CubaNews / May 2009
By Larry Luxner
How come controversial Washington attorney José Pertierra didn’t end up in South Florida like most of the other Cuban exiles who fled their island in 1960?
“When we first arrived in the United States, I was 9 years old,” he said. “My mother saw the Cuban Revolution as the perfect excuse to get away — not from the communists but from her mother-in-law, who she hated.”
Upon landing in Miami, the Pertierra family learned that the U.S. government offered refugees a one-way ticket anywhere they wanted to settle in the United States, as long as they promised not to move back to Miami.
“My mother looked at the map and picked the farthest place she could, which was California,” he recalled. “So we went to live in Los Angeles, and I grew up with César Chávez instead of Jorge Mas Canosa.”
That could also explain how Pertierra became a friend of the Castro government rather than an enemy. He’s probably the only lawyer in America whose office — located only a few blocks from the White House — is decorated with articles about his exploits in the Washington Post, the National Law Journal and Cuba’s own Communist Party mouthpiece, Juventud Rebelde.
The day CubaNews came to interview Pertierra, three young Latino immigrants — a Mexican, a Guatemalan and a Salvadoran — were waiting in his small but comfortable reception area, seeking legal advice.
Nearby is a knick-knack shelf crammed with leftist memorabilia, including a portrait of Elián González with a blue ribbon from the boy’s Cuban school uniform, and a humorous ceramic miniature of Hugo Chávez sitting at his desk inscribed “Alo Presidente.”
No surprise, considering Pertierra’s top client happens to be the Venezuelan Embassy.
The Chávez government hired him in June 2005 to make sure the U.S. Department of Justice and the State Department would abide by international treaty obligations and extradite accused terrorist Luís Posada Carilles to Venezuela, where he’s wanted for masterminding the bombing of a Cubana airliner in 1976 in which 73 passengers died.
“My task throughout this has been to help guide along the process of preparing and pre-senting the extradition request,” said Perti-erra, estimating that he spends 30% of his time on the Posada case alone.
On Apr. 8, Pertierra got some great news. That day, a federal grand jury in El Paso, Tex., handed up a new indictment against Posada, for the first time linking the 81-year-old militant in a U.S. legal proceeding to a series of 1997 bombings that killed an Italian man vacationing at Havana’s Copacabana Hotel.
The indictment doesn’t charge Posada with planting the bombs or plotting the attacks, but rather with lying in an immigration court about his role in the Havana attacks.
“This is welcome first step, because for the first time, in formal legal documents before a federal district court, Posada was linked to international terrorism,” said Pertierra. “Up ‘til now, the only charge had been that he lied about how he entered the United States [in 2005, seeking political asylum]. Now, he’s being charged with perjury, in that he denied any link to the terrorists in jail in Cuba.”
The Cuban government has claimed that one of two Salvadoran nationals convicted in Havana of the bombings, Raúl Ernesto Cruz León, placed the bomb that killed the Italian, and that Cruz León was an accomplice of Posada.
“We have always known that Posada was receiving money from terrorist organizations in the U.S. to hire Central Americans to take bombs to Cuba, and Cruz León has always said that the person who hired him was Luís Posada Carriles.”
Posada’s lawyer, Arturo V. Hernández, told the Miami Herald his client is innocent. “This superseding indictment is under analysis, and once we complete that review, my client intends to plead not guilty to the additional counts,” Hernández told the newspaper, which also reported that the FBI has compiled a document claiming that Posada hid plastic explosives in shampoo bottles and shoes to be smuggled into Cuba weeks before the Sept. 4, 1997, bombing.
Pertierra is no stranger to bombs and Central American terrorists.
Thirteen years ago, on a brisk morning in January, a powerful explosion destroyed Pertierra’s Honda Acura; the blast was felt all around his quiet Washington neighborhood.
“At that moment, two images flashed through Pertierra’s mind,” according to a June 1996 article in The Progressive.“The first was of Orlando Letelier, the former left-leaning Chilean foreign minister who died in 1976 when his car was blown up at Sheridan Circle in Washington. Agents working for Chile’s ultra-rightist military had planted the bomb. The second was of the Guatemalan army.”
The bomb followed a series of threats against Pertierra, who at the time was representing Jennifer Harbury, a U.S. citizen married to a Guatemalan peace activist who had been tortured and murdered by the military regime ruling Guatemala at the time.
“I don’t think they meant to kill me. They only wanted me off the case,” he says. “The FBI came in with its domestic anti-terrorist force and concluded it had been the work of professionals. But they never found anything.”
Pertierra said he’s gotten no similar threats in connection with either his representation of the father of Elián González, or his efforts to have Posada extradited to Venezuela.
The lawyer shrugged off suggestions that too much is being made of a man in his 80s who is too old and frail to be of harm to anyone at this point.
“Luís Posada is very important,” Pertierra insisted. “He’s the Osama bin Laden of Latin America. And he is the mastermind of the campaign of terror that has been waged against Cuba since the early 1960s.”
“He’s a free man despite the Patriot Act, which permits the United States to detain a person the Department of Homeland Security declared to be a terrorist. The Bush administration chose not to do that, and the Obama administration so far has refused to do that,” Pertierra complained.
“If they are accusing him of obstructing justice in an international terrorism investigation, and they know he helped move Cruz León from El Salvador to Cuba, then the logical consequences are that he be detained under the Patriot Act and indicted for international terrorism and murder. That hasn’t happened,” he said.
“But if politics are removed from the equation, then I do expect that to happen.”
Halfway through our interview, Pertierra’s phone rang. On the other end was a journalist from Cuba’s Mesa Redonda TV program, hoping to get a sound-bite from the Washington lawyer on his reaction to the new U.S. indictment against Posada.
“Cuba has never asked for his extradition,” Pertierra pointed out. “The extradition and where this case should be tried was discussed back in 1976 when the plane blew up.
“Many different countries have a stake in this: Barbados, where the plane went down; Venezuela, where the conspiracy arose and where the flight originated. Many Guyanese were killed, and most of those who died were Cubans. But it was decided among all the countries that the best venue would be Venezuela, since Cuba had a death penalty and Venezuela didn’t,” he explained.
“In addition, the two masterminds of the crime, Posada and Orlando Bosch, were in detention in Caracas. For that and many other reasons, they decided to do it there.” Pertierra said the idea Posada would be tor-tured if sent back to Venezuela is “absolutely preposterous” and not even worth discussing.
“There is not one shred of evidence that Venezuela tortures its prisoners,” he charged. “If anything, it’s the United States that for years has been torturing its prisoners.”
In his free time, Pertierra is writing a couple of books — one on the Elián case, and the other a history of U.S.-Cuban relations from the perspective of immigration law.
He believes that soon, the families of those who died in the Cubana bombing will finally see Luís Posada behind bars. And that’ll be a happy day for the United States, too, he says.
“The great majority of Cuban-Americans in Miami think Posada is a terrorist,” Pertierra told CubaNews. “They may be in the closet when they say that, but they think it.”