The Bombing of Cubana Flight 455: At the Epicentre of the Cold War

The Bombing of Cubana Flight 455: At the Epicentre of the Cold War

On 6 October 1976, the bombing of Cubana de Aviación flight 455 off the coast of Barbados marked a historic milestone, not only in the field of airport security, but also in terms of international relations and co-operation in combatting terrorism. Luis Umbría discusses this act of sabotage, its significant impact on the international aviation community, and how it has affected our legal responses to acts of terrorism today.

The Cold War was at its peak during the 1960s and 1970s, and finally reached its conclusion in 1991 with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the political disintegration of the Soviet Union (USSR). It was derived from the opposing political interests of the USSR and the United States of America (USA) and characterised by serious conflict in various locations around the world, sustained through the actions of countries allied to the two great powers. Unfortunately, commercial air transport suffered many of the consequences of that conflict. A large number of attacks on airports and aircraft, including hijackings, were perpetrated by insurgent groups that sought to inspire movements to abolish the regime that dominated them. From 1959 onwards, Fidel Castro’s communist regime in Cuba was associated with many of the terrorist acts that affected the industry, with flights being hijacked both to escape Cuba and, later, in the opposite direction from the US to Havana. The bombing of Cubana flight 455 on 6 October 1976 was a chapter of the Cold War that claimed the lives of 73 innocent people.

Memorial to Cubana Flight 455 bombing in Bridgetown, Barbados (Credit: Bernd-Christian Fuhrmann)
Memorial to Cubana Flight 455 bombing in Bridgetown, Barbados (Credit: Bernd-Christian Fuhrmann)

In the decade before the bombing, the hijacking of flights from the United States and Latin American countries (Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador) was extremely common. They were predominantly carried out by criminals who identified as ideological followers of the Cuban government and who forced aircraft crews to fly to the island where they received asylum from political persecution. Between 1968 and 1971, 60% of airplane hijackings around the world had a final destination of Cuba. Sometimes, particularly when intervention was attempted to capture the hijackers, these events resulted in casualties and fatalities. The Convention on the Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircrafts (The Hague, 16 December 1970), sponsored by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), committed Cuba to immediately repatriate hijackers to their country of departure for prosecution by criminal trial, which drastically reduced the frequency of hijackings to the Caribbean island.

Wreckage of Cubana 455
Wreckage of Cubana 455

The Bombing in Barbados

Following Cuba’s change in legal stance towards hijackers, it was thought that commercial air transport had ceased to be the focus of political-ideological attacks within the region. But on the afternoon of 6 October 1976, The Americas stood still as it heard of the bombing of Cubana flight 455. It was a disturbing scenario, not least because 24 of the victims were young Cuban sportsmen and their coaches who were returning home after triumphing in a regional fencing competition, and 11 were Guyanese medical students who were travelling to Havana – all with an average age of no more than 20 years.

The route had several stops: Guyana-Trinidad and Tobago-Barbados-Jamaica-Cuba. At 17:15 the plane took off from Grantley Adams International Airport, also known as ‘Seawell’, in Barbados. Nine minutes after take-off, an explosion occurred, forcing the pilot in command, Capitan Wilfredo Pérez Pérez, to declare an emergency and to attempt to return to the airport. There was then a second explosion causing the plane to crash into the sea, only eight kilometres from the airfield. As a final heroic act, Captain Pérez decided at the last minute to steer away from land, almost certainly saving the lives of the many people who were on the beach at the time.

Rescue boats were immediately sent out into the water, but no survivors were found. A few hours after the tragic event, authorities in Trinidad and Tobago detained two Venezuelan men who arrived at the Piarco International Airport, in Port of Spain, from Barbados. Both men had boarded Cuban flight 455 that same day with Havana listed as their final destination, but disembarked in Barbados and immediately took another flight back to Piarco International Airport, which aroused suspicion. Despite having used false identities, the men were discovered to be Freddy Lugo and Hernán Ricardo and were linked to the Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services (DISIP) of the Venezuelan government.

