In Havana, On Drugs

As faith in the revolution sinks to new lows, kids in Cuba are getting high

Arcs of water crash over the sea wall protecting the Cuban coast and splash onto the asphalt roadway, endangering cyclists and the stray Soviet-built Lada. On any other Thursday night, the nocturnal denizens of Havana's Malec centsn would have already staked their claims. Lovers, hustlers, adolescent rockers, hippies, penniless professionals, poets, and guitar strummers would have found their place along the cool concrete esplanade. The air would be full of soft notes and whispers. Ron. Merca. Yerba.

But tonight's stormy weather has dampened Havana's best-known open-air drug bazaar. There's not a rum bootlegger in sight, much less a jibaro with prewrapped packets of cocaine and marijuana. Even the prescription pills, popped mostly by younger kids seeking a quick and cheap high, are in short supply among the handful of soggy teenagers hanging out across the street, in front of the disco at the Hotel Riviera.

Sitting in a borrowed car, Tigre considers the prospects. The eighteen-year-old had been hoping to find some black-market drugs to fuel the celebration of his friend Andres's 22nd birthday, begun earlier that afternoon on a sooty avenue in Vedado, a formerly upper-class residential neighborhood. A group of six young men had gathered outside a boarded-up storefront and passed around a clear glass bottle of bathtub-brewed aguardiente, congratulating Andres amid stifled grimaces. By midnight half the group has drifted off in search of other entertainment. The three remaining revelers A Tigre, Andres, and Rodolfo, are joined by a female friend named Tatiana. She cuddles with Andres in the back seat while Tigre plots his strategy.

The roadway shimmers obsidian in the car's headlights. Tigre's head bobs with the combined weight of drug-procurement responsibilities and alcohol saturation. "Let's go to Johnny's," he finally announces, indicating a Havana nightclub in the posh district of Miramar, about a mile away.

Officially renamed the Rio Club after it was briefly shut down in an unsuccessful effort to deter drug trafficking, Johnny's is a favorite nightspot among a growing group of Cubans who can afford the five-dollar entrance fee (roughly equivalent to a month's salary for a recent college graduate) and still have money left over to buy drinks and drugs. This assures that the clientele is fairly homogenous, consisting predominantly of employees of the tourism industry and black-market entrepreneurs.

Tigre falls into the latter group. Until a few months ago A by his own account at least A he was one of the most popular drug dealers in Nuevo Vedado, a middle-class neighborhood of multilevel, concrete apartment buildings and Fifties-style single-family homes that follow the meandering path of the Almendares River. He had started using pills when he was thirteen years old at the urging of an older cousin, and soon began trafficking in pharmaceuticals. Then he graduated to harder drugs, buying cocaine, known on the island as merca, from a contact in Santos Suarez, a blighted neighborhood a few miles from the port. (In order to protect the identity of individuals interviewed for this article, last names have not been used. Most first names have been changed and some identifying details have been altered.)

"I take drugs every day," boasts Tigre, who explains that his nickname is lifted from the title of a popular novel, Sandokan, El tigre de la Malasia. Tigre laughingly describes himself as "king of the farmacia." "I can't live without drugs," he continues. "When I go out, I have to find drugs, because without them, I don't have a good time. All the kids do drugs. If they don't, they're fools."

Recent conversations with Cuba's increasingly disaffected youth confirm the prevalence of drug use among certain segments of the population. While alienated young people (known variously as rockeros, frikis, or pepillos) make no attempt to hide their enthusiasm for getting high, it is the more discreet users A factory workers who smoke pot in the evening, artists who snort cocaine for a burst of energy A who make up local drug dealers' principal customer base.

Although the Cuban drug business is minuscule by American standards, its very existence on an island where virtually every facet of life has been controlled by the government raises intriguing questions: How do drugs get to the island in the first place? Who controls their distribution? Is the government involved? Answers are difficult to ascertain.

Tigre claims to never have probed the source of his own supply. "Esto, nunca se sabe," he explains. No one ever knows exactly where the drugs originate. While marijuana is believed to be grown in remote areas of the Oriente and Pinar del Rio provinces, cocoa is neither cultivated nor processed in Cuba. Three dominant theories are offered to explain the source of Cuban cocaine: Tourists are assumed to smuggle in small quantities through the airport; a certain amount of cocaine is fished from the sea, leftovers of sloppy transfers between Colombian planes and speedboats bound for Florida; and over the years, persistent rumors, mostly originating in South Florida, have held that the Castro government itself has been involved in narcotrafficking.

Those rumors came to a head in April 1993, when the Miami Herald reported that the U.S. Attorney's Office had prepared a draft indictment alleging that Raul Castro, the Cuban president's younger brother, and fourteen other high-ranking Cuban military and intelligence officers conspired with Colombia's Medellin Cartel to ship at least 7.5 tons of cocaine through Cuba between 1980 and 1990. According to the Herald, the seventeen-page document stated, "In return for substantial sums of money, Raul Castro exploited his official position by offering narcotics traffickers the safe use of Cuba, including Cuban airspace, as a location for the transshipment of multihundred-kilogram loads of cocaine destined for the United States."

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