With more than 45 years experience in foreign trade, Cubaexport has earned prestige among the companies in Japan, Canada, Europe and the Americas that specialize in honey, coffee, cocoa and other products. That prestige may be affected by what some call a misunderstanding and others a plot against Cuba.
The alarm was sounded by the Spanish news agency EFE on April 14, when it quoted a statement from the Panamanian National Police, saying it had seized 401 kilograms of cocaine (884 pounds) in a ship docked at the port of Colón. The drug reportedly was found in a container put on board at the port of Mariel, Cuba, with Belgium as its final destination.
That preliminary information was enough to question Cuba’s commitment to the fight against drug trafficking.
But even the Panamanian officials had to reverse that statement after Cuban authorities did an investigation, put a name and number to the container, located its origin and revised its documentation.
The container had been put aboard in Sancti Spiritus and contained honey in 60 metal drums, each weighing 200 liters (53 gallons). The honey was made by bees, not from sugar cane, as the Panamanian police had originally stated.
The preliminary result of the investigation was published by Cuban Customs in an official note that traced the shipment thus: On March 6, 2016, the 20-foot container CLHU-387265-2 was received at the port of Mariel’s container terminal. It arrived by rail from Sancti Spiritus and was loaded on March 23 aboard the MSC Canberra Container.
The ship left Mariel the following day, bound for the Bahamas, with 791 containers aboard. It arrived in Panama on April 5, where the cargo was to be transshipped, with Antwerp (Belgium) as its final destination.
“After the appropriate investigation,” the note states, “a review of the X-ray images and of the procedures established for the inspection of containers, the General Customs of the Republic of Cuba can state categorically that container CLHU-387265-2 did not carry drugs in its structure or in the metal drums that carry the honey. Therefore, the report by the agency EFE lacks all foundation.”
The Panamanian authorities are backtracking and acknowledging that, of course, the drugs could have been loaded in the Panamanian port of Colón, a place where the Progreso Weekly team cannot go.
Where the PW team can go is the Sancti Spiritus Honey Processing Plant, a center that has found itself in the midst of an international brouhaha that could stain its image and is described by its officials as unexpected and unwanted.
The path of the honey
In charge of filtering and homogenizing 70 percent of the honey produced by Cuban bee keepers, the plant in Sancti Spiritus is one of Cuba’s two processing plants. The other one is in Santiago de Cuba; it processes the honey from the eastern provinces.
To improve the quality of its processes, the company recently recalibrated its equipment and checked closely its protocols. That scrupulous liturgy resulted in the issuance of the certification and guarantees that render it suitable to ship honey to the European Union.
Perhaps for that reason, the workers at the plant remain astounded. They cannot understand how a process that has been minutely verified by experts, security TV and supervisors can be under suspicion.
To emphasize that it was not in Sancti Spiritus where the misunderstanding originated, Delso Viciedo, the plant’s trade specialist, explains the guarantees inside the building and describes the path of the honey when it is shipped out, under the jurisdiction of the International Services of Supervision Cubacontrol, S.A.
Practically living in the plant during the days when each lot is shipped, the Cubacontrol workers take responsibility for their individual duties. “I can assure you that in this case there were no irregularities,” says Francisco José Prado Gómez, a specialist in mercantile shipments.
“I supervised that particular shipment,” he says, “and followed the routine we now know by heart.” By “routine” he means doublechecking the weight of the product, the parameters of quality depending of the clients’ requirements, the cleanliness, the placing of seals, the loading of the cans inside the containers — all that supported by photographs and ample testimonial documentation.
According to Prado Gómez, once placed in the container, the honey drums begin a long trip by land to the loading and unloading centers at Ciego de Ávila or Villa Clara (Sancti Spiritus does not have one of its own) and then are sent by rail to the Container Terminal at the Mariel Special Development Zone.
That’s the standard route, the specialist says. In this particular case, the cargo went through the loading center at Villa Clara, because its Ciego de Ávila counterpart was not in operation from January to mid-March.
The journey is clearly a long one, and at every stop the sources we consulted told us the same: slipping 401 kilos of cocaine into 60 drums of honey without arousing suspicion is out of the question.
Even though the Panamanian authorities admit that the cocaine did not come from Cuba, the damage has been done. Still, Cubaexport relies on the understanding of its clients, which may be accustomed to the systematic campaigns of discredit against the island.
“So far, we’ve had no repercussions,” says Isabel O’Reilly, director general. “No client has voiced any doubts over this case, which casts a pale over the country’s credibility.”
What was this shipment of Belgium-bound Cuban honey doing in Panama?
“Because it was being transshipped to an ocean-going steamship,” O’Reilly told the provincial newspaper Escambray. “It’s a procedure we must follow in Panama and other countries because of the limitations imposed upon us. The proof that there were no problems, that the cocaine did not originate in Cuba, is that the cargo is now reaching its destination.”
[Top photo: Seventy percent of all Cuban bee honey is processed at the Sancti Spiritus plant / Osvaldo Pestana]