Just like when in 2013 Panama discovered a large shipment of war materiel on its way from Cuba to North Korea, Havana said that Cuba was not at fault, that the ship only carried a donation of Cuban sugar for the suffering North Korean people. A search proved otherwise. Now Havana insists that the drugs found last week could have been brought on board the ship at the Panamanian port, and some echo the “explanation.”
Panamanian sources point out that the episode resembles the 2013 Cuban shipment of warplanes and missiles under tons of Cuban sugar on a North Korean cargo vessel to Pyongyang.
The interdiction at the Colón Free Trade Zone “has been dubbed Operation Fiery Cane (Caña Brava),” reported the blog Capitol Hill Cubans, adding that “in 2013, the Obama administration allowed Cuba’s regime to get away scot-free, despite clear evidence that it was at the center of a major illegal shipment of arms from its Port of Mariel to North Korea.”
In 1993, an American federal court indicted Gen. Raul Castro for his participation in a conspiracy that smuggled more than 7 tons of cocaine into the United States over a 10-year period. The Clinton administration “squashed the indictment,” according to Capitol Hill Cubans.
The North Korean ship, the Chong Chon Gang, was loaded at Mariel’s port, which Castro says is his most extensive effort to expand the island’s trade. A Washington source said, “It is very probable that the cocaine shipment also originated in the Port of Mariel.” As Mauricio Claver Carone and other experts have pointed out, it is inconceivable that neither the weapons shipment to North Korea nor the cocaine shipment to Belgium could occur without approval at the Cuban government’s highest levels.
All Cuban officials remember vividly the 1989 execution of Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa when he was to become commander of one of Cuba’s three armies. According to Fidel and Raul Castro, Ochoa was sentenced to die due to his role in narco-trafficking, although according to Cuban law the penalty for drug smuggling does not include the death penalty. The regime said that Ochoa had to die because his drug smuggling placed at risk the security of the country; presumably by providing an excuse to enemies of the revolution (the United States) for strong action against it.
The eighth Congress of Cuba’s Communist Party just took place, but the drug smuggling to Belgium was not part of the discussions, and President Barack Obama is not likely to make an issue of it.
Raul Castro favors the use of maritime shipments for dangerous missions. In 2015, the Colombian navy intercepted yet another ship, the Da Dan Xia, a Chinese vessel bound for the Port of Mariel containing “about 100 tons of gunpowder, almost 3 million detonators and some 3,000 cannon shells.” The weapons were hidden under tons of grain; although Cuba, as a sovereign country, has a right to purchase weapons. The reason for the cover-up was likely that the weapons’ final destination was not in Cuba, but for Colombian rebels, since the Chinese ship was scheduled to dock at Cartagena and Barranquilla, two Colombian ports.
In the case of the three ships’ modus operandi was similar: The shipments were hidden under sugar, honey, or grain. In the case of the North Koran ship, Havana at first lied to the Panamanians, and in the cocaine shipment, it insists the drugs, hidden under Cuban honey, were not placed there in Cuba. A well-documented United Nations report charged that extraordinary measures had been taken to hide the weapons shipment, and that the attempted smuggling was a violation of international sanctions on Pyongyang. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson, however, was quoted saying that the weapons shipment was not important enough to threaten Obama’s Cuba initiative.
Cuban Lt. Col. Alejandro Castro Espín, a Cuban intelligence officer and son of Raul Castro, led the Cuban team that obtained the withdrawal of Cuba from the list of supporters of international terrorism. Alejandro Castro met with Obama in Panama and New York in 2015 when the president met with Raul Castro.
Raul Castro’s shipments say much about Havana’s appraisal of how much they can get away with under the present administration. Members of the House Committee on Intelligence are concerned and will likely ask Secretary of State John Kerry what the administration knows about the cocaine shipment and if he intends to raise the issue with his Cuban counterpart.
Frank Calzon is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, based in Washington D.C.