Where there’s snow, there’s mud

The Cuban Connection challenges officially propagated US myths about the involvement of the Castro government in drug trafficking


The Cuban Connection: Drug Trafficking, Smuggling, and Gambling in Cuba from the 1920s to the Revolution
Eduardo Sáenz Rovner,
translated by Russ Davidson
2008, University of North Carolina Press
247 pages (hardback)

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

ALTHOUGH it finally appears to have abandoned accusations of drug trafficking against the government of Fidel Castro, the State Department has long kept available this rhetorical stick with which to beat the Cuban government whenever it feels the need.

It is a useful political tool, because it is so hard to prove either way, and challenges to the State Department’s notorious lists of countries implicated in the illicit trade are far less potent that the accusations themselves. Mud sticks, after all.

The great merit of Eduardo Sáenz Rovner’s detailed examination of drug trafficking in Cuba from the 1920s into the early years of the Revolution is that it gives the lie to the propagandists and revisionists who have sought to implicate Castro’s government directly in drug trafficking as part of a global plot to break the will of the American people.

At the same time, Sáenz Rovner’s steadfast balance ensures that the argument that Castro’s predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, was similarly involved in turning the island into a safe haven for traffickers is also given short shrift. The truth, the author demonstrates in this painstakingly researched book, is far more nuanced.

Extensive corruption

In The Cuban Connection, Sáenz Rovner argues that although the Batista government failed to act against drug traffickers, largely because of the extensive corruption on the island that existed under his dictatorship, evidence suggests that he also collaborated in apprehending foreign criminals and deporting them. None of Batista’s principal detractors – including Castro – charged that he was linked to drug trafficking.

That said, some Cubans were involved in the trade in this period, and the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics – a predecessor of the DEA – regarded the problem as far more serious than their encounters with marijuana traffickers from the island superficially suggested.

With Castro’s revolution arrived a purtianical reductionism that saw the new regime turn harshly against drug use of all kinds as part of a broacder moral crusade against vice and depravity – wrongly, but conveniently – identified with the US presence on the island.

However, the politics of anti-communism and the moral climate of the US in this period meant that zealous and obsequious officials – particularly the obsessive FBN director Harry J Anslinger – saw many opportunities to associate drug trafficking with communism. Sáenz Rovner suggests that the FBN played a “central role” in the effort to use the problems associated with narcotics smuggling as a device to combat communism during the Cold War. The resulting climate made it very easy both to make accusations against the Cuban regime, but also to spread them.

Sáenz Rovner writes: “The opportunity to demonize Fidel Castro and Cuba’s embrace of revolutionary radicalism by linking the two to drugs, organized crime, and the evils of international communism proved too tempting to ignore … The canard that the Cuban government was using drug smuggling as a tool to demoralize and destabilize the US government retained currency for years.” [p. 141]

Often the authorities reacted to little more than the mere involvement of Cubans in drug trafficking cases in the US. Yet as Sáenz Rovner points out, in those cases in the early years of the revolution in which Cubans were arrested in the US for trafficking offences, the evidence invariably suggested that these were anti-Castro exiles who had fled the revolutionary regime. Between 1959 and 1966, for example, virtually all of the Cubans convicted in Florida on drug trafficking charges had arrived in Miami after the revolutionary government had taken power. After Castro’s triumph, those Cubans who had previously been involved in trafficking simply decamped to Mexico, and foreign traffickers from Europe and Latin America who had simply used the island as a transit point relocated elsewhere.

In the face of US accusations, however, the Cuban revolutionary regime’s denials of involvement were often sufficient to implicate it in the eyes of anti-communist officials content to operate according to the principle “where’s there’s smoke, there’s fire. Sáenz Rovner writes:

“In American authorities’ interpretations, however, Cuba’s defence against charges of cynically conspiring with drug traffickers to wage political warfare amounted to an off-handed admission of guilt.” [p. 143]

The irony of the accusations levelled against Castro are that they formed part of one of the least morally edifying periods in US history. At the time federal officials were pointing the finger at Castro, the Kennedy administration’s Operation Mongoose was trying to discredit and undermine him through covert activities and dirty tricks. In this exercise, it embraced some unlikely allies, with the CIA recruiting the help of former mobsters who had been located in Cuba and implicated in drug trafficking in a vain attempt to remove the revolutionary leader.

Yet despite its dubious moral vantage point, and despite the failure of US enforcement agencies to find any hard evidence of the Castro regime’s connection with drug-smuggling, the power of association worked, with gullible journalists swallowing the lies about Castro’s own supposed drug addiction and even describing him as the “king of cocaine”.

If at times The Cuban Connection reads as a more detailed narrative about the activities of individual traffickers and officials and an account of developments in the relationship between Washington and Havana, this is merely a consequence of the comprehensive research the author has undertaken for this book. It remains a valuable addition to that corpus of historical research on Cuba that confronts official myths that it is all too easy to leave unchallenged.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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