cuban commercial airliner. Few of the civilian passengers on board survived. Posada Carriles escaped to Venezuela and was later ``incorporated'' into Ronald Reagan's plethora of dirty wars in Latin America.

However he was caught by Cuban authorities and jailed. In 1985, he escaped - with the help of none other than Jorge Mas Canosa.

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