By EDMUND MAHONY
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - When President Clinton in August offered clemency
to 16 radical Puerto Rican nationalists, he was freeing members of two groups
that were created in consultation with Cuban intelligence agents and that
bombed more than 120 U.S. targets with Cuban support since at least the
The link between Cuba and the Puerto Rican independence movement is rarely
mentioned in news accounts of bombings and other violent acts, even though it
has been an accepted fact among some counterterrorism experts since the
early 1960s. When a U.S. Senate subcommittee warned of the connection in
1975, its report also went largely unnoticed.
A two-year FBI investigation of the 1983 Wells Fargo robbery in West Hartford
documented in striking detail how Cuban support for the Puerto Rican
independence movement played out on a day-to-day basis during the most
violent period of the movement's modern history. But the results of that
investigation, as it touched on the Cubans, were not disclosed - until now.
Employing eavesdropping equipment and exhaustive surveillance, the FBI
collected what at times amounted to running accounts of conversations and
meetings between Cuban intelligence agents and members of the
pro-independence group Los Macheteros.
Based on the evidence, the bureau concluded in a confidential briefing
that: ''Numerous court-authorized interceptions of conversations between the
Macheteros leaders have determined that the Cubans support and direct the
Macheteros at a firsthand level.''
In addition to analyzing the FBI investigation, The Courant spent six months
revisiting the scene of meetings between the Puerto Rican independentistas
and their Cuban contacts, interviewing 50 sources including former Cuban
agents, FBI agents and investigators for the U.S. Congress; and reviewing
hundreds of pages of documents. The newspaper's examination reveals that
the violent nationalist movement - at least from the early 1960s to the
mid-1980s - was an essentially unified movement supported by senior Cuban
Clinton offered clemency to some members of the closely allied FALN, the
Spanish acronym for the Armed Forces of National Liberation, and Los
Macheteros - ''The Machete Wielders.''
The FALN claimed credit for bombing scores of targets on the mainland United
States; its 1975 bombing of Fraunces Tavern in New York killed four and
injured 63. Los Macheteros, with the exception of the $7.1 million Wells Fargo
robbery in West Hartford in 1983, limited itself to a separate front, bombing
and assassinating targets in Puerto Rico.
In its Wells Fargo investigation, the FBI learned that Machetero leaders
most regularly with their Cuban contacts in Mexico City. But there was also
less frequent travel to Cuba by the group's leadership. The meetings that took
place outside the United States were monitored by the CIA.
The FBI determined that the Macheteros were meeting principally with four
senior officers of the Cuban diplomatic-intelligence establishment. The Cuban
agency most involved with Puerto Rican terrorism was the Department of the
Americas, the agency responsible for Cuban intelligence operations in the
When the FBI closed its Wells Fargo investigation in 1985, a group within
bureau argued - unsuccessfully, it turned out - that the U.S. Department of
Justice list the four Cuban officers as unindicted co-conspirators in the Wells
A now-retired FBI counterterrorism officer said he never learned why the
Cubans were left out of the indictment. A Cuban source speculated that the
U.S. Department of State did not want to jeopardize indirect talks between the
two countries that could have affected Cuban activity in Africa.
''I don't think it was in Cuba's interest to assist in an armed robbery
United States in 1983,'' the retired FBI officer said recently. ''But the fact is, it
did happen. And we documented it on tape. The thing that always amazed me
was that it didn't cause a ripple. I was absolutely amazed.
''They were talking about Fidel. This was being decided at the highest
Cuba. This wasn't something the Cubans were spending a lot of time on. But
the head of the Department of the Americas was involved.
''Nobody was particulary interested in listing these people as co-conspirators,
which I thought was almost criminal. Because I thought we had an opportunity
which went beyond sort of addressing a chronic thorn in the foot of Puerto
Rico. But for reasons that I am yet at a loss to understand, that never
Several FBI and Justice Department officials who were involved in the Wells
Fargo case said they have never understood why the extensive evidence of
Cuban support for radical Puerto Rican nationalism received only scant
attention among policy makers and in the press.
The White House, asked whether Cuban support for the Puerto Rican
nationalists was considered during deliberations leading to the clemency offer,
repeated an earlier assertion that decisions about clemency are confidential.
Spokesman Jim Kennedy said advisers could be reluctant to express opinions
if they were to become public.
''The details of what the president was advised, what facts were or were
brought to his attention, have not been disclosed,'' Kennedy said. The
president ''made his decision after a careful and balanced consideration of the
facts, the law and the differing points of view on the subject. The president has
not changed his view of this matter.''
The Puerto Rican nationalists have consistently dimissed suggestions of
Cuban support for their movement - even when presented with evidence that
Cuba received about a third of the stolen Wells Fargo money.
Filiberto Ojeda Rios, partriarch of the violent wing of the independence
movement, became agitated 18 months ago during a clandestine interview
touching on the subject with Puerto Rican radio journalist Luis Penchi. Ojeda
was asked, among other things, whether Cuba was given the stolen money.
''That is ridiculous,'' Ojeda said. ''Not only did that money not remain
that money never went to Cuba. Whoever says that wants to give a bad name
to. . . . That is ridiculous, absurd. I don't know where that version came from,
nor am I going to ask you, but I am going to tell you that it is completely false,
ridiculous and there is nothing to discuss.''
A spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section, which serves as Havana's de
facto embassy in Washington, dismissed suggestions that Cuba supported
the violent nationalists. ''I have no information on that,'' said Luis M. Fernandez.
''In my opinion, it is more science fiction than anything else.''
Staff Writer Michael Remez contributed to this story.