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How to Build a Relationship With Havana
A strong partnership with Cuba is in America’s interest. Here are some ideas to forge bilateral ties.
The lone-star flag of Cuba was proudly raised over the “newest” embassy in Washington this week. Mojitos were served in the Ernest Hemingway bar in the lovely old Beaux Arts building, and there was much shouting of “Viva Cuba.” In a few weeks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will head down to the biggest island in the Caribbean to raise the American flag over the unlovely six-story concrete structure that has served as the U.S. interests section for decades and will now likewise become a full-fledged embassy.
Exchanging full diplomatic relations makes sense and is something that has been a long time coming. Albert Einstein is widely credited with saying that the deepest form of human insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” The U.S. embargo against Cuba long ago attained that level of globally recognized failure. U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has done the right thing, and hopefully we will see Congress follow suit on the economic side by lifting the sanctions. Given the overall commercial interest in Cuban investment as well as higher levels of farm sales, this seems likely.
What are interesting to consider are the next geopolitical steps in the process of rapprochement. There are some easy initial measures the United States should consider in the realm of security cooperation that would make sense and build confidence between the countries. Such initiatives could include counternarcotics, countersmuggling, disaster relief, humanitarian operations, medical diplomacy, migration, scientific research, and much more.
There are a handful of specific ideas that the United States should consider going forward — perhaps not in the present moment, but over the next couple of years as the country hopefully deepens this nascent relationship with Cuba:
Build on existing programs, such as counternarcotics.
Despite the long embargo and the lack of diplomatic recognition, the United States and Cuba have a mixed history of cooperation in a few specific areas. In particular, the two countries have done some low-level intelligence sharing on trends and patterns of drug trafficking. This has largely been handled in Cuba or at sea between the U.S. Coast Guard and Cuban forces. One thing to consider would be inviting Cuba to send a representative to the Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATFS) in Key West, Florida. This is the epicenter of counternarcotics surveillance and operational control for the United States and more than a dozen other partners from the region (and Europe, which receives much of the cocaine coming out of South America). Today some 13 countries have liaison officers based at JIATFS, including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, France, Mexico, the Netherlands, Peru, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Venezuela. Having a Cuban representative there would be a significant confidence-building measure (the Cubans believe JIATFS is a U.S. military intelligence facade, which it decidedly is not). Also, the Cubans have real information and intelligence to share.
Cooperate on humanitarian issues.
Cuba, like the United States, has a proud history of providing medical care throughout the region. Cuban doctors practice in a variety of countries, and their work is generally praised for its level of success even though they are handicapped by lack of advanced technology, newer drugs, and overall capacity. The United States, meanwhile, sends its massive hospital ship Comfort as well as several large-deck amphibious ships to the region. These vessels have advanced operating facilities, modern communication technologies, and sophisticated aircraft to move patients. Perhaps embarking a Cuban medical team in the next voyage of Comfort (a purely humanitarian vessel) would make sense. Medical diplomacy teaming the United States and China has occurred already in the Pacific. Why not in the Caribbean between the United States and Cuba?
Another significant humanitarian issue is the constant need to respond to hurricanes. The United States has provided much needed relief in the Caribbean when smaller nations there or in Central America are devastated by storms. There is much planning and stockpiling of relief goods that could be done as a team project between the United States and Cuba.
Think creatively about Guantánamo Bay.
The base at Guantánamo Bay is very contentious for the Cubans for a host of obvious reasons. Since the freezing of relations between the United States and Cuba nearly 55 years ago, no other issue has had such a powerful symbolic negative connotation than the ongoing “occupation” of the base. There is a certain inevitability about the base reverting to Cuban control; the United States has a long-held and intelligent policy of not having bases where they are not wanted by a sovereign state with which the United States has normal diplomatic relations. But an abrupt shift would be difficult to execute — especially given the presence of the detention center — and awkward for the administration as it works with Congress.
One solution might be an interim step on the way to eventually returning the base: internationalizing it. To do this, the United States should consider first finally closing the detention facility now that the number of prisoners has shrunk to around a hundred. Then it could make the base a center for counternarcotics, maritime logistics, humanitarian operations, medical diplomacy, stockpiling of relief supplies, emergency shelter for migrants, and other essentially apolitical tasks. Partners that are already participating in the Joint Interagency Task Force South might be willing to contribute. This would be a project that both Cuba and the United States could use to bring together other nations from around Latin America and the Caribbean.
Cuba is a huge island. When briefing the Bay of Pigs invasion in the White House, the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. David Shoup, showed a map of the United States to the president. Then he flipped down an overlay to show Cuba, which roughly stretched from Washington, D.C., to Chicago — some 700 miles. As we think ahead about the potential of this relatively large and potentially important Caribbean nation, we should be thinking not about how to invade, but how to partner with the best effect to create a more secure Caribbean and Latin America going forward.
Image credit: EPA/ANDREW HARNIK / POOL