High-Level Drug Case Rocks Cuba

Times Staff Writer

An official admission by Raul Castro, the younger brother and designated successor of President Fidel Castro, that Cuban higher-ups have been involved in international narcotics trafficking has produced shock waves in that island nation and abroad.

First word of the changed official position--Cuba has always denied complicity in the transportation of drugs through its territory--came in a rambling, 2 1/2-hour speech by Raul Castro on June 15. The speech specifically accused Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez, a highly decorated and popular former commander of Cuba’s forces in Angola, of having personally profited from drug deals.

Ochoa went on trial Sunday before a military court of 47 officers of flag and general rank--an unprecedented event in Cuba.


Up to now, Fidel Castro and other officials have proudly proclaimed that one of the accomplishments of their revolution was the eradication of drugs, gambling and prostitution in Havana, once called the “Paris of the Antilles.” Although Fidel Castro has yet to speak publicly about the case, the opening of Ochoa’s trial left no doubt that the regime has declared its own war on drugs.

Raul Castro’s unusual speech, coupled with a revelation of more details of drug-trafficking charges against Ochoa and other officers by Havana last week, also lifted the curtain on the inner circle of a dictatorship that for 30 years has dealt with its problems privately.

Even more intriguing to some U.S. analysts, however, was a suggestion implicit in Raul Castro’s speech that Ochoa, who had served as commander of Cuba’s military mission to Nicaragua before taking over in Angola, was guilty of “ideological dissension” and that this may have loomed as a greater sin in the eyes of the regime than his alleged involvement with Colombia’s Medellin cocaine cartel.

Anti-Castro Cubans here read Raul Castro’s words as a panicked admission that Ochoa might be merely the tip of an iceberg of dissension in the military, where long concern about Cuba’s chronic economic problems might erupt into action against the government.

U.S. experts on Cuba saw Havana’s sudden candor about drug trafficking as a reflection of genuine indignation on the part of Fidel Castro, which could result in breaking the “Cuban connection” with the U.S. drug market.

U.S. drug enforcement officials long have claimed that transshipments through Cuba are a significant element in the smuggling of narcotics to Florida and elsewhere around the Gulf of Mexico. Reinforcing this view, the official Cuban news agency, Prensa Latina, last Thursday pledged “drastic action,” including the shooting down of suspicious planes, to “tear up from the roots” the illicit traffic.


3 Arrested on June 12

Prensa Latina said that a government investigation launched in April had culminated in the arrest June 12 of Ochoa and Brig Gen. Patricio de la Guardia and his twin brother, Col. Antonio de la Guardia. The De la Guardias were assigned to a special military unit in the Ministry of the Interior, which acts as Cuba’s secret police.

One of the unit’s functions is the clandestine importation of U.S. products barred by Washington’s economic embargo against Cuba, an activity compatible with illicit drug operations, American narcotics enforcers say.

Raul Castro delivered his speech to an audience of 1,200 officers of Cuba’s western army in what normally would have been strictly an intramural event. But he explained to his listeners that the Central Committee of Cuba’s Commmunist Party had decreed that his talk be televised after the national evening news program.

He gave no reason for such wide dissemination of the speech, but analysts in the United States who have seen a videotape of the broadcast concluded that potential repercussions from the popular Ochoa’s arrest required that word of it be divulged by someone of Raul Castro’s high rank to quiet any public concern about the affair.

Castro concentrated his fire on ideological dissension. He condemned “undisciplined” people in the military and elsewhere, bolstering the impression of observers here that discontent is spreading even among the comparatively privileged armed forces because of Cuba’s chronic economic failures.

The videotape showed him pounding the rostrum to emphasize that there is no place in Cuba for those--especially in the military--who are tempted to follow Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s vision of glasnost and perestroika.

“They can do whatever they want,” he said of the Soviets. “We will do whatever we want.”

To those who might dare to hope for the end of communism, he declared: “Better that this island sink to the bottom of the Atlantic than that the capitalist system return.”

Signs of Boredom

The officers seated in the Defense Ministry amphitheater burst into sustained applause at that point, the videotape showed. At other times, however, they appeared puzzled or even bored at the long harangue, as Castro stumbled over words and on several occasions repeated himself when he returned to a written text after frequent digressions.

Castro spoke of corruption as if it is in fact widespread--and it is common knowledge that the elite enjoy luxuries unknown to ordinary citizens, who shop in meagerly stocked state-owned stores. The implication was less that Ochoa benefited from graft than that he had overstepped acceptable limits.

“Some people with the best intentions in the world--like the people I call the saviors of the republic--they get into everything and they are serious,” Castro said. “They say one must work, find dollars and save more Cuban pesos. Whatever their intentions are, they must do it in an orderly way. All businesses, any kind of business, even if authorized, if it goes beyond the established norm of financial control, sooner or later will end up in corruption.”

Anti-Castro Cubans in Washington contend that Ochoa was unfairly lumped together with the De la Guardia brothers and another military officer in the drug-trafficking charges. They describe this as a convenient means of getting rid of a legitimate critic inside the armed forces. They point out that Ochoa’s duty in Nicaragua from 1983 to 1985 and then in Angola until early this year make it unlikely that he could have functioned as a drug trafficker in Havana.

Assertions of Cuban narcotics activities are longstanding. A federal grand jury in Florida, for example, indicted a Cuban navy admiral and several high civilian officials on drug charges in absentia in 1982. Ironically, the admiral, Aldo Santamaria Cuadrado, is one of the 47 officers sitting today in judgment of Ochoa.