Flying over chains of sandy keys in a clattering old Soviet Mi-17 helicopter, Col. Jorge Samper declares a Cuban victory over South American drug traffickers—with no thanks to the United States.
Communist Cuba wants to cooperate with its bitter political enemy in the war on narcotics but is getting no response from Washington, says Samper, deputy commander of the Cuban Coast Guard.
Colombian smugglers have used the hundreds of tiny secluded islands off Cuba’s long north coast as drop sites for bales of cocaine and marijuana to be picked up from the sea by speedboats for delivery to the United States.
Despite scarce resources to patrol its waters other than slow-moving Soviet-era torpedo boats, Cuba says it has the problem under control.
“The drug trafficking through Cuba, especially by sea, has been controlled. The traffickers have gone elsewhere,” Samper told foreign reporters on a tour of coastal observation posts along the north coast of eastern Cuba.
Seizures have declined over the past five years. The 2.2 tons of marijuana and 0.3 tons of cocaine seized last year were the lowest quantities in the past decade, indicating traffickers have turned to other routes, Samper said.
“It is the United States that benefits from all Cuba’s efforts,” said Col. Jose Ruiz, deputy head of the Cuban National Anti-Narcotics Agency.
That is because the drug shipments are destined for the streets of U.S. cities and not Cuba, where domestic consumption of illegal drugs is minimal, Cuban officials say.
Each time they detect a suspicious plane or boat, coast guard officials call their U.S. counterparts. But they say they get little thanks for the hundreds of reports filed every year.
“We don’t give a damn,” said Samper. “Cuba has shown that it has the will to cooperate with everyone, including its historic enemy the United States. If there was cooperation, the anti-drug effort would be far more effective.”
“We can’t take all the credit, but they don’t recognize our contribution at all,” Samper complained.
The U.S. State Department recognized Cuba was taking the drug war seriously in its annual narcotics report released in March, which said that Cuban information had helped stop drugs coming into the United States.
But Washington insists Cuba still does not do enough to fight narcotics and that the drop in seizures in Cuban waters is due to U.S. anti-drug operations in the Caribbean.
Narcotics cooperation with Havana occurs only on a case-by-case basis, the report said.
“Given the nature of the Cuban regime, cooperation with the U.S. by the Cuban authorities is predicated on political motivations that serve the regime’s political interests,” it said.
Washington also criticized Havana for not wanting to sign a Caribbean convention on fighting drug trafficking, a U.S. initiative Cuba says would undermine its sovereignty.
“We haven’t signed that convention and we are not going to sign it,” said Lt. Col. Miguel Landera, an Interior Ministry official at Punta de Maisi, the easternmost tip of Cuba.
Cuba has proposed signing a bilateral drug enforcement agreement with the United States. The State Department has rejected such a move because it would give a false sense of normalization to Cuba-U.S. relations.
Washington broke off diplomatic relations with Havana in 1961, two years after Fidel Castro seized power in a leftist revolution, and has enforced a trade and financial embargo on Cuba since then in an effort to undermine his government.