Remarks of Philip Peters, Vice President of the Lexington Institute, at the Annual Congress of the Latin America Studies Association Miami, Florida
Relations between Cuba and America take place on two levels, shaped by two basic facts.
First is the fact of ideological competition. As long as America is governed by democratic capitalism and Cuba by one-party socialism, this competition will persist. So will arguments over human rights and all the issues that derive from our differences over basic principles. The two governments may discuss these issues, but it’s nearly impossible to envision a negotiation that would resolve them.
Second, there is the fact that Cuba and America are Caribbean neighbors with common problems and common interests. This sometimes leads our governments to cooperate, in spite of our profound differences, to save lives or to stop drug trafficking. Here, on neighborhood issues, I believe there is room for additional cooperation that would yield mutual benefits.
I’ll begin by discussing our migration agreement with Cuba. And while it may seem an odd time to do so, I would like to say a positive word about it. In spite of the charges and suspicions and arguments going on now, and in spite of the Elian Gonzalez case, it seems clear to me that the agreement has been positive. Of course there is room for improvement. But in the main, it has expanded orderly, legal migration and deterred illegal migration, which saves lives. Moreover, it has established a regular consultative mechanism that gives each side an opportunity to present its views face-to-face.
That is a good model to keep in mind when thinking about the issue of drug enforcement, where I believe there is strong reason to explore greater cooperation with Cuba.
By all accounts, drug consumption is extremely low in Cuba, and U.S. officials do not see it as a place where significant drug trafficking takes place now. U.S. intelligence has produced no evidence that high-level Cuban officials are involved in drug trafficking.
As a bridge for drug deliveries to the United States, Cuba seems to represent more of a future risk than a current threat. The majority of illegal drugs that reach the United States come through Mexico; about a third come through the Caribbean, where Haiti has become the largest single transit country. U.S. officials estimate that the use of Cuban territory for drug shipments decreased during 1999, especially measured in terms of overflights.
In the past decade, two trends have increased the potential for Cuba to be used for drug trafficking. Tourism and trade have increased air and maritime traffic in and out of Cuba. And the economic difficulties that drastically reduced Cuban military capabilities have also limited Cuba’s capabilities to fight drug trafficking.
European governments, reacting to the potential for Cuba to develop into a drug trafficking hub, have begun to work with Cuban authorities to head off this threat. In some cases, they are helping Cuba to develop selected law enforcement capabilities such as investigative techniques, ship searching, and airport control. Europeans engaged in this work give their Cuban counterparts high marks.
Today, there is limited cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba. The U.S. Coast Guard has a fax link to its Cuban counterpart, the Interior Ministry’s Tropas Guardafronteras (border guards). This results in the exchange of information that occasionally aids in law enforcement.
For example, in late 1996, a U.S. tip led to Cuban apprehension of a freighter, the Limerick, that drifted into Cuban waters. U.S. officials praise Cuban authorities for their cooperation, and for their search that yielded six tons of cocaine – far more than the U.S. expected to find. Cuban police later testified at the U.S. trial where the Limerick traffickers were convicted.
As a result of talks conducted last summer, cooperation may expand. The two governments agreed to allow voice communication between coast guard headquarters in Miami and Havana. Ship commanders at sea will be permitted to communicate by direct radio link when necessary for law enforcement operations. A U.S. Coast Guard officer will be posted at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
These are all positive steps, but officials in both capitals readily describe them as small. Implementation has been excruciatingly slow, even on a small measure such as moving from fax to voice communication. The U.S. has deliberately limited talks to lower-ranking officials and “case-by-case” approaches as opposed to a more systematic cooperation.
I believe that the U.S. would do well to explore the possibilities for broader cooperation. At minimum, it would be beneficial to hold high-level talks between officials responsible for drug enforcement operations and strategy, to establish regular consultations similar to those that take place on migration issues, and to look for additional ways to strengthen anti-drug efforts.
The interdiction component of America’s anti-drug strategy must be comprehensive if it is to succeed; it must seek to plug every gap, to block every potential smuggling route. In the 2,500-mile-wide Caribbean basin, where the routes linking North and South America range from Mexico’s east coast to the Windward Islands, the operational responsibility for stopping drug traffic falls mainly to the U.S. Coast Guard. In that task, the Coast Guard depends on its physical assets – its planes, ships, and radars – and its capacity to build cooperative relationships with Caribbean neighbors willing to help fight drug trafficking.
