Luis Posada Carriles may be the most wanted man in Cuba and Venezuela, but on this recent afternoon, the man accused of deadly terrorism peacefully sips a peach drink, reads about Confucius and marvels at the Miami skyline from the balcony of a Brickell Key high-rise.
"At first I hid a lot, " Posada said of his arrival in Miami, noting that he spends much of his time reading or painting oil-on-canvas landscapes of Cuba. "I thought the [U.S.] government was looking for me."
Brought to this luxury condo - just a few blocks from offices of the Department of Homeland Security - for his first interview since sneaking into the United States in March, the anti-Castro militant said he has come to realize that the U.S. government is not looking for him.
"Now I hide a lot less. People have recognized me in the market, at the doctor's office, mostly older people." Still, he declines to reveal where he's staying.
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His arrival in Miami has created an international uproar: Presidents Fidel Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela are demanding that U.S. authorities arrest Posada on terrorism charges. Castro and Chávez are branding U.S. leaders hypocrites for going after terrorists overseas but not aggressively pursuing Posada, who has applied for asylum.
During the two-hour sit-down on Wednesday, Posada:
* Maintained that he played no role in the bombing of a Cubana de Aviación passenger jet in 1976 - despite recently declassified federal documents linking him to meetings where such an attack was discussed. "Sincerely, I didn't know anything about it."
* Refused to confirm or deny his involvement in a string of 1997 tourist-site bombings in Cuba - despite having admitted it previously. "Let's leave it to history."
* Spun an extraordinary tale of how he made it to Miami on a Greyhound bus from Houston - saying he narrowly avoided detention when immigration officers boarded and started demanding papers from foreign nationals. "I said, 'Sir, I'm 80 years old. I forget things. Right now I don't even remember where I'm going.' "
The Herald's interview with Posada came after several days of negotiations with his South Florida contacts. They issued cloak-and-dagger-style instructions on rendezvous points and strict interview rules - no cellphones, tape recorders or cameras.
Posada's contacts told the reporters to drive to a Brickell Avenue parking garage and wait next to a pair of fourth-floor elevators for a short ride to a gated Brickell Key condominium. The reporters then rode an elevator to one of the upper floors, knocked on a wood-paneled door and were led to the small balcony, where Posada extended his hand.
"Luis Posada, " he said, smiling. "Pleasure to meet you."
FEARED FOR HIS LIFE
Posada, 77, resembled a wealthy retiree, clad in leather topsiders, khaki linen pants and a linen cream-colored shirt - a dapper style that has been his throughout his 40 years as a self-styled warrior determined to topple Castro.
Posada said he sneaked into Miami in March because he feared Castro agents were close to killing him.
He survived an assassination attempt in 1990 in Guatemala, which he blamed on Castro gunmen. Bullets tore into his face, and he still bears scars on his nose, jaw and cheek, which left him with a permanent mumble and the need to slurp sometimes when speaking. He constantly dabs at the corner of his mouth with a napkin. Other than his scars, he's healthy, Posada says.
Asked whether he participated in the bombing of the Cuban jetliner, which killed 73 people, including a fencing team from Cuba, Posada said:
"They accused me of being the intellectual author of fabricating a weapon of war and of treason to the homeland. No one saw me make a bomb."
Venezuelan courts acquitted him twice in the explosion. Posada escaped from prison in 1985 while awaiting an appeal by government prosecutors.
"The only way for me to gain freedom was to escape, " he said. "I'm the only prisoner in the world who has had to escape after being acquitted."
In recently declassified documents from the CIA and FBI, informants alleged that he attended at least two planning meetings for the airliner attack - but Posada said those accusations were false and made by unreliable sources.
He sought to discredit one of those informants, Ricardo "Monkey" Morales Navarrete.
Before he was fatally shot in a Key Biscayne bar in 1982, Morales admitted a role in the bombing. In conversations with at least two Miami detectives, he also implicated Posada, according to the papers and an interview with The Herald. But in an interview with an exile journalist in 1982, Morales said Posada played no role.
"I never would have participated in any conspiracy with Monkey Morales, " Posada said. "I'd have to be crazy, my God! Everything Monkey said had a double intention. He was not credible."
Former Miami police Detective Diosdado Diaz told The Herald recently that in a private conversation Morales told him that Posada prepared the explosives to blow up the plane.
In the interview, Posada decried Diaz's recollection, calling him "un farsante y un sin verguenza" (a phony and shameless one).
Diaz later shot back: "He's a pimp and a liar."
For years, Posada has maintained that Morales told him he had masterminded the bombing. He told The Herald that a spy inside the Cuban Embassy in Caracas told him that Morales had been working for the Cuban government after its agents paid him $18,000 at a Mexico City hotel in early 1976.
He refused to identify that source, saying that the person was still working for the Cuban government.
HIS ASYLUM BID
Posada's asylum bid will largely depend on whether an immigration judge believes he was involved in any terrorist attack. Immigration law bars asylum for any foreign national believed to have committed a serious crime.
Posada's connection to a string of about a dozen explosions at Cuban tourist spots in 1997 is also an issue. In the interview, Posada did not confirm or deny a role in the bombings, which killed an Italian national and injured about six.
