President Donald Trump’s administration has three major options regarding policy toward Cuba. He can roll back President Barack Obama’s controversial efforts to normalize America’s relationship with Cuba; maintain current arrangements; or negotiate a better deal, as yet unspecified, that expands U.S.-Cuban ties.
Regardless of what it eventually chooses to do more broadly, the new administration should maintain the existing framework of pragmatic security agreements that directly benefit U.S. national security interests. This cooperation began during the George W. Bush administration with low-level contacts between the U.S. Coast Guard and the Cuban Border Guard, and has evolved to include a variety of security areas. Some have argued that security coordination with Cuba should be frozen or terminated until Cuba takes steps to democratize, but such a move could undermine U.S. national security.
Given the high visibility of the embargo and other U.S. restrictions, most Americans do not know that the United States maintains low-key agreements with Cuba on a wide range of security matters. Far from the security relationships the United States typically develops with other nations, the dialogue with Cuba addresses functional areas advantageous to the United States. As the new administration considers the future of the bilateral relationship, Trump’s national security team should weigh carefully the benefits of maintaining and expanding this dialogue.
I recently returned from a six-day trip to Cuba, where our delegation examined the nature of current U.S.-Cuban security relations. We were briefed by the U.S. Embassy, the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. and Cuban academics, and members of the Cuban foreign, justice, and interior ministries. We also talked to many ordinary Cubans regarding the state of Cuban affairs and prospects for the future. What we heard, and what I believe, is that the bilateral agenda on security cooperation serves the United States’ interest. Here’s why.
First and foremost, the physical proximity and geographic location of Cuba make it vitally important for U.S. agencies to become familiar with their Cuban counterparts. Until relatively recently, most U.S. authorities did not even know whom to call in Cuba concerning potential maritime or environmental emergencies in the Straits of Florida. Should a renewal of oil exploration by Cuba result in an environmental catastrophe, South Florida beaches and fragile coastal ecosystems would suffer the consequences before Cuba. A terrorist attack on an international cruise liner in Cuban waters would require a U.S. search and rescue (SAR) mission. Fortunately, over the last four years both countries have established mechanisms to respond to such emergencies; returning to an era of no contact and of operating blindly in a crisis would be counterproductive.
In all, there are eight functional areas of ongoing dialogue and cooperation between the two countries. These range from SAR and environmental cooperation to law enforcement coordination counter-narcotics operations, and include efforts on cybersecurity and counterterrorism. Differences remain, but progress is steady. U.S. drug enforcement agents as well as the FBI, DHS, and officials in the Justice Department now have direct lines of communications with their Cuban counterparts and are establishing procedures and protocols that permit real-time cooperation during critical operations.
Rather than resorting to ad hoc measures in serious, life-threatening situations that demand better communication and coordination, the United States should consider ways to build on the pragmatic cooperation already underway. For example, the Trump administration could consider inviting Cuban professionals to attend U.S. counterterrorism courses at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies. During these sessions, civilian and military officials from many countries evaluate how to improve transnational responses to terrorist threats around the region. Professional security counterpart dialogues are an important component of building effective collaboration.
The United States cannot be naive -- it should not romanticize the relationship with Cuba. The United States has legitimate concerns about Cuba’s political system, its human rights practices, and its repressive treatment of political opponents.
Nevertheless, the ongoing framework for dialogue on critical security issues can mitigate costly future problems, especially during crises. Greater operations-level collaboration on vital issues of common interest will permit better preparation and preclude mutual suspicions when professional cooperation may be required to save U.S. lives. A new Trump administration policy toward Cuba should not discard valuable progress in the security sector.