The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 25, 1999, Page A17

Cooperate With Castro on Drugs

                  By Gillian Gunn Clissold

                  U.S. officials must complete by October a review of past Cuban
                  involvement in drug smuggling as requested by the White House in July.
                  Opponents of the administration's recent proposal to increase drug
                  interdiction cooperation with Cuba believe the review will show that the
                  Cuban authorities have winked at or assisted traffickers outright and
                  therefore are unreliable anti-narcotics partners. But even if the expectations
                  of these critics are fulfilled, the United States should move ahead with its
                  plans to cooperate. Whatever Castro's actions may have been in the past,
                  his interest in survival now coincides with President Clinton's interest in
                  stemming the flow of drugs across the Florida Straits.

                  In the 1980s, when most of the alleged incidents of facilitating trafficking
                  supposedly occurred, Fidel Castro was assured of economic subsidies and
                  military support from the Soviet Union. His security forces were well
                  equipped and well paid, and the Cuban people had enough jobs, food and
                  medicine. It is plausible, though far from confirmed, that Castro judged he
                  could afford to be lax on drug issues without undermining his government's

                  Now Castro is far less secure. His people are facing severe shortages of
                  many basic necessities. His allies in the Soviet Union have long since
                  disappeared. His security officials do not have the resources to effectively
                  patrol Cuba's air and seas. Corruption and criminality, while not out of
                  control, are increasingly straining Cuba's social fabric. Under current
                  conditions, organized crime could provide high remuneration for simple
                  services and could evolve into an alternative power base with the wealth,
                  international connections, management skills, technical resources and the
                  will to undermine the Cuban state.

                  Most U.S. analysts, regardless of political inclination, agree that Castro's
                  top concern is to remain in power. It is plausible that he has concluded that
                  organized crime is a threat to his survival and that whatever his position in
                  the past he now stands to benefit from energetically joining the U.S. war on
                  drugs. This is consistent with the administration's finding last January that
                  no conclusive evidence indicates that the Cuban leadership is currently
                  involved in this criminal activity.

                  Ironically, those who wish to establish Western-style democracy and
                  capitalism in Cuba share Castro's interest in stemming the influence of
                  traffickers on the island. If organized criminals gain a toehold in Cuba, they
                  will be ideally placed to insinuate themselves into positions of influence
                  during any period of instability. Democracy advocates should contemplate
                  just how much harder their goal will be to achieve if the vacuums of
                  political and economic power that usually arise during transitions are swiftly
                  filled by organized criminals. Any doubt regarding the ability of such forces
                  to derail economic reform and democratization should be set aside by the
                  current state of Russia.

                  Therefore the most sensible course is for the United States to gradually
                  increase cooperation with Cuba on drug matters. Even if past misconduct
                  is proven, Cuba's previous interests are not its present concerns. U.S.
                  analysts and intelligence personnel are sufficiently sophisticated to detect
                  whether the interdiction information they convey is being used to help
                  rather than hinder smugglers. The measures Washington has proposed to
                  date -- placement of a Coast Guard officer in the U.S. Interests Section in
                  Havana and establishment of more efficient communication mechanisms --
                  hardly constitute a rush to open all U.S. drug intelligence to Cuba. At any
                  point in the process, the United States can suspend or cease collaboration.

                  Refusal to cooperate with Cuba on drug interdiction would forfeit an
                  opportunity to block an insidious force that is menacing U.S. security
                  interests and could sabotage the stated goal of the U.S. policy toward
                  Cuba, a peaceful transition to democracy, even more effectively than
                  Castro does.

                  The writer is director of the Georgetown University Caribbean Project.

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