In an interview in July 1998, The New York Times reported that Posada had said he "organized a wave of bombings in Cuba last year at hotels, restaurants and discotheques" and also that his chief supporters were leaders of the Cuban American National Foundation, including its founder, Jorge Mas Canosa, who died in 1997.
After the story appeared, The Times clarified that CANF did not fund the bombings.
Posada told The Herald last week that in his Times interview he had implicated dead exile leaders in funding the attacks as a way to deflect attention from the real conspirators.
"I wanted to play a trick on The New York Times, but it backfired, " he said.
Asked whether he denied organizing the bombings, Posada shook his head and said, "Let's leave it to history."
"I'll tell you one thing, the bombs in hotels were very small, just intended to break windows and cause minor damage, " Posada said.
The Italian man who was killed "was standing 40 meters away and he was hit by a little splinter in the neck, " he said. "It was bad luck that it happened. But it was just a little wound. I suspect that Cuba killed the Italian because he wasn't going to die from that little wound."
Homeland security officials have said they are not actively looking for Posada because there are no warrants for his arrest in the United States. They have even expressed doubts, as recently as Friday, that Posada is in the country.
SNEAKING INTO U.S.
Because of his past, Posada and his supporters took extraordinary measures to sneak him into the country. Since his arrival, his attorney, Eduardo Soto, has said that his client crossed the Mexican border but has refused to provide details.
Castro has repeatedly claimed that Miami developer Santiago Alvarez, a friend and benefactor to Posada, brought him to Miami aboard his remodeled shrimp boat, Santrina, which is now anchored in the Miami River.
Castro has cited Santrina's voyage to the Mexican resort of Isla Mujeres, near Cancún in mid-March, when the boat ran aground outside the harbor. Alvarez acknowledged that he was in Isla Mujeres in mid-March but said the trip was a maiden voyage for the overhauled boat and denied smuggling Posada to Miami on it.
Two other men who accompanied Alvarez on the trip, José Pujol and Osvaldo Mitat, also told The Herald that they did not bring Posada to Miami on the Santrina.
Posada was released in August from a Panama prison after then-President Mireya Moscoso pardoned him in connection with an alleged plot to kill Castro in 2000. Posada said he flew on a private jet to Honduras, where a fellow exile sheltered him amid a national police search. He eventually made it to Guatemala - where he had a brush with death in 1990, when hit men fired more than 40 bullets into his car.
Posada said that sometime earlier this year, a friend drove him across the border into Belize and then into the Cancún area of Mexico.
That was around the same time that the Santrina was docked at Isla Mujeres. Posada declined to say whether he met Alvarez there.
Posada said he crossed the Texas border in a vehicle with a migrant smuggler at Brownsville. He and the smuggler made their way to Houston, he said.
Posada said his contacts had arranged to withhold half the smuggler's fee until they received a photograph of Posada standing at a Houston Greyhound station.
The 25 hours he spent on the bus, were terrible, he said, because he found himself surrounded by men in "camisetas" (undershirts), hauling boxes and speaking rough English that he didn't understand. Seeking better cover, he said he befriended and sat with a group of Mexicans, at one point buying them plates of chicken and rice.
The trip was uneventful until the bus pulled into Fort Lauderdale early one morning in late March, he said.
"Now comes the funny part, " Posada recalled. It was 1:30 a.m. and only about a dozen people remained on the bus. Suddenly, immigration officers boarded the Greyhound for a routine spot check for undocumented foreign nationals, recalled Posada - who had no papers.
The first ones busted were his Mexican friends, he said. Then, according to Posada, one of the officers approached him. He said he kept his cool.
"An agent said to me, 'Sir, your documents, ' " he said. "I said, 'I left them at my house.' He said, 'How can they be at your house? Don't you know that by law you have to have them on you at all times?' I said 'Sir, I'm 80 years old, I forget things. Right now, I don't even remember where I'm going.' "
There's no evidence to support Posada's account, but had an agent detained Posada, it would have been a coup for the Department of Homeland Security. Posada has for several years been on an immigration watch list designed to prevent his entry.
"It was late, " Posada said, cherishing the memory. "I was old, older than I am today. . . . He pointed his finger at me, jabbing it, and kept walking."
U.S. Border Patrol officers periodically board interstate buses and trains to check the immigration papers of foreign nationals.
Victor Colon, a U.S. Border Patrol spokesman in South Florida, said he found it "difficult to comment" on Posada's claim because he did not have a specific date and was not sure the Border Patrol was involved.
Posada said he had escaped once again. The bus drove on and by 2:30 a.m. pulled into the Greyhound station near Miami International Airport, where a "contact" picked him up. It remains a mystery where he was taken after his arrival.
The past few weeks, Posada said, he has kept himself busy reading books about Cuban exile leaders and Confucius, among others, and painting Cuban landscapes, a craft he learned while in prison in Venezuela.
Now, in the city that he disparages for becoming comfortable in exile, but where he says he draws his energy to continue his struggle, Posada said he has no regrets.
But he did acknowledge mistakes and said that "men of action" such as he were no longer held in the same high regard they once were. He said he is prepared to be detained if and when he has to appear for his asylum interview, and he has no plans to keep running.
"I feel that I've committed many errors, more than most people. But I've always believed in rebellion, in the armed struggle. I believe more and more every day that we will triumph against Castro. Victory will be ours."