Latin America

As Castro Exits, U.S. and Cuba Still Good Frenemies

Donald Trump hasn't ended cooperation on security, migration and crime.
Corrected

They started something that hasn't stopped.

Photographer: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

On April 18, Miguel Diaz-Canel will be sworn in as the new Cuban president. The transition is a landmark for the island nation, where for the first time in six decades a Castro will not be in command. It will also shift the mental landscape of a region which — even as memories of Latin dictators and Yanqui imperialism fade — can still swoon to the revolution that was.

No one expects Cuba to radically change course. Although Raul Castro is officially stepping aside, he’ll go no further than the top slot at the Cuban Communist Party, where eminence grise is the new khaki. And don’t expect a truce in the sexagenarian feud between Havana and Washington, which has only escalated under Trump. 

Yet Cuba and the U.S. also are bound by strategic interests that have remained remarkably solid despite the continuing vitriol over the Florida Strait. Even as public diplomacy festers, in recent months shared policy initiatives, technical cooperation pacts and binational task forces have survived and, in some cases, even strengthened.

It’s not just the emergency ops, such as the joint rescue mission earlier this month by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Cuban Border Guard to intercept a boatload of Haitian refugees drifting off the coast of Cuba. Both nations touted the heroics of the island’s fire brigade, which in February swooped down to help stop a wildfire that threatened the U.S. military base in Guantanamo — a remarkable gesture given how the gringo outpost has long chafed on Cuban pride.

Cuba and the U.S. have long coordinated to patrol the maritime borders, and dousing the Guantanamo fire was only possible because of two decades of joint natural disaster response drills by U.S. troops with the Cuban military’s Frontier Brigade.

Transnational crime also has drawn the Americas’ signature enemies closer. Although neither side flaunts it, Havana and Washington have collaborated for more than two decades to interdict drug shipments, human traffickers, cross-border crime cartels, money launderers, and more recently even Medicare cheats. U.S. authorities say Cuba could do more to prosecute international outlaws. Yet the 16-country Financial Action Task Force of Latin America recently acknowledged Cuba’s efforts to identify terrorist groups and starve them of assets as “complete and consistent.”

“Cuba used to be an incredible blind spot in the Caribbean and so a safe haven for international criminals,” William LeoGrande, a professor at American University, told me. “The joint crackdown has forced traffickers to shift routes, and that success is one reason so many security professionals have been arguing against rolling back the Obama-era policy of approximation with Cuba.”

Geoff Thale, a Cuba expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, agrees. “There have been six separate technical exchanges between Cuba and the U.S. in the last year or so,” Thale said in an interview. “Despite the chill of the Trump administration, it’s clear the U.S. Coast Guard, Southern Command, and the Drug Enforcement Administration all believe that Cuba is an important barrier to crime.”

This isn’t capitulation to Washington’s agenda, but the same strain of pragmatism that has driven Cuba to embrace some reforms of its shambolic economy. “As Cuba reintegrates into the global economy and engages with countries in its own hemisphere, it understands the growing risks of money launderers and international crime groups,” said Thale. “So it’s in their interest to rein this in.”

Some clear-thinking officials in Washington also have taken note. “There’s a growing awareness that a stable, functioning Cuban government is an important force for hemispheric stability,” sociologist Bernardo Sorj, a Latin America scholar at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, told me. “Though there’s little love lost between the two countries, the question is what will happen tomorrow if Cuba destabilizes.”

More than neighborly good will, U.S.-Cuban cooperation speaks to a broader awareness of the challenges of hemispheric security — one that has weathered years of the brute diplomacy that so many of the region’s ideologues have favored, and which threatens to rear up again.

Beating world-class criminals will be just as daunting as reinventing the New World’s oldest command economy. But the U.S. and Cuba share too many interests and vulnerabilities to indulge the hoary antagonisms of last century’s quarrel.

(Corrects date of presidential transition in first paragraph.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

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