AMERICAN TERRORISTS: “THIS IS HEZBOLLAH IN FLORIDA”
Think the U.S.’s secret war against Fidel Castro ended 40 years ago? Think again.
On this week’s Ring of Fire radio show, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. interviewed Joe Conason of the Nation Institute about an explosive investigative report which recently appeared in Salon on the terrorist training camp in South Florida known as Alpha 66.
Conason (also a longtime friend of Bobby’s) explained how Alpha 66 has been allowed to operate and engage in Operation Mongoose-type mischief against Cuba since 1961, even though the U.S. government supposedly abandoned such activities during the Kennedy administration. The truth of the matter, as this article details, is quite another story.
Here is an excerpt from Salon.com:
(At the entrance to the Alpha 66 training camp outside Miami. Image by Dando Valle.)
The “Terrorists” of South Florida
Anti-Castro Cuban exiles who have been linked to bombings and assassinations are living free in Miami. Does the U.S. government have a double standard when it comes to terror?
Editor’s note: Research support was provided by the Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.
By Tristram Korten and Kirk Nielsen
Jan. 14, 2008 | OUTSIDE MIAMI, Fla. — On a hot subtropical Sunday, deep in the humid brush bordering the Everglades west of Miami, Osiel Gonzalez squints down the worn barrel of an AK-47 rifle and squeezes the trigger. With a crack and kick the bullet whizzes over a field of neatly trimmed grass and hits a human silhouette on a paper target 40 yards away.
Gonzalez wipes the sweat off his brow and smiles. Perspiration stains the neck and armpits of his camouflage jacket. All around him are men in fatigues, some flat-bellied on the grass shooting rounds, others cleaning their weapons or picking through ammunition boxes. The air is thick with cigar smoke. At age 71, Gonzalez is still one of the best marksmen at this training camp for Alpha 66, the paramilitary Cuban exile group formed in 1961 “with the intention of making commando type attacks on Cuba,” as the organization’s Web site baldly puts it. Gonzalez hopes to put his skills to use when the second revolution comes, the one that will tear his homeland free from the grip of communist dictator Fidel Castro. At that point Gonzalez hopes to have a Cuban soldier in his sights, not a paper silhouette.
Plans to attack Cuba are constantly being hatched in South Florida. Over the years militant exiles have been linked to everything from downing airliners to hit-and-run commando raids on the Cuban coast to hotel bombings in Havana. They’ve killed Cuban diplomats and made numerous attempts on Castro’s life.
But, other than an occasional federal gun charge, nothing much seems to happen to most of these would-be revolutionaries. They are allowed to train nearly unimpeded despite making explicit plans to violate the 70-year-old U.S. Neutrality Act and overthrow a sovereign country’s government. Though separate anti-terror laws passed in 1994 and 1996 would seem to apply directly to their activities, no one has ever been charged for anti-Cuban terrorism under those laws. And 9/11 seems to have changed nothing. In the past few years in South Florida, a newly created local terrorism task force has investigated Jose Padilla and the hapless Seas of David cult, and juries have delivered mixed reviews, but no terrorism charges have been brought against anti-Castro militants. The federal government has even failed to extradite to other countries militants who are credibly accused of acts of murder. Among the most notorious is Luis Posada Carriles, wanted for bombing a Cuban jet in 1976 and Havana hotels in 1997. It is, perhaps, a testament to the power of South Florida’s crucial Cuban-American voting bloc — and the political allegiances of the current president.
In Greater Miami, home to the majority of the nation’s 1.5 million Cuban-Americans, the presence of what could credibly be described as a terrorist training camp has become an accepted norm during the half-century of the anti-Castro Cuban diaspora. Alpha 66 and numerous other paramilitary groups — Comandos F4, Brigade 2506, Accion Cubana — are so common they’ve taken on the benign patina of Rotary Clubs with weapons.
But Alpha 66 members are eager to remind you that even if they are graying and prosperous they are not toothless old tigers. Their Web site boasts that “in recent years” they’ve sabotaged Cuba’s tourist economy by attacking hotels in the beach resort of Caya Coco. At the group’s headquarters in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, the walls are hung with the portraits of dozens of men who have died on Alpha 66 missions.
To reach Alpha 66’s South Florida camp you have to drive to the farmlands west of Miami’s sprawl, then wait for a guide. You follow the guide down a winding, pitted dirt road for a few miles until you get to a gate and a yellow watchtower hung with an old-fashioned school bell. Behind a wall of trees and shrubs is a compound that looks like a hunting lodge. A low-slung wood-plank bunker with a deck and awning provides refuge from the sun.
