WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
24 Mar 2012 | Commentary

Building Bridges in Unlikely Places: U.S.-Cuban Cooperation on Security Issues

By George Withers

Many people in the United States have a dire view of the state of military affairs between the United States and Cuba. This is partly due to our history with the revolutionary government of Fidel Castro in general and especially because of the extremely tense Cold War confrontations in the 1960s. The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, which was carried out by Cuban exiles in 1961 (and supported by the CIA), and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis are the two most dramatic examples. Today, we hear exaggerated accounts and saber-rattling threats against Cuba and the Castros from presidential candidates during their primary debates, with Rick Santorum describing a “jihadist network” happy to have a “platform” 90 miles from the coast of the United States, and Newt Gingrich proposing covert activities to overthrow the Cuban regime. The perceived danger of having a communist nation in close proximity continues to concern many people in the United States.

So it may come as a surprise that the relations between the U.S. and Cuban militaries are actually quite civil. In fact, military personnel from the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay and officers from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba regularly meet at the gate that separates them for what have become known as “Gate Talks.” These talks, by all accounts, are fruitful and are noted for their high degree of mutual respect.

What’s more, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Cuban Border Guard also work together on several issues of mutual interest. Drug interdiction, migration, and search-and-rescue of people in distress at sea are important issues for the United States and Cuba. Given this common interest, the two organizations have cooperated over time, mostly on a case-by-case basis.

There is room for even more cooperation, however. The two countries would benefit from reaching beyond the case-by-case model and establishing increased communication, interoperability, and mutual response protocols in all of these areas. More direct and regular contact between the U.S. Regional Security Officer in Cuba and the Cuban Ministry of Justice would also enhance mutually desired law enforcement results. Cuba and the United States may be at odds on political matters for a long time to come, but these are issues in which both sides have a practical self-interest in cooperation.

According to press reports, the U.S. Coast Guard drug interdiction specialist at the U.S. Interest Section in Havana has an unspoken role as the key contact with Cuba on a whole range of non-Coast Guard issues as well. Over time, these reports indicate that the person assigned to that position has developed a high degree of trust with their Cuban counterparts and has taken on a key diplomatic role as a result.

Each year the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs issues a report on the efforts of key countries to attack all aspects of the international illicit drug trade. Notably, in the recently released 2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), the State Department gave Cuba exceptionally high marks in their efforts. In all areas, including institutional development, supply reduction, demand reduction, and bilateral cooperation, the INCSR was complimentary of Cuba’s anti-drug efforts, noting that “Cuba and the United States share a mutual interest in reducing drug flows in the vicinity of the island, and in 2011 Cuba maintained a significant level of cooperation with U.S. counternarcotics efforts.”

While it is evident that those at the working level in both governments see the benefits that cooperation would bring for both countries, any room for improvement seems to be stalled by the political dynamics at play at the higher levels. The two sides’ inability to resolve the case of Alan Gross, the USAID subcontractor now incarcerated in Cuba, is a major obstacle to movement toward increased cooperation and an example of the politics at play.

While those politics, whether in a jail in Cuba or on the campaign trail in the United States, present a continuing and frustrating roadblock to improving cooperation, it is more important than ever to continue to look for new avenues to expand such cooperation. To this end, WOLA has led delegations to Cuba on a variety of issues. While WOLA has criticized aspects of U.S. drug policy and raised questions about the role of the U.S. military in the hemisphere, we have also looked at the potential for enhancing mutually beneficial security operations and cooperation, in an effort to improve regional security and toward an overall improvement of U.S.-Cuban relations.


George Withers specializes in security and defense issues in relation to Latin America, and he is a key contributor to WOLA's Regional Security Policy program. Mr. Withers co-authored Ready, Aim, Foreign Policy, a study of the Pentagon’s increasing role in foreign policy decisions, as well as Preach What you Practice, which argues for the separation of military and police roles in Latin America. He has traveled to Cuba on several research trips.