MIAMI — The most effective official in the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana may well be a U.S. Coast Guard officer who's technically a counter-drug specialist but is sometimes approached by the Cuban government for some back-channel diplomacy.
Cuban officials have contacted the Coast Guard officer on sensitive issues such as migration negotiations and Washington offers of aid in the wake of hurricanes, according to U.S. diplomatic dispatches that WikiLeaks obtained and shared with McClatchy.
Contact between the drug interdiction specialist and Cuba's Interior Ministry is "generally viewed as one of the more fruitful and positive between the U.S. and Cuban governments," one of the dispatches noted.
That doesn't surprise retired Coast Guard Cmdr. Randy Beardsworth, who first proposed basing a drug interdiction specialist in Havana and negotiated the terms with Cuba in 1998, when he was the chief law enforcement officer for the Coast Guard's Miami-based 7th District.
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"Both sides have discreetly and quietly used this relationship to communicate. ... It's in our national interest to understand their bureaucracy. In chaos, who do we talk to?" Beardsworth said.
Five decades of U.S.-Cuba tensions have led both countries to impose tight controls on each other's diplomats. The countries don't have diplomatic relations and maintain only "interests sections" in each other's capitals, formally as attachments to other countries' embassies.
In the United States, Cuban officials aren't allowed to travel more than 25 miles from their bases in Washington or at the United Nations in New York without prior approval. U.S. officials in Havana are banned from leaving the city, and can meet only with Cuban Foreign Ministry officials.
But the Coast Guard drug interdiction specialist often travels outside Havana on drug and migration-related trips accompanying officials from the Foreign Ministry, known as MINREX, and the Interior Ministry (MININT), which is in charge of counter-narcotics, migration and domestic and foreign intelligence operations.
"They certainly had unique access, insights into people that we could not even see," said James Cason, a career diplomat who was the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba from 2002 to 2005. Now retired, he recently was elected mayor of Coral Gables, Fla.
During a 2009 visit to a Cuban port for the repatriation of several would-be refugees whom the Coast Guard had intercepted at sea, a Foreign Ministry official gave the drug interdiction specialist "subtle insights" into Cuba's approach to bilateral migration talks, which the Obama administration was about to restart after a break of several years, according to one dispatch.
The Foreign Ministry official, Armando Bencomo, told the drug interdiction specialist that the talks should focus on why Cubans want to leave the island and "would help both sides to develop a response to a potential mass migration scenario," according to the cable.
The dispatch noted that Bencomo's comments were a sign that Havana would use the meeting to "hammer" at the U.S. wet-foot, dry-foot policy, which allows Cubans who reach U.S. land to stay. Cuba has long criticized the policy, but the cables didn't indicate whether Havana indeed attacked the policy at the immigration talks.
During a second 2009 trip to witness the repatriation of Cubans intercepted by the Coast Guard, an unidentified Foreign Ministry official told the drug interdiction specialist that in his "personal opinion" Havana might reverse its rejections of U.S. aid after three hurricanes had devastated the island in 2008, another cable noted.
"Yet again, MINREX has utilized the DIS and the repatriation process as a forum" to float an idea past a U.S. official, the cable noted. That way, Cuba can pass a message "and still maintain its public image and propaganda campaign that lambaste the USG for its approach towards Cuba." USG is short for United States government.
When Interior Ministry officials upbraided the drug interdiction specialist over an incident in 2009, it was taken as a sign that "MINREX, via MININT, is attempting to elicit a response from the USG ... to maximize its interaction with USINT and the USG writ large," another cable noted.
What's more, Cuban officials meeting with the drug interdiction specialist referred to one of the hot-button issues between the countries: a mass exodus of Cubans like the Mariel boatlift in 1980 and the so-called "Balsero Crisis" of 1994.
According to one cable after the 2008 hurricanes, a colonel in the Interior Ministry's Border Guard Troops asked the drug interdiction specialist whether the U.S. government was "planning an operation," understood as asking whether Washington was concerned about a possible mass exodus by desperate hurricane victims.
The comment raised eyebrows because the colonel "inadvertently suggested himself that there was a fear on the part of the (Border Guard) that at least an increase in Cuban migration numbers was possible," the cable added.
Cuban officials also use the Coast Guard's man in Havana to voice complaints about U.S. policies and practices.
One cable noted that a top Interior Ministry counter-drug official had complained that U.S. cooperation on drug interdictions was "often one-sided" and that Cuba wanted to work more closely with U.S. officials in sharing information about trafficking in the region.
Another reported in 2009 that the drug interdiction specialist had received a tongue-lashing from five top Interior Ministry officers at a meeting to discuss an alleged U.S. Coast Guard violation of Cuban waters during the emergency assistance of a U.S.-registered sailboat.
The Cuban officers "questioned whether the DIS has the necessary influence with his bosses at USCG District Seven (headquartered in Miami Beach) to mitigate these kinds of incidents," the cable added.
Beardsworth said Cuban agents at times also "fooled with" the Havana homes of Coast Guard officers who'd "poked their nose into areas the Cubans considered were not appropriate." He gave no details, but U.S. diplomats in Cuba have complained of obvious burglaries in which food or worse was left on tables so that the occupants would know that someone had been inside.
But Beardsworth said the advantages far outweighed any problems with stationing a U.S. Coast Guard officer in Havana, which he proposed as a "confidence-building measure" between the countries after a year of graduate studies at Harvard in 1995.
The first drug interdiction specialist was sent to Cuba around 1998, he recalled, and five or six Coast Guard officers — all men — now have completed assignments of two or three years in Havana. All remain on active duty and aren't permitted to comment on their Cuba experiences.
Cason recalled that while the drug interdiction specialist got to attend the repatriations of interdicted Cuban rafters about once a week and to travel around Cuba on drug-related trips with Interior Ministry officials, other U.S. diplomats could meet no one in the government other than the head of the Foreign Ministry's North America department, Dagoberto Rodriguez.
Cason said he thought the Cuban government favored the drug interdiction specialist's relations with its Interior Ministry because it wanted to establish "a military-to-military" relationship, thinking that professional solders could understand each other better and lessen the risks of a crisis.
No doubt the Cuban government was "also trying to penetrate our side" — recruit the Coast Guard officers as spies — Cason added, though the Coast Guard was aware of that and "picked their best people, really sharp."
The Cubans "always said they just wanted someone to talk to," Cason said. "But I always asked why not the USINT? That's why we were there, to talk to them."
(Tamayo reports for El Nuevo Herald in Miami.)
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