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Unlikely Allies: U.S. and Cuban Armed Forces

By William M. LeoGrande

"I eat breakfast 300 yards from 4,000 Cubans who are trained to kill me," sneered Guantánamo base commander Marine Col. Nathan R. Jessup, Jack Nicolson's character in the hit movie A Few Good Men. As an isolated U.S. military outpost on Cuban territory, Gitmo was a flashpoint for conflict after the 1959 revolution. U.S. soldiers on the base and Cuban soldiers surrounding the periphery exchanged insults, threw stones, and occasionally fired bullets across the fence. But the decision by President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro in December 2014 to normalize relations has opened an as yet unexplored opportunity for mending fences: military cooperation.

As a strategic partner of the Soviet Union, Cuba posed real national security challenges for the United States. Washington considered attacking the island during the 1962 Missile Crisis, in 1975 when Havana sent troops to Angola, and in the 1980s when Cuba backed revolutions in Central America. In 1983, when the United States invaded the tiny island of Grenada, U.S. and Cuban forces engaged each other in combat for the first time. But with the end of the Cold War, Cuban troops came home, the military shrank by more than half, and its mission shifted to homeland defense.

Defending the island against possible U.S. attack remains a core mission for the Cuban military, but as the likelihood of invasion recedes, other missions have arisen—especially the fight against drug trafficking and responses to natural disaster. As it happens, these have also become core missions of U.S. Southern Command (Southcom).

On Jan. 29, representatives from 18 Caribbean countries—including Cuba, for the first time—wrapped up the 14th Caribbean Nations Security Conference, cosponsored by Southcom. The decision to invite Cuba signals the Pentagon's interest in building closer ties with one of Cuba's most important political institutions.

Despite a history of hostility that brought the United States and Cuba close to war more than once, today the two countries have more security interests in common than in conflict. "We share challenges, all of the countries across this region," explained Southcom commander U.S. Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd. "Cuba is one of those countries. And so I believe in the future we'll have opportunities to find ways to work together."

There is precedent. During the chaos of the 1994 Cuban migration crisis, chief of the U.S. Atlantic Command Gen. Jack Sheehan contacted the Cuban military commander outside Guantánamo to avoid an unintended clash. The resulting "fence line" talks became a monthly event, held on the line marking the base perimeter. In 2002, Raúl Castro, then minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, praised the "atmosphere of cooperation, of mutual respect and collaboration," at the talks, suggesting they could be a model for a broader dialogue.

Fighting narcotic trafficking has been another area of cooperation. Since 1999, a U.S. Coast Guard officer has been posted at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, serving as liaison on drug interdiction and a wide range of other security concerns. Coast Guard cooperation was "the most effective and closest [area] of U.S.-Cuba engagement," wrote U.S. diplomat Jonathan Farrar from Havana in 2009.

U.S. and Cuban military professionals have been interested in deepening contacts with one another for years, but they were blocked by hostile diplomatic relations. Inviting Cuba to the Caribbean regional security conference was a good first step, but much more could be done in light of the coincidence between the missions of U.S. Southern Command and Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces.

Southcom's 2015 annual posture statement identifies transnational crime (especially narcotics and human trafficking) and natural disasters as key threats to regional security. These are priorities for Cuba as well. The Department of State's 2015 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report praised Cuba's counter-narcotics policies, and Cuba is world famous for sending rapid response medical teams to countries struck by disaster, most recently Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and West Africa during the 2014 Ebola epidemic—occasions when U.S. and Cuban responders worked together effectively on the ground.

To deepen cooperation, Washington could invite Cuba to participate in U.S. training and support programs on drug interdiction, and to participate in regional joint exercises. Southcom's annual "Tradewinds" exercise focuses on improving the capability of Caribbean nations to counter transnational organized crime and respond to a natural disasters. The "Fuerzas Aliadas Humanitarias" (Humanitarian Allied Forces) exercise focuses on responding to natural disaster. Cuba could contribute to both.

Building military-to-military cooperation offers benefits for the United States: it will strengthen regional capacity to deal with narcotics trafficking, human trafficking, and humanitarian crises. It will open channels of communication for use in an emergency to avoid misunderstandings that could lead to conflict. And it will build confidence in the broader process of normalizing relations among those who have traditionally been most skeptical—the military forces who have seen each other as enemies for half a century. As Cuba and the United States build a more normal bilateral relationship, military cooperation is an important piece of the puzzle.

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William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, DC and coauthor with Peter Kornbluh of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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