Latin America Debates the Cuban Sugar Missile Crisis

Panama’s capture this week of a North Korean ship with suspected surface-to-air weapons equipment stored among 10,000 tons of Cuban sugar is the stuff of spy movies.  

Panama's capture this week of a North Korean ship with suspected surface-to-air weapons equipment stored among 10,000 tons of Cuban sugar is the stuff of spy movies. It certainly had drama. The 35-man crew apparently rioted and sabotaged the ship. The captain allegedly tried to commit suicide. Panama's President, Ricardo Martinelli, personally inspected the vessel, tweeted a photo of the cargo and issued a stern warning in a radio broadcast: "The world needs to sit up and take notice: You cannot go around shipping undeclared weapons of war through the Panama Canal."

The un-Hollywood aspect of the fiasco is the pathetic obsolescence of the bad guys. As consulting firm IHS Jane's put it, Cuba "could be sending the system to North Korea for an upgrade. In this case, it would likely be returned to Cuba and the cargo of sugar could be a payment for the services." There's something about using barter to repair Soviet-era military equipment that spells irrelevance.

The second scenario posited by IHS Jane's, that "the radar equipment is being sent to North Korea to augment its existing air defense network," is worse. Being forced to tap the Castro brothers for military technology is sad.

The case, identified in the Twitter-sphere under the hash-tag #MisilesdeAzucar (#SugarMissiles), has laid bare a piece of well-worn Cuban propaganda: that the island has a strong military. In an official statement, Cuba's foreign ministry admitted the captured materials were "obsolete defensive weaponry." Cuban celebrity blogger Yoanis Sanchez put it bluntly in a Wednesday tweet: "As a citizen I need someone to explain this to me. The country's weaponry is obsolete? Or are we invulnerable militarily?"

Cuba's economy is certainly not invulnerable. The country is slowly but painfully restoringmarket logic to a system based on state control, but the Castro regime is still much to blame for the country's food shortages. Eudel Cepero, one of Sanchez's followers, made a fair point in a response to the Sanchez tweet: "And who authorized this stupid barter of sugar (which the people lack) to repair obsolete weapons?" Then again, Cubans might have trouble openly answering this question in a country where basic freedom of speech is the ultimate luxury.

Cuba's history of obscure dealings makes one wonder how much corruption was involved in the botched deal. Alfredo Gutierrez, a former candidate for mayor in Managua, Nicaragua, replied to Sanchez by warning that Cuba could be taking a page from the shady weapons sales of Nicaragua's fallen communist leaders: "Ask yourselves and demand explanations of why they are sending these hidden weapons. Maybe the Castros are selling off part of the arsenal."

Cuba has certainly done worse things for cash. In the 1980s, Interior Ministry officials, seeking foreign exchange, allowed drug kingpins to use Cuban airspace and soil to smuggle drugs to the U.S. Fidel Castro's regime quickly tried and executed General Arnaldo Ochoa, a military hero, along with other top officials.

North Korea is now demanding the ship be set free, but has very little moral authority to do so. As the local Panama America newspaper pointed outin a Thursday editorial: "If these really were obsolete weapons destined for repair, why were they hidden under a sugar cargo and why weren't they declared in the cargo manifest?" Panama's La Critica was more direct in itseditorial that same day: "Panama can't allow the transit of undeclared weapons. Cuba, North Korea and any other nation need to respect that."

The biggest winner of the saga may have been President Martinelli, whose speech defending the canal's laws made him look like a statesman. The U.S. praised his handling of the affair. Panama's La Prensa newspaper captured another notion in a cartoon that depicts Martinelli using the scandal to divert Panamanian public opinion from local troubles such as government corruption and rising prices.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Cuba's closest allies, such as Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, Ecuador's Rafael Correa and Argentina's Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who recently -- and loudly -- denounced the search of Bolivia's presidential plane for Edward Snowden, have been remarkably silent on this latest controversy. Smuggling weapons, however obsolete they may be, through the Panama Canal is tricky to defend.

The North Korean ship could yield still more surprises, but those expecting a return of a dangerously armed Cuba should rest easy. As Sanchezput it, this is nothing but a "Cuban Sugar Missile Crisis."

(Raul Gallegos is the Latin American correspondent for the World View blog. Followhim on Twitter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.