Mr Posada has largely managed to evade punishment for these crimes. He was acquitted by a Venezuelan military tribunal in the airplane bombing, and escaped from prison while awaiting a civilian trial for the same attack. He was recaptured and held without a conviction for eight years, but then escaped again. In 2000 Panama found him guilty of plotting to kill Mr Castro during a summit meeting. However, Mireya Moscoso, Panama’s president, gave him a controversial pardon shortly before she left office in 2004.
The following year, Mr Posada sneaked into the United States using false documents and sought political asylum. After Venezuela requested his extradition, he withdrew his asylum application and was arrested. Nonetheless, a Florida judge refused to deport him to Venezuela because of the risk that he might be tortured—a curious ruling, given that Hugo Chávez’s government has no significant track record of torture, while the conditions to which America subjected its detainees in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo were already well-known.
Since then, Mr Posada has been in legal limbo. The United States tried to deport him elsewhere, but only Venezuela was willing to receive him. In 2007 he was transferred from jail to house arrest. Two years later, he was charged at last with a federal crime—not for masterminding the bombings, but for lying to American officials about his involvement in them and about how he entered the country, and for obstructing their investigation of the attacks. His trial began this January.
The Cuban and Venezuelan governments accused the United States of continuing to protect Mr Posada by failing to either try him for terrorism or extradite him. Nonetheless, in order to show that Mr Posada had lied about his participation in the 1997 bombings, the prosecution had to prove that he was in fact involved in them. As a result, even though Mr Posada was formally only charged with perjury and obstruction of justice, in practice he was tried for his role in the attacks.
On the surface, the evidence of his guilt seemed compelling. The government subpoenaed Ann Louise Bardach, a New York Times reporter who had interviewed Mr Posada in 1998. In their taped conversations, Mr Posada called himself the “boss” of the plot, said an Italian tourist killed in a bombing was “in the wrong place at the wrong time”, and crowed that he “slept like a baby” when asked whether he felt remorse. (He has subsequently recanted that confession). Prosecutors also produced a fax detailing payment for the attacks signed by “Solo”, one of Mr Posada’s known aliases.
However, the defence managed to cast doubt on much of the government’s case by accusing its witnesses of being biased or unreliable. Moreover, the judge did not allow the fax into evidence. After a 13-week trial, the jury debated for just three hours before acquitting Mr Posada on April 9th. He has now been cleared of all criminal charges against him in the United States, although he could still be deported for his immigration violations.
Although the Cuban and Venezuelan governments objected to Mr Posada’s being tried for perjury in the first place, they nonetheless expressed outrage at the verdict. Ricardo Alarcón, the head of Cuba’s parliament, called the trial a “stupid and shameful farce” because of its restrictions on the evidence presented to the jury. Venezuela’s foreign ministry said it was “theatre” and “an emblematic case of the United States’ double standard in the international fight against terrorism.”
The easiest way for Washington to refute these attacks would be to extradite the 83-year-old Mr Posada—perhaps in exchange for Cuba releasing Alan Gross, an American government subcontractor who was sentenced last month to 15 years in prison for bringing communications equipment into the country illegally. The only apparent risk this presents for the United States is that Mr Posada might threaten to reveal chapters from his long career of anti-communist covert operations in Latin America that have so far been kept secret.