Salvadoran admits guilt in Cuban hotel bombings
March 8, 1999
HAVANA (CNN) -- A Salvadoran man facing the death penalty for terrorism, on Monday admitted a string of hotel bombings in Cuba and asked the family of an Italian tourist killed in one attack to forgive him.
Raul Ernesto Cruz Leon stood before the five-member tribunal and insisted that his motivation had been financial, not political.
"I have lost my liberty, my dignity and my honor, and now I am begging for what remains: my life," he said at the opening of his trial.
"My hands are stained with innocent blood, and that torments me constantly," Cruz Leon said. "God knows, I never wanted that death. And I want to ask for forgiveness from his family."
Cruz Leon, a bespectacled man in his 20s, said he was approached in El Salvador by a man named Francisco Antonio Chavez Abarca, who recruited him for the bombings. He said he didn't know the targets were in Cuba until a few days before he traveled there to plant the explosives.
"I was in a very critical financial situation caused by a lot of spending on my credit cards," Cruz Leon said. "I have never had anything against the Cuban revolution."
The string of six bombings of tourist facilities in 1997 killed one person and injured 11, including seven non-Cubans.
Cuban authorities have said Cruz Leon was a U.S.-trained Salvadoran army veteran who received $4,500 for each of six bombings at five hotels and a restaurant.
The bombings apparently were aimed at frightening away tourists, who provide one of Cuba's most important sources of income.
The trial was being held at the imposing Fortress of San Carlos de la Cabana, where Fidel Castro's government tried and put to death hundreds of people in the early months of the revolution.
The choice of La Cabana is highly symbolic. Since completion by the Spanish in 1774, the complex has long been a site of military-style justice, a place where those who violently attacked the state were judged and put to death.
Pope John Paul II, known for his opposition to the death penalty, sent a message to Cuba via the local church urging respect for life, a priest helping Cruz Leon's family told reporters.
"To have a son condemned to death in a foreign country is very hard ... Against violence, we cannot use violence," Colombian priest Noel Mujica, who works in Cuba, added in comments to reporters at the trial.
"The pope has intervened and asks for respect for life," he said.
El Salvador's government, and the Catholic church, have also appealed for clemency from the death penalty for Cruz Leon.
The trial is getting unprecedented exposure. International journalists and diplomats attended the trial, and were allowed to photograph and film Cruz Leon when he entered the courtroom.
They also viewed the state's evidence, including clothes Cruz Leon allegedly wore, electronic equipment and tools he used to arm the bombs, and items like boots and a television in which he hid materials.
The trial, including Cruz Leon's emotional plea for mercy, was broadcast on Cuba's state-run television.
All that contrasted starkly with the closed nature of last week's trial of four well-known dissidents, which sparked international protests. The four, who were publicly vilified as U.S. puppets in Cuba's state-run media over the weekend, are in jail awaiting sentence on charges of inciting "sedition."
The prosecution contended during Monday's proceedings that Cruz Leon was carrying out a plot by self-confessed Cuban exile commando Luis Posada Carriles, who Havana says was in turn paid by the powerful U.S.-based, anti-Castro group the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). The foundation denies that.
Havana Bureau Chief Lucia Newman and Reuters contributed to this report.
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