What would a future US-Cuba security cooperation agreement look like?

Asha Castleberry is a U.S. National Security Expert and U.S. Army Veteran.  She is an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project (ASP) and a member of the Truman National Security Project Defense Council. She tweets at @ashacastleberry.


The purpose of the article is to discuss how U.S.-Cuban ties will help better enhance U.S. National Security in Latin America.  The landmark relationship will bolster the U.S. to counter emerging security threats, reshape detainee operations in Guantanamo Bay, strengthen future contingency response missions and building partner nation capacity.  

The establishment of diplomatic ties with Cuba is the beginning of a new era for U.S. Foreign Policy & National Security.  What comes along with this relationship is a new bilateral security agreement.  This phenomenon reminds me of a scene from the movie Bad Boys II, where Will Smith and Martin Lawrence accidently ended up on Cuban soil chasing a big time criminal.  They chased the villain all the way to the fence of Guantanamo Bay.  However, the U.S. Navy could not help them as long as the convict was on Cuban soil.  This movie illustrated the importance of a working relationship with Cuba in order to pursue, for example, search warrants, rescue missions or any other criminal activities within Cuba.

Hollywood has helped us realize that there is a clear need to have a security cooperation with Cuba in the 21st century.  In the next 10-15 years, this relationship will lead to a strong security agreement with Havana, but only if the momentum continues beyond the current administration.  In the final inning, the Obama administration is doing everything they can to secure long term partnership.  This new partnership is also going to positively impact our military operations in the broader region.

Overtime, the U.S. has learned that it is in our national security interest to invest in a bilateral security cooperation with Cuba. A closed relationship has been nothing but counterproductive for U.S. national security and regional stability.  The old approach of isolating Cuba has hurt our ability to address a gamut of regional security challenges.  U.S. combatant command in the region (USSOUTHCOM) has therefore experienced operational limitations, which often leads to complications for maritime security, navigation services, countering human trafficking, search & rescue missions, and counter narcotics. So, it is rather difficult to implement critical mission priorities without cooperation from all regional partners.

Since the start of opening talks with Havana, both countries have already launched new bilateral security initiatives.  In May 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry signed off on rescinding Cuba from the “state sponsor of terrorism” list.  These two countries have also signed several statements pledging cooperation in law enforcement, counter narcotics, counterterrorism, transnational crime and cybercrime.  The U.S. and Cuba also pledged to cooperate with joint contingency operations for bilateral coastal security, disaster risk reduction and oil spill prevention and responses.

In the near future, the security agreement will expand significantly.  USSOUTHCOM is responsible for providing contingency planning, operations, and security cooperation in Central America, South America and the Caribbean.  This new partnership will strengthen intelligence assets, logistical support, communications, interagency relationships and additional assets from the open relationship.  Based on USSOUTHCOM priorities, here are several ways in which new diplomatic ties will change USSOUTHCOM role.


Detainee Operations & Guantanamo Bay.

The reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba will make it easier to facilitate the closure of Guantanamo Bay. The current administration believes that keeping Guantanamo Bay open is cost inefficient.  Despite Congressional opposition, the current administration remains persistent in wanting to close the base. Joint Task Force Guantanamo currently has marching orders from Washington to continue reducing the detainee population. This is good news for Havana.  Since 1959, the Cuban government has been against U.S. use of the base.  Nevertheless, at the same time, the U.S. Naval Station at Gitmo has been a strategic location for contingency operations and humanitarian and natural disaster relief missions in the region.  Instead of completely removing our presence, it is in our vital interest to secure some sort of posture.  Open diplomatic relations will be able to assist in negotiating these issues from the Ambassadorial level consistently.

Counter Terrorism & Transnational Organized Crime.

An open relationship with Cuba will enhance the ability for the U.S. to enforce a regional counterterrorism and counter transnational organized crime strategy.  U.S.-Cuba relations have already entered phase one by pledging to work on cooperative measures together.  The expectation is to enhance joint intelligence sharing and interagency collaboration with the Cuban government.  For example, both countries have launched preliminary discussions about cybercrime.  This will, in turn, help better address the transfer of information from global terrorist networks in Latin America.  In fact, terrorist groups like Lebanese Hezbollah and ISIS also have supporters and sympathizers in Latin America. This has been seen in the significant number of foreign fighters and returnees that come back to Latin America.  On the internet, ISIS has also called for the capture of key areas in Latin America.

Also, stronger diplomatic ties will enable USSOUTHCOM to carry out stronger law enforcement measures against the flow of illicit trafficking.  Prior to the reestablishment of relations, for many years Cuba and U.S. law maritime enforcement covertly collaborated on countering narcotics and other illicit activities. The U.S. Coast Guard and the Cuban Border Security maintained productive exchanges, but these were limited. The restoration of diplomatic ties will expand the U.S.’s ability to jointly address the drug trade issues involving Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean.  The U.S. and Cuba can further pursue joint intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) work that they are conducting with other regional partners.  USSOUTHCOM is currently assisting Guatemala and Honduras in enhancing their ISR capabilities that helps drug tracking seizures.


