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Did Castro use cocaine to keep the economy afloat?

Phil Davison
Sunday 28 February 1999 00:02 GMT

INSPIRED by the Pinochet affair, Cuban exiles in France want Fidel Castro tried there for alleged crimes including drug trafficking, writes Phil Davison. A French judge on Friday rejected their case, but is there any truth in the claims?

US agents suspect President Castro may have condoned some cocaine deals before the mid-1980s, though to help his sinking economy rather than for self-gain, and may have turned a blind eye to others. But they say there is absolutely no evidence against him, and that he clamped down on trafficking in 1989 after the Panamanian strongman, Manuel Noriega, was indicted in the US for drug smuggling. General Noriega was later captured after an American invasion of his country and jailed in Miami for 40 years.

The CIA believed Mr Castro accepted cocaine shipments as payment for Cuban weapons sent to Marxist guerrillas of the Colombian M-19 group in the early 1980s. The cocaine was then smuggled to the US to earn badly needed dollars for a Cuba suffering from the decline of its Soviet bloc benefactors. "Castro saw it as a money-earning transaction for Cuba's national security," one former CIA agent said.

Videotaped during a US Drug Enforcement Administration "sting" operation in 1987, a Cuban-American drug-runner, Reinaldo Ruiz - later jailed here - boasted of shipping cocaine through Cuba and told an undercover DEA agent "the money that was paid to Fidel is in the drawer". This, said Cuban officials, was yet another lie aimed at undermining the revolution.

In 1989, US agents planned "Operation Greyhound" to kidnap interior minister, General Jose Abrantes, suspected of cocaine smuggling, but it was later called off. Jailed soon afterwards in Cuba for "corruption", Gen Abrantes reportedly told fellow inmates that Mr Castro had been aware of cocaine trafficking through the island. The general died of an apparent heart attack soon afterwards.

But Cuba's involvement with drug-running came to world attention in the summer of 1989 when, after a show trial, four senior military officers were executed and 10 other military or government officials jailed for cocaine trafficking. The best-known, Gen Arnaldo Ochoa, denied the charge. Many Cubans felt Mr Castro was eliminating a popular war hero who might have threatened his grip on power.

Another of those executed, Gen Tony de la Guardia, was known by the DEA to be deeply involved, and confessed at the trial, but made a point of testifying that his superiors had known nothing of his dealings. His daughter Ileana, one of those who brought the case against Mr Castro in France, claims the Cuban leader had promised to spare her father's life in return for that testimony.

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