By Dr. Jaime Suchlicki at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies:
Cuban Weapons and North Korea
Four years ago this month, Panamanian authorities captured a North Korean vessel en route from Cuba carrying hidden weapons for the North Korean regime. This event happened at the same time as the U.S. and Cuban governments negotiated a normalization of relations.
The North Korean vessel carried 240 tons of weapons from Cuba, including rockets, missile systems and two MIG 21s hidden among sacks of Cuban sugar. It raised numerous questions and provided few answers.
- If the weapons were being sent from Cuba to be repaired in North Korea as the Cuban government insisted, why were they hidden in the hold of the ship under thousands of Cuban sugar bags?
- Why did the North Korean crew resist the Panamanian boarding of their ship in Panamanian waters? And why did the ship’s captain try to commit suicide?
- If Cuba needed to repair these weapons, why didn’t Gen. Raul Castro send them to Russia? After all, these were Russian weapons.
- Better yet, wouldn’t it have been less expensive and more efficient to bring North Korean or Russian technicians to Cuba to repair these weapons?
- Why would Cuba make this major effort to repair “obsolete” weapons, as the Cuban government described the missile systems and the two MIG 21s?
- Wouldn’t it have been easier or cheaper for Cuba to ask Venezuela to send to the island military equipment from their Russian purchases and include it in the Venezuelan package of aid to Cuba?
- Or, couldn’t the Cubans have used the credits provided by Russia to purchase modern military equipment?
This leads to the conclusion that Cuba and North Korea were not forthcoming with answers that could clarify this event. An obvious answer are that those were not “obsolete” weapons but functional, although old, equipment being shipped to another country.
For the past 50 years, Cuba has been an ally and supporter of numerous anti-American regimes and revolutionary and terrorist groups, some still struggling to attain and consolidate power and impose Marxist ideologies on their population. One of these is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Congolese army has failed to quell a growing insurgency which has dragged the country’s eastern region back to war. The rebellion increased the possibility of conflict with neighboring Uganda and Rwanda, which allegedly were supporting the rebels. The Marxist Congolese government led by Joseph Kabila, a close friend of Cuba, had been struggling to retain power and crush the rebellion.
Congo is a major source of Uranium, which North Korea needs for its nuclear program. Shipments of North Korean weapons bound for the Congo have been intercepted in the past. Were the Cubans and North Koreans gambling to support their comrades in the Congo? The Director of the Sub-Saharan Department of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry and former Ambassador to the Congo, Hector Igarza, led a high level, little publicized, delegation to Congo in 2013, offering Cuban support for the beleaguered Congo regime. In September 2011, Kabila visited Gen. Raul Castro in Havana.
To date, the mystery of the Cuban weapons in a North Korean vessel has not been solved. The implications are clear:
- It represented a serious violation of U.N. Resolutions.
- It showed Gen. Raul Castro’s continuous commitment to internationalism and his willingness to violate international laws to support an ally.
- It showed that the Cubans are more interested in playing an international role and support their old allies, than work with the U.S. toward a possible normalization of relations.
It showed, one more time, that in Cuba economic decisions are dictated by political considerations. Relations with the U.S. were not a priority for Gen. Raul Castro. Supporting anti-American regimes and playing an international role remain Cuba’s priorities.
*Jaime Suchlicki is Emilio Bacardi Moreau Distinguished Professor and Director, Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami. He is the author of Cuba: From Columbus to Castro, now in its fifth edition; Mexico: From Montezuma to NAFTA, now in its second edition and the recently published Breve Historia de Cuba.