After interrogation, Lugo and Ricardo confessed they had been hired in Venezuela by two men of Cuban origin, Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch, who paid each of them USD $25,000 (approximately £12,500 in 1976) to plant the improvised explosive devices. They claimed one device was hidden in a tube of toothpaste and left in a lavatory and the other was hidden in a camera that was left under a seat, information that was corroborated by details in the pilot’s emergency call. Although there is no conclusive evidence, one of the suspects claimed that the main charge used was C-4 plastic explosives.

The International Reaction and the ICAO Response

Members of Cuba's gold medal winning fencing team were on board
Members of Cuba’s gold medal winning fencing team were on board

Posada and Bosch were closely linked to the anti-Castro movements in Miami, USA, reportedly working for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and were part of the contingent that participated in the invasion of Playa Girón by Cuban exiles in 1961. Both had links with the DISIP of the Venezuelan government and held high positions as intelligence advisers at the time. Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, reacted angrily to the bombing, demanding the Venezuelan government take responsibility since the sabotage was planned and carried out by a group of terrorists operating in that country. Posada and Bosch were immediately arrested, and the extradition of Freddy Lugo and Hernán Ricardo from Trinidad to Caracas was requested by the Venezuelan government, which accepted that it had criminal jurisdiction and would be in charge of the investigation and prosecution.

The investigation process and trial in Venezuela became increasingly complex and was widely covered by the international press, not least because several judges refused to accept the case, declaring lack of jurisdiction to issue a verdict. Finally, the court issued a conviction on 8 August 1985, eight years after the crime, and all the members of the group that were found to be involved were convicted. Orlando Bosch was released in 1987 because the evidence presented at the trial was defective, while Luis Posada Carriles escaped from prison a day before being convicted – after two previous escape attempts had failed. Only Hernán Ricardo and Freddy Lugo remained in jail until 1993, completing seventeen out of twenty years in prison.

Left: Captain Wilfredo Pérez Pérez
Left: Captain Wilfredo Pérez Pérez

As expected, Fidel Castro continued accusing the United States of being behind the bombing, or at least of having known of the plans and maintaining silence. The US government chose not to respond to these allegations since, at that time, there were no diplomatic relations between the two governments. However, a legal/procedural entanglement ensued since the aircraft and most of the casualties were Cuban, the terrorists and their organisation operated in Venezuela, and the bombing occurred in Barbados airspace. These circumstances generated international tensions, in addition to those occurring internally in Venezuela due to the fact that the crime was initially treated as a military, rather than a criminal, offence.

While the international community strongly condemned the attack, the Cuban government attempted to exploit its position to gain political advantages, alleging that a terrorist act had taken place against its people and the Cuban Revolution. Castro insisted that the trial should be held in Cuba, but the courts refused jurisdiction, citing the Montreal Convention of 1971. Later, it was learned that the real reason for not granting jurisdiction was the presumption that Cuba would not guarantee a fair trial or apply adequate legal procedures.

At the 22nd Session of General Assembly, held in October 1977, The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) issued Resolution A22-5: Sabotage and destruction of a Cuban civilian aircraft on scheduled service in the Caribbean with the loss of 73 passengers and crew. It categorically condemned the incident and called for severe penalties to ensure a precedent be set as a deterrent for the future.

Hernán Ricardo and Freddy Lugo following their arrest in Trinidad
Hernán Ricardo and Freddy Lugo following their arrest in Trinidad

When Tragedies Change the Paradigms

The airport security failures in Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados that helped to facilitate the attack were almost immediately identified, and certain characteristics of the bombing led to the arrest of the perpetrators within a few hours. However, while the police work involved in identifying the individuals, motives and methods involved in the attack was effective, the attack served to highlight the fact that the aviation industry needed to modernise its own methods and attitudes.

During the journey, the two passengers responsible left the airplane at an intermediate point in their itinerary. Today, it is mandatory to verify that all people on the passenger manifest should be on board the aircraft before closing its doors. There are now also special procedures for the verification of passengers on board and internal aircraft searches during stopovers, which did not exist in 1976. In addition, plastic explosives are now marked to facilitate their detection by X-ray, but at the time plastic explosives were only just beginning to be used for terrorist purposes.