Cuba sits smack in the middle of that 2,500-mile gap – an island over 750 miles wide, with more than 3,500 miles of coastline and 4,195 islands and small keys. From a smuggler’s point of view, its location and characteristics make it a potentially valuable asset in myriad smuggling scenarios.
To omit Cuba from U.S. interdiction strategy, or to place needless limitations on the possibilities for interdiction actions involving Cuba, is to make U.S. strategy less than comprehensive and to consciously limit its effectiveness. If the Administration and Congress are considering spending $1.3 billion to combat the drug threat in Colombia, it is absurd to refrain from no-cost talks with Cuba that could result in more effective interdiction.
There is another advantage to regular consultations between drug enforcement professionals: they could help solve the most significant drug trafficking problem we face with Cuba, which is the use of Cuban territorial waters to hand off drug shipments between South American shippers and the people who will deliver them to the U.S. market.
This phenomenon has emerged during the past five years: Airplanes fly due north over eastern Cuba and drop drug shipments in the waters just off Cuba’s north shore. There, speedboats are waiting for the airdrops; they pick them up and race north toward the Bahamas. The boats usually proceed undetected, or they are fast enough to elude Cuban patrols. Last year, even at a time when there were fewer flights by U.S. estimates, Cuban officials report that more than two tons of cocaine washed up on their north shore as a result of these airdrops. Separately, Cuban authorities report speedboats that go from Jamaica to the Bahamas, making a long pass through Cuban territorial waters as they round the island’s eastern tip.
Obviously, the traffickers do these things because it works – those waters are relatively unpatrolled.
It is equally obvious that Cuba will not permit American vessels to patrol at will in Cuban waters. Given the two countries’ shared interest in stopping this traffic, it makes sense for professionals from both sides to look for a way to combine both nations’ capabilities to achieve that result. With patience and creativity, it may be possible to do this in a way that respects Cuban sovereignty.
In addition to migration and drug enforcement, it might be constructive to engage with Cuba on environmental issues. Cuba could be included in Caribbean-wide environmental efforts. As Cuba seeks bids for exploration of potential offshore oil fields, it is not too early for experts to exchange ideas on environmental protection and oil spill contingency planning.
Another possibility is nuclear safety. U.S. law warns that “the completion and operation of any nuclear power facility… will be considered an act of aggression” against the U.S. Yet Cuba’s sole power reactor construction project, located at Juragua, was far from completed when work was suspended nearly a decade ago, and the U.S. has not promoted expert-to-expert discussions to ascertain potential dangers, much less to determine how they should be addressed in the event Cuba would resume construction of the Juragua facility. This is clearly not an urgent issue, given the status of Cuba’s nuclear program. But it is an issue where direct discussions would better serve U.S. interests than the current approach.
Some will object to proposals to work with Cuba on neighborhood issues on the grounds that cooperation would express approval of Cuban leaders or undercut America’s ability to criticize Cuba’s conduct.
This argument is difficult, if not impossible, to justify in terms of the approaches America has taken toward other communist countries. It implies that Presidents Nixon and Reagan rewarded Chinese and Soviet leaders, or legitimized their political systems, when they conducted trade, arms control talks, or people-to-people exchanges with those communist countries. It would also seem to contradict a generally accepted reason for investing in America’s diplomatic capability: to serve U.S. interests even by dealing with people and governments with whom Americans differ.
Certainly in the Cuban case, the exchange of diplomats, the signing of a migration agreement, and similar measures have not stopped U.S. criticism of Cuba to date, and there is no reason to expect that it would do so if discussions or cooperation were to expand.
There is no guarantee that talks on neighborhood issues would in fact produce increased cooperation. But the potential certainly justifies the effort, especially in drug enforcement, where domestic U.S. interests dictate an all-out effort to block every source of traffic along every conceivable route, and where Cuba has cooperated with the United States and our allies.
And finally, while cooperation on neighborhood issues would have no impact on the ideological competition between our two political systems, it would certainly not hurt – especially as we look ahead to the day when Cuba’s next generation will move into leadership positions – to establish a pattern of positive achievements that serve the interests of both the Cuban and American peoples.
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