WASHINGTON -- One day in the fall of 1984, the reigning lord of Colombian cocaine, Carlos Lehder Rivas, quietly dispatched an emissary to Cuba for an audience with Robert L. Vesco, the fugitive swindler wanted in the United States for stealing more than $200 million.
Under the patronage of the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, Mr. Vesco had set himself up in splendid exile. Living in a low-slung beachfront villa, Mr. Vesco owned two private jets, a half-dozen cars, and three boats that bobbed gently on the dazzling blue Caribbean waters.
But for all his wealth Mr. Vesco was far from idle.
During his 23 years on the run, intelligence officials, federal prosecutors and Western diplomats said, Mr. Vesco had reinvented himself as a white-collar buccaneer, plying the same Gulf Stream routes as the pirates of two centuries earlier. They said Mr. Vesco offered himself as a consultant, middleman, tutor and occasional deal maker to established dictators and a newly emerging criminal elite throughout the region.
But now Mr. Vesco's mansions are sealed and his fate is uncertain. Cuban officials yesterday confirmed that they have arrested him on suspicion of being a "provocateur and agent for foreign special services." In Washington, officials continued to wait this weekend to see if Havana planned to follow up the hints it dropped recently that Cuba planned to hand him over to U.S. authorities.
For all the new millions Mr. Vesco made by being of use to criminals and politicians over the years, he has not been able to secure one thing for himself or his family: a permanent home. If he is thrown out of Cuba, it will be only the last in a series of sudden evictions. In Costa Rica and in the Bahamas, Mr. Vesco (( has found that his notoriety has eventually either made him too hot to handle, or a useful bargaining chip.
Still, it was because Mr. Vesco had adroitly managed to maintain his high-level connections for so long that his arrest came as such a shock.
Mr. Vesco flexed those connections for the emissary of Lehder, the Colombian drug lord, among others. The emissary sought his help in persuading the Castro government to allow Lehder's cocaine flights to fly over Cuba en route to Andros Island in the Bahamas, a transshipment point for narcotics smuggled into the United States, according to a 1989 drug indictment against Mr. Vesco in Jacksonville, Fla.
A few days after the initial meeting, Mr. Vesco presented the emissary with a lucrative prize, an official Cuban government authorization for the overflight of Cuban territory. The indictment did not disclose how much Mr. Vesco may have been paid.
Separating fact from fiction about Mr. Vesco can be difficult: His shadowy fame has made him a convenient target for conspiracy theories, and his close ties to Mr. Castro have made him a favorite villain for the Cuban leaders' enemies.
But the officials and prosecutors interviewed say they believe that in the last decade, Mr. Vesco has, if anything, diversified his criminal portfolio, building on the skills he honed in boardrooms 20 years ago.
The officials said he has probably entered the cocaine trade himself, set up a sophisticated international money-laundering network, manipulated overseas corporations to smuggle U.S. goods into Cuba despite the trade embargo, bribed Caribbean officials, and advised others on where to invest their billions of dollars.
Clinton administration officials say they remain puzzled about Havana's motives for the arrest. Some speculated that Mr. Vesco may have outlived his political usefulness to the Castro government, which in recent months has sought closer relations with the United States.
Or, perhaps, as organized crime investigators put it, Mr. Vesco had flown too close to the flame in one of his underworld deals and offended one of his Cuban sponsors, who retaliated by arresting him and dangling his possible extradition to the United States.
The statement by the Cuban Foreign Ministry provided no details of what Mr. Vesco had done; neither did it indicate what country's intelligence service Mr. Vesco may have been working for.
It remained unclear yesterday whether the Cubans would return Mr. Vesco to the United States.