[Marxism] cuba & drugs

michael perelman michael at ecst.csuchico.edu
Mon Aug 22 20:23:03 MDT 2005

------------ EH.NET BOOK REVIEW --------------
Published by EH.NET (August 2005)

Eduardo Saenz Rovner, _La conexión cubana: Narcotráfico, contrabando y 
juego en Cuba entre los años 20 y comienzos de la Revolución_. Bogota, 
Colombia: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Facultad de Ciencias 
Humanas, Colección CES, 2005. 278 pp. ISBN: 958-701-472-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by William McGreevey, Director, Development 
Economics, Futures Group.

Eduardo Saenz Rovner presented the principal results of this fascinating 
book at a three-day seminar on current research in Latin American 
economic history held at the Universidad Nacional in Bogota in May 2005. 
I was privileged to hear his summary and encouraged to look in more 
detail at his work. He spent the better part of a sabbatical year, 
2002-03, in archival research in the U.S. and Cuba seeking out the 
uneven documentation of criminals quite happy to remain outside the 
purview of public agencies. One must imagine how Steven Levitt, 
co-author of _Freakonomics_ (2005) and recipient of the John Bates Clark 
Award, might have wished to join the expedition that Saenz Rovner made 
through archives and eyewitnesses.

In my own tour d'horizon through the book, I was taken by the manner in 
which the author injects a certain rhythm to its twelve chapters plus 
prologue and epilogue. The prologue leaps to a conclusion of the phase 
he is examining. He focuses, like a French film noir, on a future tied 
to Colombia, the base from which he works and writes. It is 1956 and 
Rafael and Tomas Herran, sons of the Bogota and Medellin elites have 
been arrested in Havana for importing heroin. "Narco-trafficking across 
international frontiers was not a business for the poor. It required 
know-how, capital and international connections" (pp. 18-19).

In Chapter 1 the author jumps back to the link between U.S. prohibition, 
enacted in 1919, and the implicit invitation to contraband trade from 
nearby Cuba. Chapter 2 describes how the processing requirements for 
morphine, heroin, and cocaine made Cuba an ideal entrepot for 
transforming legal drugs into illegal recreational substances. Chapter 3 
brings in background on the 125,000 Chinese who entered Cuba between1847 
and 1874, and another 20,000 mostly males who arrived between 1903 and 
1929. A small minority of them served a domestic Chinese-Cuban market 
for opium.

By 1942, drugs seep out of legal channels to be discovered in Kansas 
City by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics as Chapter 4 begins. From 
two specific upper-class Colombians, the author leads his readers to the 
general themes of alcohol Prohibition in the U.S., international trade 
in prohibited drugs, the role of an Asian minority within Cuba, and the 
creation of the Cuban connection to drug abuse and attempted suppression 
as World War II is beginning. The stage is thus set for roles of key 
players to be presented in subsequent chapters.

Chapter 5 introduces Salvatore Lucania, aka Lucky Luciano, and reminds 
the reader that Thomas Dewey, later the Republican who lost the 1948 
presidential race to Harry Truman, had helped convict Luciano and had 
him deported from the U.S. Cuba, narcotics and the Mafia thus became 
embroiled in a battle that rages unabated into the current century.

Chapter 6 brings us to Carlos Prio Socarras, Cuban president, 1948-52, 
who was widely suspected of aiding the narcotics traffic. Chapter 7 
begins with the name of Estes Kefauver, U.S. Senator from Tennessee, and 
the leading investigator of organized crime in the U.S. Attention turned 
from drugs to gambling, perhaps a greater source of criminal profits. 
Cuban casinos were part of a network of illegal but tolerated operations 
for gambling in the U.S. (As a child I recall my own parents traveling 
occasionally to an illegal casino in northern Kentucky, just outside the 
reach of justice in Cincinnati, Ohio. Casinos there were closed in the 
early 1950s.) Stamping out gambling, stamping out illegal drugs, 
returning to Protestant principles of behavior, a variant on the Third 
Great Awakening admired by Robert W. Fogel in _The Fourth Great 
Awakening_ (2000), was the order of the day in postwar North America.

Chapter 8 turns to a revitalized Andean connection, this time focused on 
cocaine from Peru and Bolivia that made its way north through Cuba in 
the 1950s. Chapter 9 addresses the theme in a 1971 movie, _The French 
Connection. Corsicans and dockworkers in Marseilles had a role to play; 
travel through Cuba, especially Camaguey, continued to be an important 
mode for moving heroin from the Golden Triangle to French processing 
plants and thence to the U.S. market.

Chapter 10 reminds us that Harry Anslinger was the long-time director of 
the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He complained that the government 
of Fulgencio Batista, 1952-58, absolutely refused to provide any support 
to the effort to suppress the drug trade, instead taking millions of 
dollars of bribes from the traffickers. Saenz Rovner examined thirty 
cases of convicted drug dealers in Cuba in the 1950's. Most were young, 
single, black and poor. They dealt in marijuana, not cocaine and posed 
little real risk to U.S. or Cuban health and safety. Rounding up the 
usual suspects did little beyond offer a fig leaf of cover for the 
Batista regime to demonstrate its cooperation with the drug suppression 

Chapter 11 brings the overthrow of Batista on 31 Dec 1958 and Fidel 
Castro's arrival in Havana to start the year 1959. The revolutionary 
government was glad to rid itself of traffickers, gamblers and the 
Mafiosi said to manage these activities. By the time the U.S. and Cuba 
broke off diplomatic relations in April 1961, neither government trusted 
the other on any matters of importance. In Chapter 12, the author shows 
that the government of Castro was nonetheless determined to wind up 
Mafia and other illegal operations and arrested or deported key figures 
from the U.S. and several Latin American countries. Cuba ratified the UN 
convention on narcotics in 1962. Despite periodic North America 
accusations of Cuban trafficking, Cuba's revolution, like that of Red 
China, was no friend to monopoly profits to be earned by gamblers and 
drug dealers. Socialist morality showed that it could equal the wrath of 
the Evangelical morality that inspired Anslinger and Kefauver.

In an epilogue, Saenz Rovner observes that the drug dealers, ousted from 
Cuba, found other avenues to feed the unquenchable demand for 
recreational drugs in North America. He notes that the Herran brothers, 
with whom his story began, did not again appear in archival records, 
even though one U.S. drug agent expressed certainty that they continued 
their work but off the radar screen. It's too bad that no U.S. 
government will ever thank Fidel Castro, who suppressed at least one 
channel of the drug trade.

This Saenz Rovner book is at once a work of scholarship and a great 
tribute to the integrity and determination of an analyst tackling a 
difficult topic. Unlike politicians or artists, his subjects would 
prefer to remain anonymous. Thanks to Francis Coppola and _The 
Godfather_ series of movies, we have some visual images to associate 
with the colorful characters that show up on the pages of this book. We 
are much better off now with an accurate factual picture based on the 
solid work in archives and secondary sources.

William McGreevey taught economic and social history of Latin America 
many years ago at UC- Berkeley (1965-71). He worked on social sector 
projects, especially health care financing, at the World Bank (1980-97) 
and has more recently focused on the economics of reproductive health 
and HIV/AIDS with Futures Group (1997-present). He can be contacted at 
w.mcgreevey at tfgi.com.

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Michael Perelman
Economics Department
California State University
michael at ecst.csuchico.edu
Chico, CA 95929
fax 530-898-5901

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