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Last Updated:5/22/03
Cuba: Lost Opportunities for Cooperation on Drugs
By Wayne S. Smith

A select delegation organized by the Center for International Policy visited Cuba on January 5-9, 1998, to look into the possibilities of more systematic cooperation between Cuba and the United States in drug interdiction. There have been isolated instances of cooperation, most notably in the case of the Limerick, a vessel seized in Cuban waters in 1996 with six tons of cocaine aboard. The delegation found, however, that there is no planned cooperation, let alone any effort on the part of the United States to enhance Cuba's interdiction capabilities. On the contrary, the United States seems reluctant to work more closely with the Cubans. Worse, it prevents full Cuban participation in a number of Caribbean initiatives to coordinate anti-drug efforts.

Yet, given its geographic location, Cuba could be the key to sharply reducing the flow of drugs through the Caribbean to the United States. Not to enlist Cuba in an all-out joint effort--and not to encourage its full participation in regional efforts--undermines the interests of the United States itelf. If the war on drugs is indeed a top national priority, this is a poor way to conduct it.

One reason the administration may be reluctant to seek Cuba's fuller cooperation is fear of offending certain members of the Congress who in Section 2 of the Helms-Burton Act suggest that "The Cuban Government engages in the illegal international narcotics trade . . . "

But the assertion itself is now without foundation and the administration should know it. According to the Coast Guard's Seventh District in Miami, over the past few years it has had no evidence--except anecdotal--of any official Cuban involvement in drug smuggling. Quite the contrary, the Cubans are cooperating with us in drug interdiction. The point is that both our efforts could be more successful if that cooperation were more systematic.

Program in Cuba

While in Cuba, the delegation met with:

Ricardo Alarcón, president of the national assembly
Roberto Díaz Sotolongo, minister of justice
Abelardo Ramírez Marquéz, vice minister of public health
Gen. Lázaro Ramón, commander of the Cuban Border Guards
Gen. Jesús Becerra, deputy commander of the national police
Col. Oliverio Montalvo, chief of the national anti-drug directorate
The delegation also visited the operations room of the Border Guards, went aboard patrol boats, inspected the national forensic laboratory, and went through the William Soler Children's Hospital. During these meetings, the delegation was fully briefed on Cuban efforts to interdict drugs and on the magnitude of the problem.

The delegation also met with Michael Kozak, chief of the U.S. interests section, who outlined the U.S. policy of inviting cooperation only on a limited caseby-case basis.

Senator Hatfield's response to that was that if we had fought World War II on a case-by-case basis, with no strategy or coordination, we would have lost.

What Full Cooperation Would Do

As indicated above, the official U.S. position is that the present level of cooperation is all that is needed. This is based on the assertion that Cuba is not on any major smuggling route and that few drugs pass through Cuban waters or air space anyway. When the Coast Guard or DEA occasionally spot some suspicious vessel or aircraft headed into Cuban territorial air space or seas, they can at that point call on the Cubans to intercept. In some cases, according to the U.S. interests section, the Cubans have not been able to do so, but in a few others, the interception has been quite successful. The most notable was the case of the Limerick, a vessel boarded by the Coast Guard in international waters in 1996. The vessel was taking on water and drifting. The Coast Guard removed the crew and began to search the vessel, but before the search could be completed, the vessel had drifted into Cuban waters. The Coast Guard alerted the Cuban Border Guards and withdrew. The Border Guards then boarded and searched the vessel. Using information provided by the United States and other sources the Cubans eventually found six tons of cocaine. They cooperated fully with the United States by turning the cargo over to the Coast Guard for use as evidence in the trial against the vessel's captain. They even sent four Cuban officials to Miami to testify at the trial.

The case of the Limerick demonstrates what might be achieved through closer cooperation with Cuba. Analyzed more closely, it also argues against the principal rationale for the status quo. If one vessel yielded up six tons of cocaine, how much more must be passing along this route?

One partial and disturbing answer to that question is seen in the fact that in 1997 alone, well over six tons of narcotics washed ashore on Cuban beaches. This, because the pattern is for small planes to drop bags of narcotics into the sea off Cuba's northern keys. The floating bags are then picked up by speedboats for the run up to Florida. But some are missed and eventually float ashore. If we estimate that these six tons represent only about 10 percent of what is dropped, then some sixty tons per year are being moved by this one method alone. Estimates place the amount of drugs being smuggled around Cuba's eastern and western capes and through its territorial seas and air space at many times that.

Further, Cuba's geographic position alone makes it a key to halting the flow of drugs through the Caribbean to the United States. It not only lies between the Caribbean and the United States and controls all Caribbean approaches to the United States, it also controls the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico. With sufficient equipment and resources, it could be a valuable ally in the war against drugs.

