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
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
"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
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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