Saturday, June 2, 2018

CHRISTOPHER DICKEY - How Cuba Helped Make Venezuela A Mafia State

The Castros claimed Cuba was never into drug smuggling, then they said it quit. But their own operations were nothing compared to the ones they helped facilitate in Venezuela.

The medals, the honors, the general’s uniform—all had been stripped away. Arnaldo Ochoa, once considered a great hero of the Cuban Revolution and its military expeditions in Africa, stood before Fidel Castro’s court in 1989 wearing a cheap plaid shirt. He looked like what he had always been, the handsome and charismatic son of Cuban peasants, a man of the people, a leader, and that may have been the real cause of his downfall. But the charges were narcotics trafficking and treason.

Ochoa’s trial was a pivotal moment in the history of Cuba and of what Washington in those days was calling “the war on drugs.” It marked the end of an era in which Fidel Castro’s dictatorship had facilitated the shipment of cocaine to the United States from the infamous cartels of Colombia, including Pablo Escobar’s operation in Medellín. And not the least of the motives attributed to the Cubans was the desire to tear at the fabric of yanqui society. These were the days of the crack cocaine epidemic shattering the peace of cities across the United States. Fueling addiction, desperation and crime while enriching the Revolution must have seemed perfectly legitimate goals to some of the Castros' cohorts, and their intelligence services did what they thought they had to do for their regime to survive on its own terms.

There in the military tribunal in Cuba all was not as it seemed. As in any of the show trials the world has read about or witnessed, whether conducted by Stalin, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, or the Castro brothers, the defendant made an abject confession to all the charges in the court, and with pitiful vehemence exculpated his superiors: Fidel’s brother Raúl, the chief of the armed forces who had promoted Ochoa so many times, was innocent of any complicity, and so, of course, was Fidel. The press in the United States and Europe theorized Ochoa might have been tortured or drugged. 

Even in the military tribunal, not-so-veiled threats were made against his family if he did not cooperate. Perhaps, as one observer put it, he believed there was some remote possibility of a pardon in exchange for his confessions, although that would have been offered only “in the darkness of his cell.”  The idea that the Castro brothers knew nothing about the drug trafficking was perfectly absurd. Cuba was a country where, as the saying goes, “not a leaf moved on a tree” unless the Castros wanted it to. In fact the officer accused as Ochoa’s key accomplice, Antonio De la Guardia, was in charge of a special department in the Ministry of Interior, which is the center of the Cuban state security operations. His operation was known by the initials MC (for Moneda Convertible, or convertible currency) and its mission as part of the Cuban Foreign Trade Corporation (CIMEX) was to thwart the U.S. trade embargo….

n 1987, the deputy commander of the Cuban air force defected, and focused attention on the activities of CIMEX. Another defector claimed Colombian traffickers had a fleet of 13 ships and 21 aircraft operating in Cuban territory. A third defector, a longtime Cuban intelligence operative, alleged that the “special troops” unit of the Cuban interior ministry coordinated all drug shipments. (De la Guardia had been part of the special troops.) Fidel supposedly stashed 80 percent of the hard currency in the banks of Panama, where Manuel Noriega had taken over as strongman.

In 1988, five members of a Miami-based drug ring were convicted of smuggling $10 million worth of cocaine into the U.S. through Cuba the year before, and one of the conspirators fingered De la Guardia and his operation at the Ministry of Interior’s MC department. Raúl Castro, for his part, saw the scandal as a way to purge his enemies and potential competitors for the succession, with Ochoa first on the list. Emilio T. Gonzales, who would serve on George W. Bush’s national security council and in the Department of Homeland Security, wrote in a 1997 paper (PDF) that with the Ochoa trial, “Fidel and Raul Castro hoped to bury long-standing allegations of Cuban drug smuggling along with their potential political rival.” At two in the morning, July 13, 1989, just a month after the first announcement that Ochoa had been arrested, he and De la Guardia and two of their alleged fellow conspirators were taken into a field next to the Baracoa air base east of Havana and shot. One chapter in the annals of Cuban involvement with drug runners was coming to an end, but more subtle and complex relationships would would soon begin centered on Colombia and Venezuela—two countries much bigger, more populous, and much richer than Cuba.

The Cartel of the Suns
In the years that followed the Ochoa trial, Cuba offered to cooperate with the United States fighting against drug traffickers. The Clinton administration shelved proposed indictments of the regime, and as relations gradually warmed, the U.S. would begin to liaise with Cuban authorities in the war on drugs. But at the same time the Cuban intelligence services were reaching out in other directions, to networks that would become the world’s biggest suppliers of cocaine: the narco-guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and  Venezuela’s security forces. 

Cuban counterintelligence is said to have tutored the Venezuelan spies, domestic and foreign, and helped to organize them to root out opposition to the regime of Hugo Chávez. Indeed, the Cubans taught them to do whatever might be necessary to survive. Over time, many of Chavez’s officers would become known as the Cartel de los Soles, the Cartel of the Suns: “cartel” because of their involvement with the drug trade on a scale that nobody in 1989 could have imagined; “the suns” for the insignias on the epaulets of Venezuela’s generals. Under Nicolás Maduro, just given a second term last month in a system-rigged re-election,Venezuela has become a full blown economic, political and criminal disaster, most likely headed for a showdown with its neighbors and with Washington. And the traffickers in the government not only continue to thrive, their corruption has become vital to the cohesion and survival of the regime... read more: