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Cuba Fires Interior Minister, But Crackdown Questioned

June 29, 1989

MIAMI (AP) _ Cuba’s interior minister was fired Thursday and that nation’s drug purge continued, but the crackdown has failed to touch other leaders U.S. officials say are involved in trafficking.

Interior Minister Gen. Jose Abrantes, in charge of Cuba’s domestic law enforcement, was replaced to allow an investigation of how a group of officers ″conducted drug trafficking operations ... with impunity and without being discovered,″ a government communique said.

The firing came two days after a special military tribunal recommended a court-martial and death penalty for Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez, who confessed to smuggling drugs, ivory and diamonds.

But one member of that tribunal, Vice Admiral Aldo Santamaria Cuadrado, is himself under a 1982 federal indictment in Miami alleging he aided convicted marijuana and methaqualone smugglers.

Other issues also call the Cuban crackdown into question: the continued presence of fugitive U.S. financier Robert Vesco on the island, accusations that Cuban leader Fidel Castro mediated for the Medellin cocaine cartel of Colombia, and continued reports of smuggling through Cuba.

The selectivity of the Cuban crackdown has led experts here to suggest there were two drug-smuggling operations in Cuba.

″I think there was a official operation sanctioned by Raul and Fidel Castro, and then there was a second private operation by Ochoa, so Fidel and Raul decided to clean house,″ said Jaime Suchlicki, head of the Institute for American Studies at the University of Miami, and author of a new book on the Cuban military.

Thursday’s firing of Abrantes ″is intended to put a wall between Castro and Ochoa,″ Suchlicki said. It is impossible for military-backed drug- smuggling operations to continue without the Castro brothers’ knowledge, he added.

As recently as Sunday, a plane carrying a ton of cocaine passed over Cuba and dropped its load in the Bahamas, federal officials say.

Within the last six months, U.S. patrols have observed the Cuban navy ″in the immediate area while an actual operation, an airdrop, was going on″ in Cuban water, said Coast Guard Lt. Jeff Karonis.

An administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity told The Associated Press on Thursday that the United States wanted Santamaria and others brought to justice, but does not preclude joint action against drug trafficking.

″There have been other non-political areas where we have cooperated, like air-sea rescue,″ the official said. ″If they are prepared to go ahead with this on a non-political basis, we would welcome cooperation.″

Most accusations against Cuba are public record.

The February 1988 indictment of Panama’s military ruler, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, says Fidel Castro mediated a dispute between the general and the Medellin drug cartel in June 1984.

In 1982 and 1983, the U.S. attorney’s office here prosecuted the case in which Vice Admiral Santamaria was indicted. He and three other Cuban officials were accused of helping a group of Miami-based exiles smuggle 23,000 pounds of marijuana and 10 million methaqualone tablets. Five Cuban exiles were convicted.

Cuba has refused to extradite the vice admiral and the others, including the former Cuban ambassador to Colombia.

Vesco was indicted in Jacksonville this year for allegedly helping convicted Medellin cartel trafficker Carlos Lehder Rivas conspire to import cocaine. Lehder sent a messenger to Vesco in Cuba to get permission to smuggle cocaine across the island, according to the indictment.

Cuba has not acknowledged Vesco is in its territory.

Reinaldo Ruiz, who has pleaded guilty to cocaine smuggling charges and is awaiting sentencing in Miami, flew cocaine - accompanied by an undercover Customs agent - into Cuba’s restricted Varadero air base in Cuba in 1987.

″In recent years, when we run into dope planes, they immediately dip into Cuban air space, they signal Cuban defense forces, and they are allowed to seek protection where the Coast Guard can’t fly,″ said Richard Gregorie, former No. 2 man in the U.S. attorney’s office here.

On a secretly recorded videotape, Ruiz once claimed his operation was putting money in ″Fidel’s drawer.″

In August 1983, Cuban defector Jesus Raul Perez Mendez, who worked with one of the Cuban officials indicted in 1982, told U.S. officials that Raul Castro took money from drug traffickers to allow smuggling through Cuba.

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., said his House Narcotics Committee has never found conclusive evidence against Castro.

″If I wanted to say something bad about Cuba, it’s easy to do,″ Rangel said. ″But meanwhile, Castro has arrested some bums. We should explore opportunities that come to us.″

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