U.S. Coast Guard–Cuban Border Guard Cooperation: Opportunity to Leverage an Established Relationship
By: Mike Cribbs
U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba has changed dramatically since last December, culminating with the U.S. embassy reopening in Havana. While Cuba-U.S. relations over the past 50 plus years have been adversarial, there are areas where the two have collaborated. Frequently, this cooperation has been between the U.S. Coast Guard and the Cuban Border Guard. The two agencies have worked together to counter narcotics trafficking, intercept migrant smugglers, and rescue Cubans attempting to cross the Florida Straits in unseaworthy craft. These areas are fertile ground for bolstering cooperation.
The United States has more than 40 counter-drug bilateral agreements with other nations. These agreements codify a framework for sharing information and streamlining authorizations to pursue vessels suspected of drug smuggling into partner nation territorial seas. A similar agreement should be formalized with Cuba. The Department of State’s annual International Narcotics Control Strategy report consistently notes Cuba’s superb counter-drug policies and aggressive enforcement efforts. Because of its strong rapport with the Cuban Border Guard, the Coast Guard is the best choice among U.S. military services to engage formally with its Cuban counterparts on counter-narcotics. The U.S. Coast Guard has extensive experience operating with its equivalent services in countries around the globe and is ideally positioned to conduct maritime security cooperation exercises with the Cuban Border Guard to exchange tactics, techniques, and procedures and work toward interoperability.
Establishing a bilateral agreement that allows counter-drug intelligence sharing and a ship rider program (Cuban Border Guard operational liaison deployed on U.S. Coast Guard cutters) is a prudent step in the U. S. counter-narcotics strategy. It could also serve as a low-risk means of normalizing relations between the two countries. The potential strength of this relationship was on display at the U.S. flag raising ceremony in Havana where the Coast Guard commandant, Admiral Paul Zukunft, served as the senior Department of Homeland Security representative and senior U.S. military officer. Expanding Coast Guard engagement with the Cuban Border Guard could provide a valuable inroad for overall relations between the two countries.