Cuba is opening up its economy to private businesses and foreign investors, hoping for an end to the U.S. embargo, and attracting record numbers of international tourists. But the new open atmosphere is definitely not extending to cannabis.
In announcing a big increase in interceptions of illegal drugs this year, Cuba’s drug czar just took an open swipe at other Latin American countries that are embracing legalization, decriminalization or medical marijuana.
The Associated Press reported last month on the press conference in which Antonio Israel Ibarra, head of Cuba’s National Commission on Drugs, boasted that the amount of drugs seized by Cuban authorities so far this year has tripled over the same period in 2016, to 1.7 metric tons —including 1.5 tons of cannabis (far bulkier than cocaine, which made up most of the remainder).
More of his comments were provided by Spanish news agency EFE and eNews Channel Africa, which reported June 23 that Ibarra said: “Cuba is facing a very difficult situation at the moment with regards to drug trafficking. Firstly because in Latin America and the Caribbean, there is a group of countries trying to legalize, or that has legalized, the use of marijuana. We have not legalized it, nor will we.”
There are two obvious serious flaws in Ibarra’s logic.
First, a jump in interceptions does not necessarily mean a jump in trafficking—it could just reflect beefed-up enforcement.
Second, blaming cannabis legalization for stepped-up illegal trafficking (if real) makes no sense whatsoever. The legalization measure that has now passed in Jamaica, as well as the decriminalization and medical marijuana policies now in place in Mexico and Colombia, are daylighting what had been an illegal industry, providing an above-board domestic market for what had been a contraband export crop and undermining the cartels and smuggling networks that had long dominated it.
This intolerant position ironically provides a point of unity for Cuba’s communist rulers and their new nemesis Donald Trump.
After Trump announced he was rolling back Obama’s loosening of travel restrictions to Cuba, ostensibly due to concerns about human rights in the island nation, Havana shot back with a statement charging the United States with human rights abuses of its own, especially noting the ongoing pattern of police killings across the country.
Yet, as AP, EFE and eNCA all noted, the U.S. and Cuba continue to cooperate on drug enforcement.
High-level meetings between their leaders on drug interception, established under Obama last year, have been suspended since Trump took over, but “day-to-day cooperation” between the two countries’ respective military and police forces goes on.
Drug czar Ibarra even went so far as to call on Trump to maintain this collaboration in enforcement, despite the chilling relations.
“We hope that he doesn’t renounce the effective cooperation efforts that Cuba can offer, just because of his new policy, because this is in the best interests of both nations,” Ibarra told reporters, according to Havana Times.
And Cuban cooperation with international enforcement efforts more generally is unabated. Cuba Debate website reported in May that a high-level representative from Havana’s Justice Ministry traveled to Argentina to participate in the European Union’s annual conference on EU-Latin American cooperation against drugs (COPOLAD).
The zealous early years of the Cuban Revolution after Fidel Castro took power in 1959 saw a sweeping crackdown on potentially dissident culture, with Afro-Cuban music discriminated against, the Beatles banned, and—most significantly—gays persecuted and even interned in labor camps.
The regime has now loosened up on all these things considerably—Afro-Cuban music is actively promoted, there is even a John Lennon statue in Havana and the island is increasingly gay-friendly. All hopeful signs.
But it looks like cannabis remains a red line for the regime—along with free speech and democracy.