This is the story of a Caribbean state that at one time was deeply (if selectively) involved in the international drug trade, becoming now a state for which suppressing the drug traffic seems to be a foremost national priority. This apparent transformation and accompanying tectonic shifts in the international security environment have some important implications for U.S.-Cuban relations.
The United States and Cuba have a strong mutual interest in closing off trafficking routes in the western Caribbean and in preventing attempts by Mexican and South American cocaine mafias to set up shop in Cuba proper. Yet they have not entered into a formal agreement to fight drugs – even though Havana maintains such agreements with at least 32 other countries – and what cooperation exists occurs episodically, on a case-by-case basis. Washington and Havana need to engage more fully on the issue, deploying intelligence and interdiction assets to disrupt smuggling networks through and around Cuba. Washington hitherto has shied away from a deeper relationship, fearing that it would lead to a political opening and confer a measure of legitimacy on the Castro regime. Yet current strategic realities in the region and Havana's own willingness to engage in such a relationship, as well as impending leadership changes in Cuba, argue for rethinking these concerns, even in the absence of formal diplomatic ties.
Historical Relations with Drug Trade
Such cozy relationships reached a height in the late 1980s, when a group of Cuban Ministry of Interior officials, led by MC department head Antonio de la Guardia, together with representatives of Colombia’s Medellin cartel, coordinated some 15 successful smuggling operations through Cuba to the United States, which – according to Cuban officials – moved a total of six tons of cocaine and earned the conspirators $3.4 million.
Also complicit in these activities, though tangentially, was Division General Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez, a decorated hero of the Cuban revolution. An Ochoa emissary met with Medellin cartel chief Pablo Escobar in 1988 to discuss a cocaine-smuggling venture and also a proposal to set up a cocaine laboratory in Cuba. The discussions also touched on another topic – and this is what Escobar really wanted most – the transfer of some surface-to-air missiles to the cartel in Colombia. The trafficking schemes never materialized, but in early 1990 the Colombian National Police discovered an assortment of 10 ground-to-air and air-to-air missiles of French manufacture (apparently originating in Angola) in a Bogotá residence belonging to an assassin employed by the Medellin cartel.
Drug Policy Shift
This policy shift was attributable to three main factors:
An interesting question is: Where did all of these drugs come from?
The main source, at least according to Cuban official statistics, were so-called “recalos,” bulk packages of cocaine and marijuana that are dumped at sea, and then carried by wind and tides to Cuba’s shores – the detritus of failed rendezvous between Colombian planes or Jamaican marijuana carriers and go-fast boats based in Florida. Drugs are also brought to the island by foreign tourists, usually for their own use, but sometimes with the intent of introducing them into the Cuban market. A third source is domestic marijuana cultivation, which yields a relatively low-quality leaf, mainly in Cuba’s eastern provinces (Granma, Santiago de Cuba). Finally, there was cocaine that leaked into the domestic Cuban market from the trafficking pipeline that Interior Ministry officials set up through Cuba in the late 1980s. This pipeline, I suspect, carried a lot more than the six tons officially acknowledged by the Cuban regime.
New Anti-Drug Measures
Drug interdiction efforts were expanded to deny Cuban airspace and territorial waters to traffickers. Much of the emphasis here was on clearing Cuba’s coast of recalos of cocaine and marijuana, and to this end the regime mobilized various social organizations – youth brigades, Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, fishing collectives, tourism workers, et al. – to cooperate with the Cuban Border Guard in patrolling the island’s shores. Also, to facilitate information-sharing on suspected drug shipments crossing Cuban territory, in 1999 Havana allowed the stationing of a U.S. Coast Guard officer in the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
On the demand-reduction front Cuba set up a vast network of nearly 200 mental health centers, staffed by psychologists and family physicians, which were charged with preventing the spread of drug abuse within the Cuban population. Some of these facilities provided in-house treatment and rehabilitation for cocaine and marijuana addicts. The regime mounted an extensive education and prevention campaign targeting schools and youth organizations, evidently aiming to insulate the younger generation from the scourge of drugs.
By some indications, the regime’s draconian drug policies seem to have worked, at least up to a point. My contacts within the Cuban public health system have told me that the average price of a gram of cocaine increased from about $15-20 in the 1999-2003 period to $90 in mid-2008, and the price for a joint of imported marijuana from $1 to $10 over the same years. Also, admissions of the numbers of new entrants into drug treatment facilities in the Havana area have dwindled significantly since the 1990s.
Cooperation on Trafficking
Such an agreed framework could set the stage for a more substantive level of engagement on drugs. For example, we could train and equip Cuban Border Guards and Interior Ministry operatives, we could conduct joint naval patrols with Cuba in the western Caribbean, we could coordinate investigation of regional trafficking networks and suspicious financial transactions through Cuban banks and commercial entities, and we could station DEA and FBI contingents in the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. We could also negotiate a ship-rider agreement with the Cuban authorities, and possibly even the right to pursue drug-laden vessels and aircraft seeking safe haven in Cuban territory.
How far Havana and Washington would be willing to proceed in these directions is unclear, since the political barriers on both sides are formidable. Yet the prospects for more productive collaboration against the hemispheric drug threat seem a lot more promising today than in the past. In any event, failure to exploit Cuba's law enforcement and intelligence assets to good advantage leaves a major gap in U.S. defenses against drug trafficking through the Caribbean. Interdiction successes in Mexico seem likely to augment this flow down the road, a further reason to closely monitor trafficking trends in a Caribbean country only 90 miles from U.S. shores. The drug threat from Cuba seems destined to increase as the Castro regime's revolutionary order loses its hold and appeal, as the island's economic ties with the outside world continue to expand, and as criminally-inclined Cuban nationals seek alliances with South American and Mexican drug kingpins. Such an outcome is hardly in the best interests of the United States and other countries in the hemisphere.