Despite the ups and downs in the political and diplomatic relationship, bilateral cooperation between the United States and Cuba still needs to continue, if only because the countries are so close geographically and have many security and other interests in common. Enduring relationships, such as those between the Coast Guard and Cuban Border Guard, are a testament to what can be accomplished when common ground is established through areas of mutual security concern. As the only branch of the armed forces with law enforcement statutory authority, the Coast Guard’s unique authorities improve international engagement and security cooperation in complex political environments. This distinctive instrument of U.S. soft power is not widely understood nor well documented, and the Coast Guard’s longstanding relationship with the Cuban Border Guard is no exception.
This research examines the Coast Guard’s maritime security relationship with the Cuban Border Guard—before, during, and after normalization—through a qualitative case study comparison of five distinct mission areas: drug interdiction, migrant interdiction, search and rescue, marine environmental protection, and port security. The Coast Guard’s early, incremental successes with the Cuban Border Guard represent important foundational building blocks, positioning this well-established security relationship for considerable growth and expanded cooperation during the Obama administration’s thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations. Furthermore, implications of the Coast Guard’s relationship with the Cuban Border Guard as a model for use with other countries, especially those with political differences that otherwise limit constructive dialogue and cooperation, is also considered. Finally, by reviewing the after effects of the Trump administration’s rollback of U.S.-Cuba policy, specifically the impacts on the Coast Guard-Cuban Border Guard security relationship, it can be recognized that such a policy reversal does not serve the national security interests of the United States.
The operational focus of the Coast Guard’s maritime security cooperation with the Cuban Border Guard, combined with measured growth in mission areas of mutual concern, are key factors in the long-term success of this important relationship. The Coast Guard’s investment in the permanent in-person liaison position at U.S. Embassy Havana is another key factor that signals commitment to a cooperative relationship built on trust and mutual respect. Expanded cooperation between Coast Guard and Cuban authorities across multiple mission areas during normalization is also noteworthy. In fact, the Coast Guard-Cuban Border Guard relationship served as a catalyst for broader bilateral law enforcement cooperation. The United States and Cuba negotiated and signed multiple security arrangements, developed new frameworks for the exchange of information, and expanded security dialogues across the law enforcement spectrum.
With no significant concentration of bilateral security exchanges since early 2018, the United States should take steps to reinvigorate important dialogues on counternarcotics, illegal migration, counterterrorism, and mass rescue operations, among others. Instead of using the still unexplained health incidents as an excuse to marginalize U.S.-Cuba relations, the United States should collaborate with Cuba’s scientific and medical experts in the continued search for an explanation. The following recommendations encourage a return to increased law enforcement cooperation with Cuban authorities and best serve the national security interests of the United States:
(1) Renew counterdrug cooperation and information sharing. This renewal would likely lead to increased drug disruptions and interdictions, as well as deter further expansion of drug trafficking networks.
(2) Restore Embassy Havana diplomatic staffing, reestablish consular services, and return to commitments outlined in the migration accords. Although illegal migration from Cuba to the United States has continued to trend down substantially since the 2017 repeal of wet foot/dry foot, increased sanctions combined with the challenges of currency reunification, COVID-19, and the lack of accessible consular services have pressurized the possibility of another wave of illegal migration.
(3) Rekindle the periodic reciprocal exchange series between the Coast Guard and Cuban Border Guard. Search and rescue is a mainstay in this longstanding security relationship, but the last semi-annual technical exchange took place in January 2018. The maritime safety and security implications associated with these areas of mutual concern are too significant to ignore.
(4) Now that the United States and Cuba have established a shared framework for oil spill response and contingency planning, continued cooperation in this relatively new but critical area of mutual security concern should be encouraged.
(5) Finally, regardless of whether maritime travel and trade builds back to normalization era levels under President Biden, port security cooperation must continue to play an important role moving forward.
Despite Trump’s traditional hardline approach regarding Cuba, none of the 22 signed bilateral agreements stemming from normalization were vacated. The Biden administration should take this opportunity to renew bilateral security cooperation in areas of mutual concern, including the Coast Guard’s longstanding relationship with the Cuban Border Guard.