Cuban Willingness to Cooperate

All Cuban officials with whom the delegation met, from Ricardo Alarcon, the president of the national assembly, to General Lazaro Roman, commander of Cuba's Border Guards, emphasized Cuba's full willingness to cooperate with the U.S. Coast Guard and DEA on a much expanded case-by-case basis. They noted that Cuba is doing the best it can under difficult circumstances and with limited resources to interdict drugs, even though 90 percent are destined for the United States, not Cuba. Thus, in interdicting them, Cuba is in effect assisting the United States, a neighbor which often seems determined to isolate it and even to consider it an enemy. However, Cuba considers the war against drugs to be one for all humanity and thus has no reservations about providing such assistance so long as Cuban territorial rights and sovereignty are fully respected. On the contrary, it is prepared to assist even more fully.

Cuban officials noted that their country's sea frontier stretches for some 1,650 miles around the island, that Cuba has more than 42,000 square miles of territorial seas containing some 4,195 island and small keys, often well offshore. Their resources to watch and patrol all this are quite limited. Because of the economic crisis, they have had to mothball many of their patrol craft, fuel is scarce and they have only some 117 operational radars. Cuba recognizes and desires access to some of the superior U.S. technology that can be brought to bear. At present it must rely on other foreign countries for their less-than-cutting-edge technology and because of severe limitations on hard currency, it cannot even obtain much of that. They cited several examples including having to go to Canada to get dogs trained for drug searching.

The Cubans emphasized that no alert has been received from the U.S. Coast Guard to which they have not responded. When the Coast Guard advises them of a suspicious vessel, they try to intercept. However, they are usually contacted rather late in the game and thus often do not have cutters positioned to intercept. Their chances of successful interception would be much improved by earlier warning and by greater coordination of patrol areas. They never know which quadrants the Coast Guard is covering, so there is some duplication of effort. It would make sense to coordinate areas and operations to the extent that security concerns might realistically permit.

A more systematic exchange of information would also be useful. The United States has the capability to blanket the entire Caribbean with electronic surveillance. Cuba has no access to any of that. Its surface radars only reveal what is on the horizon, not what is beyond. It needs more information as to the overall situation and on vessels that may be headed its way well before they are on the horizon. But not only does the United States not share such information with them, it prevents their full access to intelligence sharing on a regional basis. Essentially, this involves three organizations:

l.) The Caribbean Customs and Law Enforcement Commission, which is based in St. Lucia and whose secretariat is run by a British customs officer. The United States has prevented Cuba from becoming a full member, thus impeding access to the organization's intelligence sharing much to the irritation of the other members.

2.) The World Customs Organization, whose Caribbean chapter is based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Cuba is a member, but because the headquarters are in San Juan, it has no access to the organization's intelligence facilities.

3.) The most important regional effort is through the Caribbean Drug Initiative. This was generated by the European Union and Great Britain remains the principal sparkplug. Cuba is an integral part of the CDI. However, intelligence sharing is to be coordinated through the Inter-American Commission Against Drug Abuse, which is an agency of the Organization of American States. Cuba is not a member of the OAS and so cannot take part.

In sum, Cuba is operating at a distinct disadvantage: with inadequate resources and with access to only the most rudimentary intelligence. "It is," said one Cuban officer, "as though we were working with only one arm and leg and most of the time blindfolded."


The arguments for a very limited case-by-case approach to cooperation now pursued by the United States, i.e., the status quo, do not hold up to even the most rudimentary scrutiny. On the contrary, if it is to give the war on drugs the priority it deserves, the United States should devise ways to cooperate more closely with Cuba and encourage Cuba's full participation in regional interdiction efforts. The CIP delegation would recommend the following steps:

l.) The United States should drop all efforts to impede Cuba's access to intelligence-sharing in the three regional organizations. Indeed, it should move in the other direction, taking the lead in clearing the way for the island's full membership and participation.

2.) The Coast Guard should be authorized to begin a systematic exchange of information with the Cuban Border Guards on the subject of drug interdiction and to coordinate patrol areas and responsibilities on a continuing basis.

3.) There should be frequent and periodic meetings between representatives of the Border Guards and the Coast Guard to discuss joint drug-interdiction operations, problems and ways to overcome them. Meetings already occur, but only to discuss problems related to rafters; exchanges on drug interdiction are prohibited. This prohibition should be immediately removed.

4.) The United States should consider the provision of technical and material assistance to Cuba with a view to enhancing its interdiction capabilities. Joint training exercises might be a useful confidence-building first step.

5.) Cuba's cooperation with us in drug interdiction efforts should be publicly acknowledged.

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