There's a piñata of reasons why relations between the U.S. and Latin America deteriorated under George W. Bush. But the most serious was Bush's petulant assumption that the region didn't back his war on terrorism, especially after most Latin American governments refused to bless his invasion of Iraq. But Latins argue that they had a hard time taking the Bush crusade seriously when he himself was harboring a suspected terrorist. That would be Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban exile suspected and arrested in various countries, and once convicted (though later pardoned), for crimes that included the 1976 bombing of a Cuban jetliner that killed 73 people, the 1997 bombings of two Havana hotels that killed an Italian tourist, and a 2000 plot to assassinate Fidel Castro. After entering the U.S. illegally in 2005, Posada, 81, is today a free man in Miami.
But the Obama Administration, a week before the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, looks set to reverse Posada's good fortune. Wednesday night, federal prosecutors filed a superseding 11-count indictment against the aging militant in which, for the first time, the U.S. links him to at least the 1997 bombings. It doesn't directly charge Posada with the crime, but it accuses him of lying about his role in it, claiming he perjured himself and obstructed justice in 2005 when, while answering questions from immigration authorities, he denied involvement in the Havana attacks even though he had told the New York Times in 1998 that he'd taken part in them. Posada's Miami lawyer, Arturo V. Hernandez, says his client denies the charge. "[His] defense will be a clear and direct one, which is that he told the truth," Hernandez tells TIME. "We share in a common sense of optimism about the truth coming out in the end." (Hernandez won't say why Posada claims he didn't lie to immigration officials; Posada in the past has suggested that his flawed English led to a misunderstanding in the Times interview.) (See the top 10 news stories of 2008.)
In any case, the official shift in the treatment of Posada will most likely enhance the hemisphere's early optimistic mood about President Obama when he lands in Trinidad next week. "This will certainly be construed by Latin America as a positive step," says Daniel Erikson, a senior analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue, in Washington, and the author of The Cuba Wars. "The region sees the Posada case as one of the worst examples of a U.S. double standard regarding the rule of law, a subject we often lecture Latin America about."
Both Cuba and Venezuela, where Posada had citizenship when the the Cubana Airlines flight blew up in 1976, have demanded Posada's extradition. So far, federal judges have declined to send him to either country, where Posada insists he would be tortured. (Cuban President Raúl Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez have insisted he wouldn't.) But some analysts believe that if the U.S. were to eventually lock Posada away a grand jury in New Jersey is investigating his involvement in the bombings it might turn down the volume of the calls for extradition in Havana and Caracas. Though it urged Obama to go further than mere perjury charges against "the hemisphere's most famous terrorist," the Cuban government's official newspaper, Granma, on Thursday called Posada's indictment "a surprising strategic change." (Read "What Chávez Win Means for Latin American Democracy.")
Posada's is a quintessential Cold War story. As a CIA operative in the 1960s, he worked unsuccessfully to overthrow the communist regime of then Cuban leader Fidel Castro (who officially ceded power to his younger brother Raúl last year because of failing health). At the time of the 1976 airliner bombing, he worked for Venezuela's secret police. Despite abundant evidence against him, a Venezuelan military tribunal acquitted him of the Cubana attack. That verdict was overturned, however, and in 1985, while Posada was being tried in a civilian criminal court, he escaped disguised as a priest. Posada and three other Cuban exiles were convicted in 2000 of conspiring to kill Fidel Castro during a summit in Panama. But four years later, inexplicably, then Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso pardoned the four men. (The Bush Administration denied that it had pressured her as a favor to Miami's politically powerful exile community.)
Cuba insists it has ample evidence to try Posada for the 1997 bombings, which killed Italian businessman Fabio di Celmo as he sat in the lobby of the Copacabana Hotel. "My family and I have been waiting 12 years for the U.S. to officially link Posada to international terrorism," Di Celmo's brother Livio told reporters Thursday via conference call. But the U.S. may have felt emboldened to indict Posada this week for perjury in no small part because the FBI whose informants have linked Posada to the 1976 airline bombing, and whose agents in 2006 traveled to Havana to conduct their own investigation of the hotel bombings in turn may have stronger evidence of Posada's participation. One of the issues Posada is accused of lying about is whether he arranged for a Salvadoran man, Raul Cruz Leon, to take explosives to Cuba in 1997. Dennis Jett, an international-relations professor at Penn State University and a former U.S. ambassador to Peru, says the new Posada indictment is "probably just an extension of the judicial process that has been under way for years, rather than a change of policy."
Still, Obama can add the Posada indictment to the list of fence-mending planks he's taking to Trinidad most of them involving Cuba, which has shaped up to be the central focus of the summit. Most Latin American leaders consider a change in Washington's Cuba policy including the 47-year-old trade embargo to be a sine qua non for improving hemispheric relations in general and the strongest indication that the U.S. is willing to deal with Latin America with the same multilateral, dialogue-based approach that Obama pledged at the G-20 summit this month in London.
Though he has said he'll keep the trade embargo intact until he sees more political reform in Cuba, Obama is expected to lift restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances to the island before the Americas summit begins. The U.S. Congress, for its part, appears closer than ever to passing legislation to lift the Cuban travel ban for all U.S. citizens prominent lawmakers like Indiana Republican Senator Richard Lugar now call the embargo a failed policy and Obama would probably sign such a measure. At the same time, Fidel and Raúl Castro have both in recent days expressed an unusual willingness to talk with the U.S. about improving Washington-Havana relations. The two aging communists even met with a delegation of U.S. Congressmen this week and asked what they could do toward that end. One possible answer: if the U.S. does lock up Posada, Cuba could respond in turn by freeing some of the scores of dissidents languishing in its own prisons.