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 stability.
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 Castro does.
The writer is director of the Georgetown University Caribbean Project.