A good deal for Cuba and the US

Two prominent Republican lawmakers - Ben Gilman, the chair of the House International Affairs Committee, and Dan Burton, co-author of the Helms-Burton Cuban embargo legislation - last month called on the Clinton administration to place Cuba on the State Department's "majors list" - the list of nations that transit substantial amounts of illicit narcotics to US shores.

While no country enjoys being on the list, Fidel Castro and his advisers should jump at the chance to get onto it.

Being on the list would mean that Cuba's antidrug efforts would be subjected to annual review by the administration and Congress, certifying whether or not those efforts are adequate and Havana's cooperation with the US satisfactory.

The certification process, ostensibly designed to encourage other nations to join the global US battle against drugs, seems mainly to produce fear and antagonism rather than effective collaboration.

Governments in Latin America and elsewhere deeply resent Washington's unilaterally setting the criteria, making its own judgments, and then deciding what penalties to impose. All this will be particularly offensive to the government in Havana with its hypersensitivity to any US intrusion on its sovereignty.

But Cuba stands to gain a great deal as well and it may be worth the pain.

First, Cuba would be in good company, joining a list that includes many of Washington's closest friends and allies - including the US's second-largest trading partner, Mexico; its largest oil supplier, Venezuela; and Latin America's largest nation, Brazil.

Second, if Washington proposes to judge whether Cuba is or is not cooperating with the US on drug interdiction, presumably it would have to give Havana the opportunity to cooperate. That's only fair. After all, how can Cuban authorities work with us, if we refuse to work with them? Fidel has long offered the US this sort of cooperation, and he reaffirmed that offer just a month ago.

Third, Cuba is regularly attacked - by Gilman and Burton, among others - in Congress and the US press for its extensive and witting participation in the international drug trade

US antinarcotics agencies, including the White House drug czar's office, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Customs Service, have concluded that these charges have no basis, but they are repeated over and over.

The formal review called for by the certification process will give Havana its best chance to refute these charges once and for all.

Sure, the Cubans will be taking a risk; it's hard to fully discount the prospect that US authorities would yield to political pressures and end up manipulating the exercise and reaching an unfair conclusion. But the fact that the review will be closely watched by the press and other governments should provide some assurance - and Cuba has no more credible way to defend itself.

Finally, if the White House does certify that Cuba is doing its share in the fight against drugs, this will, for sure, provoke intense debate in Congress, which must sign off on the certification of Cuba and every other country that goes through the process.

But this debate on antidrug activities should be welcomed by Havana, because - unlike exchanges over its human rights performance, for example - it is a debate that Cuba can win. The hard evidence, provided by a variety of US agencies, will support it.

The Gilman-Burton proposal is also a good deal for the US - a genuine win-win situation. With the certification of Cuba, Washington would gain a valuable (and strategically located) ally in its struggle to stem the flow of narcotics through the Caribbean into the US.

But there is an easier way to do this. We could simply accept Cuba's long-standing offer to cooperate in fighting drug trafficking.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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