Cuba & Costa Rica Blog
About this blog
Written by Cuba and Costa Rica expert Christopher P. Baker, this blog will update readers on life in these two diverse and exciting countries.
- Last blog post on Costa Rica and Cuba
- First-ever group motorcycle tours of Cuba successful
- Cuba’s Mariel port readying for Panama Canal expansion
- Musings on wildlife encounters on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula
- Cuba’s Steam Trains puffing their last gasp
- My top five thrilling activities in Costa Rica
- Cuba’s fun February festivals include Harleys, Books, Cigars
- Five top volcano viewing experiences in Costa Rica
- New road along Costa Rica / Nicaraguan border mired
- Cuba’s Hotel Campoamor at Cojímar to be restored?
- Cuban revolutionary Celia Sánchez honored in new book
- Christmas challenge for Costa Rica’s sexually abused girls
- Costa Rica opens Chinatown in downtown San José
- David Soul films Hemingway’s car restoration in Cuba
- National Geographic Expeditions receives license for Cuba tours
Cuba a reliable U.S. partner in drugs war
Two weeks ago I received an email from a long-time friend asking me if Cubans used narcotics, and what the position of the Cuban government was regarding drug use. His questions fostered an exchange in which his questions kept coming: “Do Cubans grow marijuana?” “What are the penalties if caught?”
I began to worry that he was planning a visit and wanted to smoke marijuana while there. I counseled him: “Don’t even think it!”
Thankfully I was premature. As someone who favors legalization of marijuana in the U.S., he was simply curious as to the Cuban reality.
The exchange prompted a flashback to my first meeting in Havana with former CIA-agent Philip Agee (author of Inside the Company: CIA Diary) in his apartment in an exhausted high-rise on Calle E, in Vedado, Havana, in 2000. (See the Epilogue of my literary travelog, Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling Through Castro’s Cuba, for the full exchange.)
“Why do foreign journalists keep reporting about drugs in Havana?” Agee demanded. “Have you ever been asked if you wanted to buy drugs?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Several times.”
In the mid through late ‘90s, when sex tourism was booming, I witnessed a creeping increase in the availability of marijuana and cocaine offered for sale on the streets for tourists by Cubans. Whether they were genuine offers or whether the Cubans were undercover police I cared not. I knew I didn’t want any part of it. Then came a huge police crack-down. Ever since, for the entire past decade, I don’t recall once having been asked whether I wanted to buy drugs on the streets of Cuba.
Occasionally, while walking the streets of Habana Vieja or Centro Habana I’ll catch the unmistakable whiff of marijuana as I pass an open doorway. So, yes, there is a small domestic market for marijuana, which is grown illicitly and at huge risk in the Sierra mountains (Ben Corbett tracks the chain from buyer to grower in his book, This is Cuba). In 2003, the Cuban government launched ‘Operation Popular Shield’ to root out illegal marijuana production and undercut the evolution of domestic consumption.
But very few Cubans use drugs, and use of cocaine or harder drugs is extremely rare. (The Ministry of Health operates special drug clinics to treat Cubans with drug dependencies.)
Cuba, of course, lies smack (no pun intended) between the world's major narcotics producers—Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Jamaica—and its biggest market, the United States. So it should come as no surprise that Cuba has long been caught up in the drug wars.
Several books, most notably Andres Oppenheimer’s Castro’s Final Hour, detail a sordid period when Fidel Castro saw drug trafficking as a handy tool in his pathological war against U.S. imperialism. As a 1991 PBS special—“Cuba and Cocaine”—reported: “In Havana last fall, Fidel Castro boasted that there was hardly any country less hospitable to drug trafficking than Cuba. But tonight, through DEA surveillance tapes and interviews with former Cuban officials and drug-runners, FRONTLINE investigates how Castro used drug smuggling as a political weapon.” And Born Fi’ Dead: A Journey Through the Jamaican Posse Underworld regales how Cuban MiG 23 fighter pilots sent up to intercept aircraft overflying from Jamaica would give a thumbs-up sign when the Jamaican pilots indicated that they were carrying bales of ganja.
Two decades have passed, however.
Today, Cuba is a willing partner in the fight against drug trafficking. According to the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs “2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report” (INCSR), ”Cuba continues to demonstrate a commitment to fulfilling its responsibilities as a signatory to the 1988 United Nations Convention based on adherence to the Convention’s Articles.”
In fact, it may surprise you to learn that the U.S. Customs and Drug Enforcement Administration work closely with their Cuban counterparts to interdict drug shipments. Sure, the two nations don’t have formal diplomatic ties, yet the U.S. Interests Section (USINT, which serves in lieu of a formal embassy) in Havana has a U.S. Coast Guard Drug Interdiction office that coordinates counter-narcotics efforts with Cuban law enforcement officials.
Gone are the days of little more than a decade ago when the labyrinthine, sand-fringed cays off Cuba's northern coast were the setting for almost daily drops of drug bales, which high-powered speedboats picked up to whisk to the USA. Many packages also washed ashore, spawning a nascent narcotics market in Cuba.
Fidel called it a "mortal venom" and launched a crackdown, called Operación Aché (Operation Hatchet). Today, the interdiction effort is led by Lt.-Col. Mago Llanez Fernández of the Tropas Guardas Fronteras (TGF, Cuba’s Border Guard), which works closely with the U.S. Coast Guard, passing real-time data about traffickers who flee Cuban for U.S. waters. "[Without] a strong counter-drug stance, Cuba would be a prime area for drug smugglers, but its efforts are very effective," Louis Orsini, the U.S. Coast Guard Senior Maritime Law Enforcement Advisor, told BBC report Sarah Rainsford.
Last year, according to INCSR, “Cuba reported 45 real-time reports of 'go-fast' narcotics trafficking events to the U.S. Coast Guard. TGF’s email and phone notifications of maritime smuggling to the U.S. have increased in quantity and quality, and have occasionally included photographs of the vessels suspected of narcotrafficking while being pursued."
According to a recent BBC report, Cuban police investigator Lt. Col. Yoandrys González García says Cuban-American drug traffickers are now showing an increasing interest in Cuba’s domestic market, fed by the rising wealth of many Cubans in response, not least, to an increase in family remittances allowed from the U.S. (President Obama lifted restrictions on such remittances in 2010).
Drugs are now flowing from Miami to Cuba!
Interdiction of drugs coming into Cuba more than tripled in 2011 (to 9.01 metric tons, of which 8.3 metric tons washed ashore) over the prior year, including the arrest of drug “mules” inbound from Ecuador and other drug-producing countries.
Meanwhile, last year Cuba arrested 20 tourists for bringing in drugs for recreational use (compared to 123 in 2010).
Cuba has a zero-tolerance policy. Anyone caught using or trafficking drugs in Cuba is guaranteed a lengthy stint in jail (up to 15 years). And the inside of a Cuban jail is not somewhere you want to see.
Now that you’re ready to travel to Cuba, buy Moon Handbook Cuba
For further information on Havana, buy Moon Spotlight Havana.
Learn more about Christopher P. Baker.
Disclosure: I occasionally accept free or discounted travel when it coincides with my editorial goals. However, my opinion is never for sale. The opinions you see in Cuba & Costa Rica Journal are my unbiased reflection of the good, the bad, and the ugly
Copyright © Christopher P. Baker