Gillian Gunn Clissold makes a compelling case for expanding drug cooperation with Cuba [op-ed, Aug. 25]. Such cooperation could improve interdiction of drug flows in the northern Caribbean and help contain organized crime's reach in Cuba. A further benefit might be to expand U.S. access to important players in Cuban society.

As Ms. Clissold suggests, Cuba probably is ripe for penetration by organized drug mafias. According to Cuban health authorities, roughly 140 Cubans have sought treatment for drug abuse in the past year, compared with almost none in the mid-'90s. In Havana as of mid-1999, cocaine sold for $20 per gram and $7,000 to $10,000 per kilo. In a two-tiered price structure, imported and domestically grown marijuana sold respectively for $70 and $35 per ounce. Parts of Havana Vieja (Old Havana) and San Miguel del Padron reportedly have become virtual free zones for drug dealers.

In the approaching election season, Republicans can rack up political points by arguing that any antidrug assistance to Cuba shores up and legitimizes the decaying Communist regime. Fidel Castro, for his own political reasons, also will resist the most effective forms of assistance -- such as U.S. naval patrols in Cuban waters (or at least the right of "hot pursuit"), U.S. training of border guards and Ministry of Interior operatives on Cuban soil, the stationing of DEA and FBI contingents in Cuba and joint U.S.-Cuban efforts to monitor suspicious monetary transactions through the country's financial institutions.

Needed on the U.S. side is a bipartisan consensus that organized crime and drugs represent far more insidious threats to hemispheric stability than does Cuban communism. Castro or his successors, on the other hand, will have to accede to more intrusive forms of assistance if they want to prevent these manifestations from getting out of hand in Cuba. If the experience of other drug-infested Caribbean states is any guide, time is on the criminals' side, not Cuba's.

RENS LEE

McLean

The writer is a consultant on international drug issues.