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
The writer is director of the Georgetown University Caribbean Project.
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