With a major leadership change taking place in Cuba—the first time in 60 years that a Castro will not be president—the time for U.S. engagement, especially on areas of critical importance, is now. It is not in U.S. government interests to pull back from engaging with Cuba, or to let domestic politics once again define foreign policy towards the island. With shared waters, shared challenges, and shared threats, the United States should maintain and deepen its cooperation with Cuba as First Vice President Miguel Díaz Canel assumes his new role as the island’s head of state. Failing to do so will only imperil U.S. national interests and threaten progress made on important areas of mutual concern.
As part of our work supporting U.S.-Cuba engagement, and dialogue on human rights and other issues, WOLA has been following U.S.-Cuba cooperation on security-related issues for more than two decades. We know that our security interests in cooperating with Cuba don’t fluctuate depending on who occupies the White House. On the contrary, issues such as human trafficking, drug smuggling, maritime safety, and environmental disasters are points of concern that all administrations and presidents—on both sides of the Florida Straits—must contend with.
Cooperating with Cuba, even in the midst of a chill in the bilateral relationship, is not without historical precedent.
Even the darkest periods of U.S.-Cuban relations have seen modest levels of cooperation in areas where both countries have had strong mutual interests, despite deep political and ideological differences.
For example, cooperation in air traffic control and related air safety issues between the Federal Aviation Administration and the Cuban Aeronautics Board dates back many years, while U.S. and Cuban weather services have exchanged information about meteorological conditions, storms and hurricanes, and related issues since the 1960s. Both countries have understood it is in their own self-interest to share information in these areas, and the relevant agencies in both countries have developed the trust needed to make cooperation successful.
Fast forward thirty years, and even as the Congress was passing legislation like the Torricelli Bill (in 1992) and Helms-Burton (which codified the U.S. embargo against Cuba in 1996), cooperation continued and expanded throughout the 1990s. During this period, and following the migration crises of 1994, the two countries signed a migration accord intended to ensure that migration from Cuba to the United States was safe and orderly. To implement that agreement, the two sides began meeting semi-annually (and have done so now for over twenty years, with only a few bumps along the way). The meetings then became a venue for both parties to raise other sensitive issues besides migration.
The mid-1990s also saw the U.S. government and Cuba begin more robust counter-narcotics cooperation. Following the exchange of information about several specific drug shipments bound for the United States, the two sides agreed to place a Coast Guard liaison officer at the then-U.S. Interest Section in Havana to facilitate cooperation with the Cuban Border Guard when drug traffickers moved through or near Cuban waters. Since then, there has always been a Coast Guard liaison officer at the Interest Section (now the U.S. Embassy). Both sides have unquestionably benefited from this arrangement.
Bilateral cooperation also survived during moments of great tension during the George W. Bush administration. After then-UN Ambassador (and current national security advisor) John Bolton (falsely) accused Cuba of developing biological weapons, cooperation continued. Even after the White House ordered the establishment of a plan for “Assistance to a Free Cuba,” the Coast Guard liaison position continued to exist, and the liaison officer continued his daily communication with his Cuban counterparts.
While cooperation has survived during periods of great hostility, it has thrived during periods of increased engagement.
U.S. -Cuban security cooperation expanded shortly after President Obama assumed office in 2009, and accelerated in 2012 when John Kerry became secretary of state. Indeed, scientific, environmental, and security cooperation continued to grow, even prior to the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations announced on December 17, 2014. In terms of security, the relationship between the Coast Guard and the Cuban Border Guard deepened, with new and expanded communication channels and information exchange mechanisms established between the two agencies. The two countries also created protocols for coordinating search-and-rescue efforts in the Florida Straits. Discussions began about naming a Regional Security Officer at the U.S. Interest Section to manage case-by-case discussions about law enforcement issues. Elsewhere, Cuba’s cyber-crime investigative agency began passing along information to units within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security about efforts to hack Cuban computer systems that were launched from the United States.
Once the two sides announced the re-opening of their embassies and the launching of the normalization process in December 2014, security cooperation deepened further still. In January 2017, these efforts culminated in a written memorandum of understanding between the two sides on law enforcement issues. The two sides agreed to establish specific working groups in nine separate areas to exchange information, share best practices, and direct operational coordination in specific cases. The working groups covered a broad range of topics including: counter-terrorism; counter-narcotics; cyber-crime and cyber security; human trafficking and immigration fraud; money laundering; and legal cooperation in criminal investigations.
During Obama’s last year in office, his administration tried to ensure that specific agreements in U.S.-Cuban relations were well enough established that they would be “irreversible,” even if the next administration was less inclined to continue along a similar track.
However, when it comes to U.S.-Cuba cooperation on security, the Trump administration has put this irreversibility to the test.
The White House has launched a broad Cuba policy review, in which cabinet secretaries solicited input from relevant agencies, and made recommendations to the White House about what, if any changes should take place in U.S. policy toward Cuba. Repeated press accounts have reported that the agencies recommended continuing current policy, including the Justice Department (including the DEA and the FBI), the Department of Homeland Security (with the Coast Guard and migration officials), and the State Department.
On the Cuban side, support for continuing cooperation has been strong and visible. In 2017, Cuban authorities gave a series of interviews to the U.S. press about counter-drug cooperation. They took the press on a tour of their cyber-crime facilities, and officials from the Cuban Ministry of the Interior, who rarely speak to the foreign press, talked about the value of security-related cooperation.
President Trump’s hardline speech and policy memo, released in June of 2017 (apparently ignoring the advice of most of his cabinet heads) sent a chill through the U.S.-Cuba relationship, but did not have any direct impact on security cooperation. Notably, nothing in the memo restricted existing cooperation, or prevented agencies from continuing technical dialogues.
The most challenging issue to set back security cooperation has been the U.S. decision to significantly cut back on U.S. Embassy staff in the wake of the health incidents (sometimes mistakenly called “sonic attacks”) that have affected some diplomatic personnel in Cuba. The restricted number of U.S. personnel who can visit or remain stationed in Cuba has been a significant factor in slowing down technical discussions on a wide range of security issues.
Still, despite the chill in the relationship, and the limits imposed by the embassy cutback, security cooperation has continued. The two sides have held migration talks in Washington, and in the course of those talks agreed on at least five additional technical exchanges on security issues to take place over the next six months. As a testament to how important both sides view continued cooperation, it is worth noting that Cuban authorities have been unusually flexible, agreeing to hold at least some of the talks in the U.S., even if reciprocity would suggest that they should take place in Cuba.
More broadly speaking, a year and a half into the Trump era, most forms of security cooperation have continued, despite tensions and skepticism on both sides. That cooperation is as important now as it has ever been, but unfortunately it is likely to be questioned and challenged throughout the rest of Trump’s term in office, should anti-Cuban rhetoric result in more hardline policy decisions.
The Trump administration should take a lesson from their predecessors—both Democrats and Republicans—about the importance of not abandoning cooperation with Cuba even when major disagreements exist.
Just two months ago, we saw a concrete example of the value of that cooperation—a wildfire threatened the perimeter of the U.S. military base at Guantanamo, and U.S. and Cuban firefighters worked jointly to control the blaze. Despite political tensions between Cuba and the United States over the Guantanamo base, both sides were able to come together to address a mutual threat. President Trump and his advisors should recognize why it’s in U.S. interest to continue and even expand this kind of security cooperation going forward.