Published Friday, July 26, 1996, in the Miami Herald.

Castro's possible drug ties spark calls for action

By CAROL ROSENBERG
Herald Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- South Florida's congressional members and community leaders reacted with disgust Thursday to a Herald report that Cuban President Fidel Castro may have personally approved the trafficking of Colombian cocaine to the United States through Havana.

``For unexplained reasons, the U.S. government is keeping from the American people mountains of evidence that it has . . . concerning the Cuban dictatorship's role in the importation of illegal narcotics into the U.S.,'' said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Republican and distant cousin of Castro.

Diaz-Balart called the revelations, contained in The Herald on Thursday, ``the tip of the iceberg.''

``It's time to confront this issue,'' Diaz-Balart said. ``It's time for the Clinton administration to let the American people know the truth about Castro's role in the increased, critical drug problem in this country.''

One congressman took up Diaz-Balart's gauntlet Thursday.

U.S. Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican who chairs the House Western Hemisphere Affairs Subcommittee, said his panel would ``investigate whether Castro and other people are tied in with the drug smuggling process.''

``Do I think that Cuba is a transit point for drugs? Yes, I do,'' Burton said in an interview from Washington. A hearing is expected in September, his aides said.

The Herald reported that drug traffickers captured in a massive cocaine bust in January told U.S. drug agents that they had smuggled the drugs through Havana with Castro's personal approval.

A spokesman for Cuba's Interest Section in Washington denounced the report as ``an outrageous lie.''

Attorney General Janet Reno declined to respond to the report. ``I can't tell you anything with respect to the matter,'' she said. ``It is a matter pending in the Department of Justice.''

At the State Department, spokesman Nicholas Burns said he could not confirm the report. ``Nothing would surprise me about Cuban government behavior, however.''

Diaz-Balart's Cuban-American partner in Congress, Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, said she did not expect the Clinton administration to do much with the information.

``I think the president wants to avoid a direct confrontation with Fidel Castro and his administration, and his agencies are willing to overlook potentially good pieces of evidence that will lead to hard evidence, because they don't want to be confronted with the reality that Castro is involved in illegal drug trafficking,'' Ros-Lehtinen said.

She added that Drug Enforcement Administration agents briefed her staffers and others in Congress this week on the evidence that Castro had a role in the January cocaine shipment.

She said staffers were briefed Wednesday, once the DEA realized that The Herald would publish the story Thursday. As a result, she said, several members of the House of Representatives are planning to call hearings on Cuban drug trafficking -- and to examine how much effort the White House is exerting to stop it.

``They don't have the backbone to follow through. They want to keep making pretty speeches about getting tough against crime and against drug traffickers,'' Ros-Lehtinen said.

``We have every reason to believe that these agencies will do very little to get the truth and the hard evidence against Castro.''

Francisco Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, expressed a desire that the U.S. government take action. ``Let's hope the government and the Justice Department will react appropriately this time to the danger that Castro's continued involvement in drug trafficking poses for the United States.''

But Hernandez is not sure that will happen.

``Politicians don't want to do anything that might be too dangerous,'' he said. ``The Clinton administration doesn't want to see an out-of-control reaction, like being blackmailed [by Castro] with another rafter crisis.''

Herald writer Alfredo Casares and The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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1996 The Miami Herald.