Cuban Exiles Charged in Castro Plot
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ The indictment of seven Cuban-Americans for plotting to kill Fidel Castro is another serious blow to one of the most influential and best-organized Cuban exile groups in America.
The accusations Tuesday from a federal grand jury _ including charges against a director of the Cuban American National Foundation _ also comes as Castro is being wooed by neighbors amid mounting global opposition to Washington’s Cuba policy.
Despite numerous plots to kill the communist leader since his 1959 takeover, the indictment was believed to be the first such accusation in a court of law.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory where the trial is to take place, refused to discuss the case.
The indictment alleges the defendants planned for four years to kill the 72-year-old Castro, in particular during his trip to a Latin American summit on Margarita island off Venezuela in November 1997.
The first named is Jose Antonio Llama, a Miami businessman and director of the Miami-based foundation, which Castro has long accused of trying to kill him.
The organization on Tuesday said Llama is innoncent and reiterated that ``violence is not the answer to the Cuban crisis.″ It alleged the indictment carried ``politically motivated allegations ... wholly without merit.″
Llama’s indictment is one in a series of setbacks for the foundation. Its well-known chairman, Jorge Mas Canosa, died last November.
Mas, who enjoyed White House access to presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton, was seen as the man principally responsible for the hard-line U.S. policies toward Cuba. With his ability to raise campaign funds, he was able to maintain a formidable influence over members of Congress.
One Cuba watcher, University of Florida professor Damian Fernandez, predicted many allies, ``including congressmen,″ would indeed distance themselves from the troubled foundation now that one of its top officials has been indicted.
The foundation was also tainted by militant Luis Carriles Posada’s recent claim to The New York Times _ later retracted _ that Mas Conosa and his group financially supported hotel bombings in Havana. The foundation denied it.
An executive order has been on the books for years outlawing government-sponsored assassinations in foreign countries, and there have been no known violations.
Tuesday’s indictment stems from an ongoing FBI investigation that began when the U.S. Coast Guard got a radio call for help on Oct. 27 from the 46-foot yacht La Esperanza, which was in international waters off Puerto Rico. The yacht is owned by Llama’s Florida company, Nautical Sports Inc., which also was indicted Tuesday.
The Coast Guard boarded the boat and became suspicious when men on board gave contradictory answers, one saying they were returning to Miami and another that they were going on a fishing trip to St. Lucia.
A search of the boat uncovered two hidden sniper rifles, 70 rounds of ammunition and an array of military-type equipment including night-vision goggles, radios and Global Positioning Units, customs spokeswoman Awilda Pereira said.
When the weapons were found, one of the men, Angel Manuel Alfonso, 58, blurted out that he alone had smuggled the weapons aboard because he planned to kill Castro on Isla Margarita, according to the original complaint.
Alfonso was indicted Tuesday along with the three other men on the boat _ Angel Hernandez Rojo, 65, Juan Bautista Marquez, 62, and Francisco Secundino Cordova, 51.
Also indicted Tuesday were Jose Rodriguez, 59, and Alfredo Domingo Otero, 68.
A foundation delegation last week raised the indictments in a meeting with Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat, who immediately stopped the discussion, the Miami Herald reported today.
Not indicted was foundation president Francisco ``Pepe″ Hernandez, who was questioned by the FBI because he owned one of two rifles found with the supposed assassins.
The indictments stood in dramatic contrast to one-time U.S. policy. In the mid-1970s, a Senate committee documented eight instances of U.S. agencies attempting to assassinate Castro.