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There are elements of life that defy reason. But that doesn't mean they can't be counted.
Each month the foreign-trade division for the United States Census Bureau tabulates, categorizes, subdivides and duly attaches a ten-digit commodity code to all export items leaving the country. The computerized figures are recorded on a compact disc, hauled to government-document depositories and then mostly ignored.
The quantification becomes an end in itself, each number a snowflake, falling, buried under the next. A little digging into this data blizzard, however, can turn up some curious statistics.
Take, for example, U.S. exports to Antigua, a 108-square-mile speck of coral in the Caribbean Sea. In the first five months of this year, the United States shipped 28 snowmobiles to the tropical island.
Common sense would dictate that a nation of 64,000 citizens and a climate that hasn't dipped below freezing since the Ice Age wouldn't need one snowmobile, let alone 28. At first, the statisticians in Washington were stumped when asked about this.
"Maybe it's the Jamaican ski team practicing down there," offered Gerald Kotwas, an employee in the foreign-trade division in Washington, D.C. Before he could be told that Jamaica imported to where? 42 snowmobiles of its own last year, Kotwas referred all questions on the subject to Paul Herrick, the Census Bureau's chief snowmobile counter.
hen asked about the unusual exports to Antigua, Herrick said it would take a day or two to track down the accuracy of the statistic. Apparently it wasn't as difficult a task as he anticipated. He called back within an hour to say an error had been made in information provided by the exporter -- the 28 snowmobiles were actually one automobile. Herrick cited Title 13 of the U.S. Trade Code in refusing to identify the exporters involved in the Antigua shipments.
Despite Herrick's explanation, further analysis of Census Bureau data shows snowmobiles sliding toward other questionable destinations. Most of the vehicles were shipped through Miami, according to the government data. Exceptions to this rule include the 25 exported to Bermuda from New York City and the 11 shipped from Philadelphia to Saudi Arabia. Through the end of May, the Bahamas had received 119 snowmobiles. Maybe other Caribbean and Central American countries were sent one or more shipments identified as snowmobiles.
The Census Bureau would not immediately verify the accuracy of their data. "I don't know each and every transaction that takes place over the course of a year," Herrick said. Herrick doubted the snowmobile exports could in any way be related to clandestine arms or drug shipments, but noted that his bureau isn't in the enforcement end. "Whether they're illegal exports is something [for the] Customs [service]," he said.
It's not clear what the information means, but there seems to be a correlation between snowmobile shipments and civil unrest in the Third World. Government figures show that El Salvador received 16 snowmobiles last year. During the same time, in a no-less-volatile part of the world, Croatia imported 78 of the vehicles. By comparison, in the first half of this year, Greenland, an Arctic country, imported only four snowmobiles.
A closer look at Antigua, however, is enough to raise more questions about the ostensible snowmobile exports. Over the past 15 years, the tiny island has been involved in three international arms scandals.
In 1978, Space Research, a Canadian company, used Antigua as a shipment point to send 155-mm howitzers to the racist regime in South Africa. The company was then headed by Gerald Bull. Bull was murdered in Brussels in 1990. There is speculation that the assassination was carried out by the Mosad, the Israeli intelligence agency. At the time of his death, Bull was known to be working with Saddam Hussein's regime in the development of a super-gun capable of firing missiles.
During the Reagan administration, the island was again used to funnel illicit arms -- this time to the Nicaraguan Contras, according to Tim Hector, the editor of the Outlet, a weekly newspaper in St. John's, the capital of Antigua.
More recently, Antigua has been used as a base to smuggle arms to the Medillin cocaine cartel in Colombia. The arms transfers, which were revealed in 1989, were the work of a group of retired workers from Israeli Military Industries (IMI), a company subsidized by the Israeli government. Israel, of course, receives billions in military aid from the United States. One of the IMI rifles that passed through Antigua was used in the 1989 assassination of Colombian presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan.
This story originally appeared in the Riverfront Times of St. Louis.