The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 25, 1999; Page A01

Cuba Wages A Lonesome Drug War

                  Congressional Stance Hampers U.S. Role

                  By Douglas Farah
                  Washington Post Foreign Service

                  CAYO CONFITES, Cuba—On this sandy speck of land off the northern
                  coast of Cuba, the only line of defense against Colombian drug traffickers
                  bound for the United States consists of an aging Soviet-era patrol boat, a
                  British radar system with a six-mile range and 15 Cuban soldiers.

                  "We are seeing a systematic increase in the amount of drugs dropped by
                  air here, then picked up by fast boats and taken out of our waters," said
                  Col. Fredy Curbelo, an Interior Ministry official who recently accompanied
                  an American reporter on an unprecedented tour of counter-drug
                  installations in Communist-ruled Cuba. "Our Soviet launches are 20 years
                  old and can go 27 knots, while the drug traffickers can easily go at 45
                  knots. We are doing what we can with our resources, but we are limited in
                  what we can do."

                  Notwithstanding Cuba's dire economic problems, which were exacerbated
                  after the collapse of its Soviet patron in 1989, the government of President
                  Fidel Castro is mounting what counter-drug experts in Europe and the
                  United States say is a serious if underfunded effort to block the flow of
                  illegal drugs through Cuba.

                  Castro's program has so impressed U.S. law enforcement officials that
                  they would like to cooperate further with their Cuban counterparts, who
                  already have provided discreet assistance in several major cases. There's
                  just one problem: Some members of Congress, with backing from many
                  Cuban Americans, are dead set against any cooperation between Havana
                  and Washington, which have not had diplomatic relations since 1961.

                  "From our point of view, the policy makes no sense," said a senior U.S.
                  law enforcement official. "We can't close off the Caribbean [from drug
                  traffic] without dealing with Cuba, and they have shown a willingness to
                  cooperate with us by acting on all the information we pass on to them. It is
                  a major hole that needs to be plugged."

                  Just 90 miles from Florida, Cuba is an ideal transshipment point for illegal
                  drugs bound for the United States, according to U.S. law enforcement
                  officials, who estimate that about 30 percent of the cocaine reaching the
                  United States from Colombia passes through the Caribbean. Yet for now,
                  counter-drug cooperation is limited to information exchanged on a
                  case-by-case basis between the U.S. Coast Guard and Cuba's border
                  guards via fax or an antiquated telex system.

                  In contrast, counter-drug cooperation between Cuba and such U.S. allies
                  as Britain, Spain, Colombia and France is growing. Cuban officials said
                  they would welcome increased cooperation with the United States in
                  fighting drug traffickers even in the absence of any progress toward lifting
                  the U.S. economic embargo against the island nation.

                  "You would think that if there were any area in which we could work
                  together, this would be it," said Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's
                  legislative assembly and the government's point man on relations with the
                  United States. "It shows a lack of will by the United States. Both sides
                  would benefit from broader, systematic cooperation."

                  Earlier this month, Barry R. McCaffrey, the Clinton administration's
                  director of national drug control policy, said the United States "probably
                  ought to be willing to encourage" dialogue with Cuban authorities on
                  counter-drug cooperation. But McCaffrey has been under attack by
                  Cuban American lawmakers and their allies in Congress, who have long
                  contended that Castro's government is not fighting drug smugglers but
                  assisting them.

                  In a Dec. 30, 1998, letter, House Republicans Lincoln Diaz-Balart (Fla.),
                  Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.) and Dan Burton (Ind.) demanded that
                  McCaffrey address "the issue of the Cuban government's participation in
                  narcotrafficking and take all necessary actions to end the Clinton
                  administration's coverup of that reality."

                  In an angry response on Jan. 28, McCaffrey, a retired army general, said
                  he was "insulted" by the tone of the letter, "categorically" denied a coverup
                  and said there is "no conclusive evidence to indicate that Cuban leadership
                  is currently involved in this criminal activity."

                  Despite McCaffrey's comments and pleas from the Justice Department, the
                  Drug Enforcement Administration and the Coast Guard, there are no plans
                  to improve the level of counter-drug cooperation between the two
                  countries, senior Clinton administration officials said. They added,
                  however, that in the absence of a formal agreement, the two countries can
                  continue to cooperate on a case-by-case basis. Anything more ambitious,
                  they said, would generate a political backlash in Congress and jeopardize
                  the informal channels between law enforcement agencies in Cuba and the
                  United States.

                  "We are not saying we are not prepared to do more with them at some
                  point . . . but right now there is nothing being considered," said one
                  administration official.

                  With 42,000 square miles of territorial waters and 4,195 islands and small
                  keys, Cuba is a smuggler's paradise. Most of the cocaine shipped through
                  Cuba is dropped by low-flying aircraft near uninhabited keys, where it is
                  retrieved by traffickers in speedboats. Those boats then ferry it to larger
                  ships en route to the United States or other destinations, such as Mexico,
                  Haiti and Jamaica.

                  David Ridgway, the British ambassador to Havana, described anti-drug
                  cooperation between his country and Cuba -- including $400,000 a year
                  for training provided by Britain -- as "first class." Cuba's "political
                  commitment is very strong," he said in an interview in Havana. "We are
                  satisfied our money is well spent."

                  Thanks to British aid, airport immigration officials can now run computer
                  profiles of passengers to determine which ones are likely to be involved in
                  drug trafficking. Since 1994, when a Cuban tourism boom began, 215
                  foreigners have been arrested on drug-trafficking charges. Luggage is
                  checked by drug-sniffing dogs trained in France.

                  Anti-drug efforts also are focused on Cuba's new free-trade zones,
                  through which most goods are shipped without being inspected, making
                  them favorites of drug traffickers. Last Dec. 3, for example, Colombian
                  police seized 7.7 tons of cocaine in Cartagena, Colombia, that was bound
                  for Spain by way of Havana. Cuban and Colombian authorities determined
                  that the route had been used at least three times before it was discovered.

                  Cuban authorities say they are motivated by a desire to keep drug use
                  from gaining a foothold on the island. For decades after Castro's 1959
                  revolution, illegal drugs were virtually unknown in Cuba. But in recent
                  years, as the tourism boom has brought in outside influences and U.S.
                  dollars, marijuana, cocaine and crack cocaine have begun to infiltrate the
                  island, authorities said.

                  According to the Interior Ministry, Cuban authorities discovered 30 loads
                  of cocaine washed up on shore last year -- compared with 12 in 1994 --
                  because traffickers missed their rendezvous points or intentionally dumped
                  their cargoes to avoid arrest. Authorities recovered 68 such loads in the
                  first three months of this year.

                  In a speech on Jan. 5, Castro acknowledged that drug trafficking is a
                  growing problem, reported that 1,216 people are in prison on drug-related
                  charges and complained that some people had been hiding drugs that wash
                  ashore instead of turning them over to police.

                  The limitations of Cuba's war on drugs were apparent at this isolated
                  outpost, where visitors are greeted by a mural of the legendary
                  revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara and a sign proclaiming that the islet is
                  "The First Defense Against Imperialism." The British-made radar system
                  functions sporadically because, officials said, it is too expensive to run it full
                  time. Docked at a small pier was a Soviet-era patrol boat.

                  "It is very easy to drop drugs here," said Curbelo. "We have been using
                  Soviet equipment which is out of date and inefficient. The drug traffickers
                  know where our navy is and where our units are. If we were cooperating
                  with the United States, we would be much more effective than we are

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