Congressional investigators went to Spain Oct. 16, and found an apparent smoking gun of criminal narcotics trafficking by Fidel Castro's Communist dictatorship. It remains to be seen whether the Clinton administration will put Cuba on the U.S. government's major drug list.

Three House Government Reform Committee staffers, two Republicans and one Democrat, interviewed businessman Jose Herrera for eight hours in Valencia. Herrera's Spanish firm was engaged with the Cuban government in a joint venture that Colombian police last year discovered shipping a huge batch of cocaine. The interview convincingly indicts the Castro regime as complicit in the drug trade, with the Spanish businessmen as mere foils.

The implications for U.S.-Cuban relations are profound. To maintain President Clinton's dream of restoring ties with Havana, the State Department has refused to acknowledge Cuba's narco-trafficking, which would doom normalization.

The normalizers suffered a potentially severe setback last Dec. 3, when the Colombian National Police seized 7.2 metric tons of high-grade cocaine in Cartagena. The drugs were bound for Havana and consigned by a joint venture controlled 51 percent by the Cuban government with two Spanish partners--Herrera and Jose Llorca--controlling 49 percent.

That triggered a tale of Cuban deception, with the Clinton administration willingly deceived. Llorca, in Cuba at the time of the Cartagena drug bust, was not notified but told to return to Spain. He and Herrera learned what had happened from Spanish newspapers.

Since no effort was made to detain Llorca in Cuba, he and his partner were stunned when Castro in Havana Jan. 4 publicly accused them of drug trafficking. Arrested by Spanish drug police, they were released within 72 hours because Cuba supplied no evidence. Castro deflected attention from his government, and that satisfied the State Department.

But not two House Republican committee chairmen: Dan Burton (Government Reform) and Benjamin Gilman (International Relations), who probed the Cartagena drug consignment. On March 1, they wrote to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, calling for Cuba to be designated a major drug trafficker.

The May 13 reply from Assistant Secretary Barbara Larkin claimed the "evidence suggests" the cocaine was "destined ultimately for Europe, particularly Spain." Since the United States was not the recipient, Cuba need not be sanctioned. But on June 18 the Drug Enforcement Administration reported it never had been consulted, and that all "evidence" came from Cuban police.

In Valencia Oct. 16, Herrera told congressional investigators that he and Llorca had no knowledge of the drug shipment. "You would have no idea what's in that container?" asked Burton committee staffer Kevin Long. "Yeah," replied Herrera, who revealed that the joint venture was run by two Cuban intelligence service agents who "know everything."

Herrera said he and Llorca were absolutely flabbergasted by Castro's accusations: "They had to load the blame on somebody, and we had the right profile. . . . We would have to work for 2,000 years to make enough money . . . for that shipment."

But Andrew Su, a Democratic staffer on the Government Reform committee, asked Herrera if it were "possible at all" for the drugs to go to Spain, not the United States. "That would be impossible," replied Herrera. There were no Cubans in Spain to handle the clandestine operation.

Is Herrera telling the truth? His credibility was strengthened when he said he would testify under oath to the DEA anywhere but the United States (where he fears prosecution for violating the Helms-Burton law against trading with Cuba) and would submit to a lie detector test.

Chairman Burton, intending to ask Secretary Albright for the third time this year to add Cuba to the drug list, told me: "We think this shows very clearly that Castro still has the mode of obtaining hard currency from drug operations." What excuse will the State Department make to avoid action that would throttle U.S.-Cuban normalization in its crib?

(c) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.