The U.S. Military Needs to Start Talking to Cuba
Granted, we probably won’t be allies anytime soon
What a contrast to a few months ago.
As recently as April, the United States was spending millions of dollars per year to beam propaganda TV and radio signals—which were regularly jammed—into Cuba from an airplane.
Then on Dec. 17, the White House announced the normalization of relations with Cuba. To be sure, the U.S. and Cuba are not about to become allies. But it’s the symbolic end of a cold war between the countries that had propelled itself forward, zombie-like, for far too long.
Still, the Pentagon’s relationship with the Cuban military is pretty marginal. The main symbol of it is a direct telephone line between the U.S. Coast Guard and an operations center staffed by Cuban border troops.
But that could begin to change with normalization. It won’t happen soon. The U.S. still lists Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism—due to several American fugitives who have lived there for decades. Bread and butter issues involving economic trade and family visits are also a much higher priority.
The embargo still exists.
But talks between the Cuban and U.S. militaries—at least informally and unofficially, is not unprecedented.
The U.S. and Cuban militaries also have reason to work together on responding to natural disasters and humanitarian crises in the Western Hemisphere.
Military-to-military relationships also serve diplomatic ends. Military officers tend to relate with each other, and building these connections can act as a kind of diplomatic back-channel.
During the Cold War, the Pentagon’s worries about Cuba were dominated by the influence of the Soviet Union and Havana’s surprisingly assertive military operations in Africa and Central America. Cuba punched above its weight. But after the collapse of Soviet subsidies in the 1990s, the Cuban military’s ability to pose a threat to anyone collapsed with it.
The U.S. military ruled out Cuba as a direct threat in 1997, and Pentagon literature on Cuba shifted to the risk of political chaos in the country spilling across the Caribbean.
But there was another trend underway.
These trips included retired Gens. Jack Sheehan, Charles Wilhelm and Barry McCaffery—all former combatant commanders. Wilhelm and McCaffery are former Southern Command chiefs, responsible for U.S. forces in the Caribbean, Central America and South America.
Wilhelm, a Vietnam combat veteran, was particularly aggressive in building military ties in Latin America during his time as a combatant commander.
He was in charge of implementing Plan Colombia, which armed and restructured the Colombian army for war against the FARC rebels. He also convinced Congress to reopen military contact with the Sandinista-controlled Nicaraguan army. These were America’s former enemies, who the U.S. once tried to stop with the flow of cash and weapons into Nicaragua’s civil war.
“Over the years with Wilhelm and Sheehan and others we really laid out the playing field for mil-to-mil cooperation [with Cuba] on multiple fronts,” Bruce Blair, CDI’s former president, told War Is Boring in an e-mail.
“Much of it actually originated with Southern Command folks, but of course the absence of normal relations put most of it on ice,” Blair wrote.
Most of it. The team inspected several alleged but non-existent biological warfare facilities. “They weren’t,” Blair wrote. But it was a point hardliners in Washington used to justify keeping sanctions on the regime. The Defense Intelligence Agency later studied the team’s reports on the non-existent facilities and downgraded Cuba as a threat.
The think tank shut down the project and absorbed itself into the Project on Government Oversight. It was never part of any official Pentagon mission into Cuba. But it’s a model the Defense Department could pursue. The Cuban military, although much smaller than during the Cold War, also has a privileged position in Cuba’s sclerotic and nominally socialist society.
Growing American influence in the country necessarily means talking to the military.
Although Cuba and the U.S. are not about to become allies, unless something really drastic happens. There are hardliners in Havana who are just as frightened by normalized relations with Washington as from the other side. But there are some other benefits—having generals talk to each other also helps convince the other guy that your own country doesn’t have any desire to go to war.
It’s better to try and work together than draw up plans to invade. It seemed to work with Fidel Castro. “We did not always agree with their points of view, but they were always pleasant,” Castro wrote about the visits in the state-owned Granma newspaper in 2009.
Look at Vietnam. Not even Vietnam, which normalized relations with the U.S. in 1995, buys weapons from America or could be considered an ally. But with Hanoi worried about an aggressive China, that could change a lot faster.
That’s one reason why the American military talks to their Vietnamese counterparts. Occasionally, a U.S. warship makes a port of call. The same could be true of Cuba.
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