Miami Herald
June 24, 1989, page 18

Smuggling network ships hi-tech to Levis


The disclosure by the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Thursday that the government has a department dedicated to recruiting Americans to smuggle products to Cuba in violation of the U.S. trade embargo comes as no surprise to American intelligence agents and criminal investigators.

And the smuggling operation is not solely dedicated to high technology equipment. Now we know where the spare parts come from that keep all those ancient Pontiacs plying the streets of Havana.

"Cuba has been blockade-running for years," said an intelligence analyst with expertise in technology transfer. "The only people that are better than the Cubans are the Russians themselves."

The United States placed a total economic and trade embargo on Cuba in 1963 to cripple the nation's Communist government. Since then, the Cubans have developed an organization designed to get around the embargo, said Pat O'Brien, the special agent in charge of U.S. Customs in Miami.

"They recruit people here," O'Brien said. "Cuban Americans are recruited and smuggle to Cuba. We try to counteract it. But it's difficult. Key West is 90 miles away [from Cuba].

"We've had a lot of indications of boats going from Key West to Cuba loaded with high technology computers," O'Brien said.

But the Cubans need more than just U.S. high technology to keep their economy running.

"We've heard about auto parts, Levi jeans and IBM-compatible PCs," said Keith Prager, a Miami customs agent in charge of Operation Exodus, the program designed to stem the flow of high technology and weapons to restricted nations.

Here's how a typical smuggling operation works: A few years ago, a purchasing agent for the Cuban government put in a massive order to an American company for spare automobile and truck parts, the intelligence analyst said. He said the parts were for a friendly African nation. The unsuspecting company shipped the parts to Benin, a country on the west coast of Africa. As soon as they arrived, the parts were put into boxes marked "Product of Benin" and shipped to Cuba.

The U.S. Treasury Department's office of Foreign Assets Control has identified 180 front companies for smuggling operations since 1985. The office also has uncovered 32 merchant shipping companies that were fronting for Cuba, said Art Siddon, a Treasury Department spokesman.

In 1987, a Fort Lauderdale businessman was charged with selling more than $1 million worth of IBM products to the Cuban government through a Panamanian company.