Cuba Offers to Join US Effort to Stem Drug Traffic REGIONAL COOPERATION

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DESPITE a lack of diplomatic relations and a 31-year-old economic stranglehold on its economy, Cuba says it is ready to cooperate with the United States in the fight against drug trafficking.

"We are geographically located in a strategic point in the drug shipping routes to the US. Independent of the political hostility, we are willing to enter into a collaboration that would be mutually beneficial," says Bienvenido Garcia, director of Cuba's North American department in the Ministry of Foreign Relations.

In September, for the first time ever, the Cubans underlined their policy by handing over to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) two suspected cocaine traffickers.

But Cuban officials insist they have not changed their policy. "Since the start of the revolution, we have been against drug trafficking. This exchange just happens to be taking place in a climate when there is more willingness for dialogue," Mr. Garcia says.

Indeed, even during the cold war and the less-than-diplomatic verbal dueling between the Bush and Castro governments, there were low-level exchanges of information about traffickers through Cuban waters and airspace.

"The Cubans have been and are passing along information on tracking to the US Coast Guard and feeding into the DEA Intelligence Center," says Bruce Bagley, a drug policy expert at the University of Miami.

But US State Department officials and analysts say Cuba is making a concerted effort now to build bridges on this issue with the US and other nations in the hemisphere.

In the last three years, Cuba has intensified its antinarcotics cooperation with Mexico. It has agreements with Venezuela and Jamaica. Cuba recently signed a letter of intent to exchange information with Colombia and is negotiating drug-cooperation treaties with seven other nations.

"It's a tactical move to present itself as clean on drugs and to offer to cooperate with the US and Latin American countries. The move is motivated by a sense of isolation and the economic crisis," says Edward Gonzalez, an international policy analyst at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif. …