Contingency Response. 

U.S.-Cuban diplomatic ties will provide us more access and insight with Cuba into contingency response operations, such as natural disasters, mass migration and the spread of epidemics.  In preparation for unexpected future contingency missions, an open relationship with Cuba will enable USSOUTHCOM to work effectively on joint missions and prevent a situation similar to the effects from 2008 Hurricane Katrina.  Because there were no formal communications with Cuba, the Bush Administration could only decline Cuban medical assistance.  Now, both countries will continue working together like they did, side by side, against the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.  Also, Cuba will be interested in USSOUTHCOM multinational disaster preparedness.  The multinational disaster preparedness provides technical aid and assistance to build disaster relief institutions.


Security Cooperation and Building Partner Nation Capacity.

A strong building partner nation capacity (BPNC) agreement with Cuba will help USSOUTHCOM meet expectations for all mission priorities.  Former USSOUTHCOM commander, John F. Kelly explained that a strategy of engagement with Cuba will help mitigate the threats and risks.  Through military to military engagements, the U.S. and Cuba will be able to develop a 21st century security partnership through theater security cooperation activities. The purpose of the theater security cooperation is to engage mil-to-mil activities with Cuban partners involving planning, training, and equipment.  In exchange, Cuba’s interest in taking part in U.S. theater security cooperation will continue to grow.  After the historic subsidies cuts from the Soviet Union, the Cuban Ministry shifted to European states and regional allies for financial support and additional training.  Facing economic cuts from Venezuela, the Cuban defense budget heavily relies on financial support from Caracas, may cause Havana to seek military assistance from the U.S.

The Cuban Ministry of Defense of the Revolutionary Armed Forces would have to authorize a theater security cooperation program that consists of a comprehensive engagement plan.  The plan will include key leadership engagements and an exercise program. The purpose of this is to establish relationships, meet partnership expectations, and address any future issues. The Ministry of Defense will have to figure out at what level they would like to engage with this.    Furthermore, the Ministry of Defense will have to decide how they will participate in USSOUTHCOM multilateral exercises.   The Cuban government would probably take part in major multilateral exercises like PANAMAX 2014, in which seventeen partners from Latin America focused on the defense of Panama.  This future exercise will provide experiences for the Cuban Armed Forces to participate in more multilateral exercises with the United States.  Since the Cuban defense budget allocates their expenditures for peacekeeping operations – this will allow Cubans to participate in US-led peacekeeping exercises, like Peacekeeping Operation North.

Also, USSOUTHCOM and Cuba can develop their own bilateral or multilateral exercises, like the Fuerzas Aliadas Humanitarias (FAHUM), an annual exercise designed to respond to major natural disasters.  Furthermore, the Cuban Ministry of Defense may consider signing up for a State Partnership Program with the U.S. National Guard.  Already, twenty-two countries in the SOUTHCOM Area of Responsibility maintain a state partnership program.  Cuba can also send a Cuban Liaison Officer to USSOUTHCOM Headquarters like many regional partners have done, that can help facilitate building partnership nation capacity.

The historic move to reopen relations with Havana gives the US both the ability and credibility to show their commitment for regional security in Latin America. It is essential that the next administration should continue normalizing relations with Cuba which has proven to be beneficial for our national security.  There are challenges that may slow down this progress. First, USSOUTHCOM has experienced continuous reductions in their budget. These cuts will disable USSOUTHCOM’s ability to provide the necessary resources for future security projects with Cuba.  Second, Congress must repeal the trade embargo.  The trade embargo is a huge burden to our relationship with Cuba.  In addition, many Latin American countries have viewed the embargo unfavorably.  Third, the U.S. military must restore U.S. leadership with the Cuban government, alongside savvy diplomacy, as they are both competing against other countries.  The Monroe Doctrine has already been defeated by both Chinese and Russian influences in the region.  General John F. Kelly reported during a Senate hearing that Chinese military engagement is expanding, with limitations in the Caribbean.  China also plays a major role in Cuba’s Foreign Military Sales program. Due to China’s growing participation in UN peacekeeping operations, there is a possibility that the Chinese may expand their security cooperation program with Cuba as well.

The same can be said for Russia. Moscow still seeks ways to expand their influence through security cooperation.  Hopefully, this will not lead to a smaller-scale theater security cooperation program with the U.S, the setting up of which is supported by Venezuela.  The U.S. should try to prevent Cuba from heading down the same trajectory as Venezuela – to where a security cooperation program is somewhat inefficient.


Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, nongovernmental, nonpartisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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