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.
Cuba finds Latin American countries more receptive to its advances now. Countries that once saw themselves as merely narcotics producers or stopovers on the road to the US market are taking the entire drug fight more seriously as the levels of domestic consumption and corruption have risen, analysts say.
Cuba is trying to show its solidarity on the drug-fighting front. Local and foreign media gave broad coverage to the long-term jail sentences meted out Nov. 12 by a Cuban judge to a Colombian, a German, and three Cubans for a smuggling operation that attempted to use Cuba as a bridge for shipping cocaine from Colombia to Europe.
But the US is sending mixed signals on Cuba's offer of cooperation. DEA chief Robert Bonner called the September delivery of a boat and two drug smuggling suspects an ``important step forward in our bilateral counternarcotics relationship.''
Yet some DEA agents question the sincerity of Cuba's intentions. If Cuba is clean now, the agents strongly suspect that in the 1980s it participated in illegal drug trade or at least allowed smugglers access to Cuba.
The US State Department is more circumspect than the DEA. ``There's no change in our relationship with Cuba. We will cooperate on a case-by-case basis. But you won't see us doing anything to legitimize the Cuban government,'' one official says.
Peter Reuter, a Rand analyst, says that if Cuba is trying to use cooperation on the drug fight as a bridge, it won't get very far with this administration. ``Bush and Reagan wrapped themselves in the issue. But drugs are not a high priority for the Clinton administration,'' Mr. Reuter says.
Still, some analysts are concerned that Cubans could turn to drug running as their economic situation worsens, and the state has less control over the formal and informal market.
``The natural end of the economic blockade is to provoke a bloody civil uprising,'' wrote Soledad Cruz, a well-known Cuban columnist. ``Is it really in the US interests to create the kind of turmoil that is ideal for drug dealers? If you provoke chaos, drugs will pass through Cuba.''