By Isaac Risco
HAVANA TIMES – The Cuban government admitted today having sent “obsolete weapons” on board the North Korean ship detained on Monday at the Panama Canal, in an incident that caused angry reactions in the Central American country, reported DPA news.
The finding also caused slight misgivings in Washington due to sanctions prohibiting arms trading with North Korea and the traditional enmity between the US and Cuba.
The shipment is of “obsolete defensive weapons” from the Cuban arsenals, said the Foreign Ministry in Havana. The “half-century” old weapons were to be repaired and returned to Cuba, noted a Foreign Ministry statement.
Panamanian authorities detained the boat sailing under the North Korean flag on suspicion that it was arrying drugs and rejected the undeclared transport of weapons across the Channel. The “Chong Chon Gang”, which sailed from Havana bound for North Korea, was officially carrying sugar.
“We started to unload sugar and found two containers that presumably contained sophisticated missile equipment,” Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli told local radio on Monday after the ship’s detention.
“You can’t send undeclared war material by the Panama Canal because the Panama Canal is a channel of peace, not war,” stressed the president. Martinelli also published photos of the material seized on his Twitter account.
The armed police operation in the Panamanian port of Manzanillo was further tarnished by the resistance of the crew. After the start of the search operation, the ship’s captain attempted suicide amid a mutiny of the sailors, according to the official report. They are now reported to be in custody.
The incident came the day before the United States and Cuba are scheduled to resume migration talks after two years.
The Cuban government defended itself pointing to sending “obsolete weapons” for repair and the “need” to keep their “defense capability” to defend the country’s sovereignty.
Besides sugar, on the ship “were transported 240 tons of obsolete defensive armament,” confirmed the Cuban Foreign Ministry, pointing to “agreements” for the island to ensure its defense.
The shipment included “two Volga and Pechora antiaircraft missile complexes, nine rockets in parts and pieces, two Mig-21 Bis aircraft and 15 engines of this type of aircraft,” explained the Cuban government.
“All made in the middle of the last century,” he added. The models quoted are ancient weapons of Soviet manufacture. Until its demise in the early 90s, the Soviet Union was a close ally of Fidel Castro.
Likewise, Pyongyang’s communist government has close ties with Havana. The “Chong Chon Gang” was also carrying 10,000 tons of sugar, said the Foreign Ministry.
The Panamanian government, meanwhile, asked today to inspect the weapons on board the North Korean ship, retained in the port of Manzanillo, in the Caribbean province of Colon, 80 miles north of Panama City.
Panama has requested assistance from the United States and United Kingdom, local radio today quoted President Martinelli as saying. UN experts will also assist the country, explained Public Security Minister, Jose Raul Molino.
Until now there was no clear impact of the incident on the incipient rapprochement between the US and Cuba.
Although the US congratulated the Panamanian government for the seizure of military equipment, Washington was very careful when evaluating potential impacts against Havana and Pyongyang, indicating that there are still many details pending.
American conservatives demanded that the Obama administration put an “immediate” stop to the meeting with Cuba on immigration policies. This should not take place “until (Havana) gives clear and consistent answers about this incident,” said Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a leading Cuban-born opponent of any rapproachment between the two governments.