Robert Vesco, Cuba's Pawn


Cuba's detention of accused swindler and cocaine trafficker Robert Vesco as a possible prelude to extraditing him to the United States raises intriguing questions about relations between Washington and Havana. For the Castro regime to consider such a move is an unmistakable bid for reconciliation, especially since it comes after the Clinton administration's decision to send would-be Cuban refugees back to their homeland rather than accept them as legal immigrants.

If Vesco returns, he will bring with him a life story so smacking of salable fiction that he has tried to give his children legal ownership of its details. A high school dropout who turned into a financial wizard, he was indicted in 1972 on charges of bilking his own mutual fund company of $224 million. Involved was a fascinating political angle: an illegal $200,000 contribution to the Nixon re-election campaign in a bid to shut off a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation.

Once on the lam, he began a 23-year odyssey that took him to the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Antigua and finally to Cuba, where he has lived in opulence since 1982. It was from the latter base that he established a connection with jailed Colombian cocaine boss, Carlos Lehder, that led to a Jacksonville indictment in 1989 on drug-running charges. Washington officials have long sought to get their hands on alleged accomplice Vesco, but until now Fidel Castro saw little gain in offering him up.

The return of Vesco would not necessarily lead to a quick easing of U.S.-Cuban tensions. Only this week, the senior U.S. official at the Organization of American States meeting in Haiti said Cuba first must institute democracy and economic freedom before better relations can be considered. Though he did not make Mr. Castro's ouster a further precondition, it is ludicrous to identify the tough old communist with democracy. He has, however, allowed some reforms for his failed economy.

The Cuban-American community in Miami, with help from such drumbeaters as Sen. Jesse Helms, is still pressing to make the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba even tighter -- this to advance the claims of Cubans whose property was seized by the Castro regime. But the Clinton administration has reason to tilt cautiously in the other direction, perhaps by increasing the flow of people and ideas between the U.S. and Cuba.

Some officials believe a softer stance would help make life easier for the Cuban people and set the stage for the same kind of non-violent transition from Communism that occurred in the Soviet bloc. If Vesco's return aids in this process, it could be the first positive act of citizenship (albeit involuntary) in his law-breaking career.

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