Until recently, the Cuban government said that there was only a minimal drug consumption problem in Cuba, fed by unscrupulous tourists, by Cubans who cultivated small amounts of marijuana, or by Cubans who chose to profit from bales of drugs that they found washed up on shore, the result of missed handoffs between South American drug cartels and Bahamas-based smugglers who take the drugs to the United States.
In recent months, however, Cuba’s discourse has changed.
The government says Cuba’s drug consumption problem is still small in comparison with neighboring countries, but “recently there are growing indications of illicit use of drugs.” An editorial in the Communist Party newspaper Granma said the drug menace is “as dangerous as imperialism itself,” and mass organizations have issued statements supporting tougher enforcement.
Cuban authorities are reacting in an unprecedented fashion.
- Last month in Havana, residents described early-morning raids where special Interior Ministry forces, supported by special military units, descend on an area where a drug trafficker is suspected to operate, seal off the entire block, and proceed to search a suspect’s residence with drug-sniffing dogs. One resident said the searches are very thorough, with floorboards ripped up and mattresses sliced open. Where drugs are found, a witness said, the entire apartment or house is emptied and its contents hauled away. A Spanish newspaper, El Pais, reports that “dozens” of these raids have taken place in recent weeks.
- Cuba’s penal code already provides stiff sentences for drug trafficking, including the death penalty. Now, a decree-law issued January 21 provides that persons who traffic in drugs or cultivate drugs, or who knowingly allow their property to be used for those purposes, will lose their home or farm.
- Cuba’s drug czar, Interior Ministry Colonel Oliverio Montalvo, recently retired and was replaced by General Becerra, also of the Interior Ministry.
What do citizens think? We made no effort to gauge opinions in a scientific manner, but we found no opposition to increased drug enforcement. One Havana resident mentioned a drug-related shooting that injured a bystander in the Centro Habana neighborhood. Another claimed that drug traffickers, seeking to stimulate consumption, had distributed small amounts of crack cocaine inside candies to teenagers. Yet another said that cocaine and marijuana are readily available in Havana and in the provinces, and that the government understates the extent of the drug market. Residents have been encouraged to be vigilant but to take no action on their own; because of the risk of violence they are to report any drug activity to the police.
It is not surprising that drug consumption would come to a country that, ten years ago, had little trade or contact with international tourism, and now welcomes nearly two million tourists per year. However, in light of Cuba’s economic difficulties and the tight budget under which most Cuban families live, it is interesting to note that there is enough purchasing power to support even an “incipient” market for illegal drugs.
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