Before hitting the range, the men — there are no women here today — had done maneuvers, marching in double file around the field, while a short, barrel-chested former Cuban army officer named Ivan Ayala barked directions: “Columna izquierda!” Many of the aging, uniformed men laboring to make it around the field are veterans of the failed CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 and alumni of Castro’s jails. Some, like Osiel Gonzalez, even fought alongside Castro against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, before Castro’s turn toward communism. Most, if you believe them, have a “commando” mission or two with Alpha under their belts — landing on a remote beach and burning sugar cane fields, or strafing a shoreline with machine-gun fire. In other words, they’ve walked the walk of counterrevolutionary violence, even if it’s now reduced to a shuffle.
They deny they have anything in common with the militants hiding in the caves of Afghanistan and Pakistan. “No, we are not terrorists,” says Gonzalez, the second-in-command and a co-founder of the group who, when he is not donning fatigues and shouldering a rifle, is a financial consultant. “We don’t want to kill civilians.”
“Our goal is to free our country for our children and grandchildren,” drawls Al Bacallao, who has already retreated to the porch’s shade behind Gonzalez and the shooting range. The 61-year-old Bacallao was raised in Georgia after arriving from Cuba at age 8, and is the rare Cuban exile with a Southern twang. “The United States fought for its liberty, why can’t we?”
But Alpha members may have a fluid definition of what a civilian is. Raking the coast with .50-caliber machine-gun fire certainly does not exclude civilian casualties, nor does attacking tourist spots. By his own admission, Bacallao, who joined Alpha 66 23 years ago, has gone on several missions to Cuba. In 1993 U.S. authorities arrested him and a boatload of other men setting out for the island.
…”Let me tell you, we were treated like animals,” he says. “And all we were trying to do was liberate our country.”
But if he was treated like an animal, he is not in a cage. Federal prosecutors charged him and his companions with illegal weapons possession but a judge dismissed the case against most of the men, and a jury found the rest not guilty. Like other anti-Castro exiles before him, despite violent acts he is free to continue reporting to the training camp, and free to continue preparing for counter-revolution.
…Judy Orihuela, spokeswoman for the FBI’s Miami office, insists the agency will investigate any group that intends to violate U.S. law and poses a violent threat. At the Department of Justice in Washington, Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the national security division, rejects the notion that federal law enforcement shows leniency toward exile militants. Boyd maintains the DOJ would never attempt to influence a local case for political reasons and is blind to community or political pressure. “We pursue charges based on the evidence, not on other considerations,” he says.
“That’s sheer bullshit,” counters Wayne Smith, who was chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba under Presidents Carter and Reagan from 1979 to 1982, making him the de facto U.S. ambassador to Havana. Smith, who now runs the Cuba Program at the D.C.-based Center for International Policy, invokes the names of two of the most notorious Cuban exiles to argue that the U.S. does, in fact, play favorites. “We are certainly not applying these laws objectively in the case of Luis Posada Carriles, Orlando Bosch and a whole lot of others who have been involved in terrorist activities. We say that countries must take action against terrorists, but we’re clearly not. And I think it’s because we’re sympathetic to their actions.”
At the beginning of Castro’s reign, the U.S. was more than sympathetic to the militant exiles. In the 1960s, the U.S. government actively encouraged and supported anti-Castro violence, including the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion. “Throughout most of the 1960s, rolling back the Cuban revolution through violent exile surrogates remained a top U.S. priority,” says Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive and a specialist on U.S. policy toward Cuba. With exile involvement, the U.S. government made numerous attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro between 1961 and 1975, though the number cited in the title of the British documentary “638 Ways to Kill Castro” may be an exaggeration. Many anti-Castro Cubans went to work for U.S. intelligence and compiled long résumés of covert activity. In the 1980s, some assisted with the Reagan administration’s covert effort to arm the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
Cuban-American entanglement with the CIA eventually bled into U.S. politics; two of the five “plumbers” who broke into the Democratic Party’s national headquarters at the Watergate in 1972 were Cuban-American. Tolerance for anti-Castro militancy, meanwhile, also had domestic consequences. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s and into the ’80s, exiles carried out dozens of bombings and assassinations in Miami and other American cities, targeting people they deemed too accommodating to the Castro government.
…Still, however, the militants continued to train within the borders of the U.S., and to amass weaponry. Retired Army Col. Larry Wilkerson remembers attending briefings during Caribbean war game exercises from 1992 to 1997 where he learned of the exiles’ capabilities. “We would always be fed this intelligence and I was astounded at how many suspected caches of arms they had access to not just in Florida, but in California, New Jersey and other places; light machine guns, grenades, C4, dynamite, all manner of side arms and long arms,” recalls Wilkerson, who was former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff from 2002 to 2005. “It was a veritable terrorist haven. This is Hezbollah in Florida, if you’re looking at it through Havana’s eyes.”
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Copyright 2008 Salon.com.