WASHINGTON -- Strange things are happening in Cuba. Events in the island nation more and more resemble the surrealism that has infused all of Latin American literature with mysticism and, often, mayhem.
First, Chinese President Hu Jintao came through Havana on his recent triumphal trip to Latin America, deliberately designed to usurp American influence in that region. One would have thought Cuba, with its eternal anti-Americano bugaboo, would have been Hu's first "hit" for investment. But no.
Instead, the young Chinese president, who is peacefully expanding China's influence all over the world while America fights desperately in Iraq, offered no investment in oil exploration and only a pittance in nickel. This, after offering to invest $100 billion in Latin America in the next decade.
But perhaps that should not have been so surprising. Once again, the Cuban sugar industry is in crisis. Castro, never a stickler when it comes to dates or hours or the realities of agriculture, had to postpone the sugar crop harvest from November to January.
Second, Fidel has been in the news for releasing some of the political prisoners who never should have been imprisoned in the first place. But if you look closely, he has released them, obviously for international reasons, under something he calls "licencia extrapenal," which simply means that their freedom lasts only a year. Then he can take them back.
Third, this fall Castro suddenly put a "tax" on dollars on the island. Now, anyone who wants to use dollars -- the American currency has in the last few years become the major currency in Cuba -- has to pay a 10 percent tax. This seems to be yet another device of the conniving Castro to get money from others without working for it or producing anything.
Fourth, and by far the most interesting item of late, is the possibility that Fidel has been money-laundering drug trafficking funds in Swiss banks. This well-argued theory is put forward by Ernesto Betancourt, the Washington-based Cuban-American analyst who was Castro's top economics adviser in the year after the revolution. In my experience, Betancourt has always been right, if controversial, about Cuba.
American drug analysts have usually argued that Castro was not involved in the endemic and poisonous drug trafficking of the Caribbean. But a Senate hearing found that of an estimated $4.3 billion in laundered money worldwide, Cuba accounted for a cash amount of $3.9 billion, discovered in the United Bank of Switzerland. Repeat, in cash, and to be deposited, not exchanged. There are only a few places in the world such money, in cash, could come from; and if from Cuba, as reported by defectors and investigators, it could not come from tourism, most of which is paid for in foreign countries by credit card.
"In my view," Betancourt told me, "what has happened is that Fidel saw a wonderful opportunity to make a few bucks by taking advantage of Cuba's unique competitive advantage for money launderers. Cuba is not a member of the International Monetary Fund or the Financial Action Task Force, the two international organizations active in fighting money laundering worldwide.
"Therefore, you can deposit your money in Havana's Banco Nacional and your name is kept even more confidential than in a Swiss numbered bank account. The Cubans then deposit your money, along with that of others, in an account of the Cuban government in Switzerland, London, Canada, Spain or Mexico, and there is no way they can trace the money back to you.
"Originally the dollar bills were transported to Cuba by 'mulas,' that is, people who travel with suitcases full of dollar bills. Some went through Mexico in private planes and yachts. Some even went from Miami and Key West. The $3.9 billion deposited in the Swiss bank over the last seven years is only a portion of the total. And, of course, all this cash in dollar bills could not be owned by Cuba alone: They were depositing for somebody else, and Cuba was collecting only the fee, usually 25 percent to 28 percent.
"Remember, drug traffic generates about $100 billion a year in dollar bills at the retail level. The 'capos' of the drug trade are prepared to pay for legitimation, so we are talking big money."
If true, and it surely seems to me that it is, then the nation that began with the great revolution of the hemisphere in 1959, and then passed through the "magic realism" stage, has now, by all accounts, become a painfully hopeless and depraved place.
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