The subsequent bombing of PanAm flight 103 in December 1988 over Lockerbie also motivated Resolution A27-8 during the 27th Session of the ICAO General Assembly, which ordered the establishment of a security regime capable of reducing the risk represented by plastic explosives. This concluded with the approval of the Convention on the Marking of Plastic Explosives for the Purpose of Detection (Montreal 1991) as an international response to its increasing criminal use.

As a result of the bombing of flight 455, Cuba, which had previously been an accommodating recipient of aircraft hijackers, became the state victim of a terrorist felony. The prevailing political context (the Cold War, the role that the Cuban leader played in Latin America in 1976, and the pressure of some political sectors linked to the US government through the fight against Fidel Castro) greatly affected how ICAO’s response to the incident was received internationally. It took a year for the tragedy to be officially condemned; the reasons for the delay were never fully explained and Cuba was, understandably, critical of the response time. The case did however set a precedent for state jurisdiction and international co-operation for the prosecution and punishment of international terrorism on civilian passenger flights.

Although the punishments of the individuals convicted were not completed fully, the case of Cubana flight 455 provided the international civil aviation security community with a legal precedent to help ensure that the problem of state jurisdiction would not continue to provide terrorists with impunity.

Orlando Bosch
Orlando Bosch
Luis Posada Carriles
Luis Posada Carriles

“…Posada and Bosch were closely linked to the anti-Castro movements in Miami, USA, reportedly working for the Central Intelligence Agency…”

According to international public opinion, it was deemed strange that the crime was judged in Venezuela since it was perpetrated in Barbados, and the victims and the aircraft had legal links with Cuba in terms of nationality and registration respectively. There were two legal provisions that determined that prosecution should take place in Venezuela: Firstly, Articles 6, 7 and 8 of the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Civil Aviation (Montreal 1971) gave legal jurisdiction to Venezuela because the presumed leaders of the conspiracy were detained in its territory a few hours after the bombing; secondly, Venezuela did not have extradition treaties with such countries, nor could surrender them to foreign governments because three of the four suspects were Venezuelan nationals. The suspects petitioned for protection based on the prohibition of extradition of nationals provided for in the Constitution. Finally, the government of Trinidad and Tobago withdrew from the trial when it surrendered Freddy Lugo and Hernán Ricardo to Venezuela, even though the explosive devices were planted at Piarco International Airport.

Today, the Contracting States of the Chicago Convention of 1944 have a robust international regime for the protection of civil air transport, which has been fortified by several conventions that have emerged as responses to emerging threats to the industry. Additionally, international practice has evolved more towards the effective co-operation of committed States in the prevention of terrorist acts. This means that ICAO can demand standardisation of aviation security controls to prevent acts of sabotage and destruction of aircraft in flight in most countries of the world. States therefore benefit by committing to act jointly since this helps to ensure that organised criminals responsible for taking the lives of innocent people are punished appropriately.

Since 1976, abundant conspiracy theories have spread about the tragedy of Cubana flight 455 in Barbados. The theories suggested that the bombing was an operation designed by intelligence agencies to manipulate Western politics and the outcome of the Cold War. However, over time it was revealed that although both Cuban and US governments should have been more diligent in anticipating the intentions of antagonistic political groups, there was no evidence that such a deplorable action had been planned by Washington or Havana.

The tensions of the Cold War left a painful and enduring scar on the aviation industry. However, the bombings of Cubana flight 455 and PanAm flight 103 commanded a divided community to co-operate and to acknowledge that the protection of individuals must always prevail over political interests.


Luis Umbria, CPP, MSc.
Luis Umbria, CPP, MSc.

LUIS UMBRIA, CPP, MSc. is a Venezuelan lawyer and aviation security professional with experience in the civil aviation industry. He is a senior consultant for compliance of AVSEC international conventions and local regulations in Latin America. Luis is also a candidate for a PhD Degree in International Studies by Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO – Quito, Ecuador). Email: lumbria1964@gmail.com