WASHINGTON -- Following President Barack Obama's recent decision to overhaul U.S. policy toward Cuba, American national security experts see an opportunity to enhance intelligence-gathering, step up the fight against corruption and crime, and improve America's geopolitical standing.
Starting in the mid-20th century, Cold War tensions pitted the United States against its island neighbor just 90 miles south. Now, as the relationship thaws, intelligence experts are eager to explore a corner of the world that has been relatively closed off for over fifty years.
“It may seem old-school in an era of cyber warfare and drones, but the most important intel assets are still human,” said Ken Sofer, the associate director for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress. “And it'll be easier to collect information when Americans in Cuba are the norm, not the exception.”
Although the U.S. and Cuba have not had diplomatic relations for five decades, the two countries' relationship has not been totally devoid of cooperation. As The Washington Post pointed out on Tuesday, the countries have worked together for years to combat the drug trade in the Caribbean. But now, with the Obama administration's reforms to Cuba policy, experts say those efforts in the drug war could become a foundation for a more collaborative partnership.
Take, for instance, the Russian Organized Crime syndicate, which operates throughout the Caribbean and is comparable to other major organized crime syndicates such as the mafia in the U.S. and in Sicily, the Triads in China and the Yakuza in Japan. According to Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to Colin Powell during his time as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state, the ROC is involved in everything from the drug trade to human trafficking, contraband, smuggling and money laundering. Cuba, he noted, has worked surprisingly closely with the U.S. in combating the ROC.
"Our best partner in fighting that crime over the past 15 years has been Cuba,” Wilkerson, a retired U.S. Army colonel, told The Huffington Post. But now that U.S.-Cuba relations are improving, he said, the expectation is that the sides will work collaboratively and share intelligence more freely.
Wilkerson noted that Cuba has been more likely to pass information to the United States than the other way around. He now expects that to change.
“[The relationship] was already pretty good," he said. "It was fairly one-sided, though. It was all us and none of them. I think now we will be helping them as much as they help us. That’s the way I read it, anyway ... Any crime that’s fought and taken care of is good, in my view. So, if the Cubans do it on their watch it’s a help to us because invariably that crime would make its way to us, since we’re the bigger, richer target.”
In addition to countering the ROC's influence, better U.S-Cuban relations could help with America's efforts to push back against North Korea's counterfeiting operations and arms smuggling efforts in the Caribbean, which date back years.
Obama's new policy has the potential to help U.S. intelligence cooperation not just with Cuba, but also with the surrounding region. The Cuba embargo has been an impediment to closer operational ties between the U.S. and many countries in Latin America that dislike America's Cuba policy. Improvements to those relationships could yield fruitful intelligence and national security gains as well, said Sofer.
“The policy change on Cuba will hopefully open up new possibilities for U.S. relations throughout the region,” he said.
But perhaps the biggest geopolitical boon when it comes to better relations with Cuba will come years down the road. By enhancing its standing in the Caribbean, analysts say, the United States could end up in a much better position to fend off the influence of other world powers -- namely, China.
China, the United States' chief economic rival, has been looking to expand its influence in the Western Hemisphere and has recently spotted an opening to accomplish just that -- an opportunity to join in on the financing of the Mariel port in Cuba, about 25 miles west of Havana. Wilkerson says he isn't necessarily convinced that this will be a major problem, so long as China's involvement remains limited to economic investment. The longer-term concern is that investing in the port could become a vehicle for China's military influence.
“Personally, I would have no problem with the Chinese putting money into it as long as it was development, period,” Wilkerson said. “[As long as China] wasn’t trying to get a place where they could sail their ships and put their soldiers.”
The concept of a communist country using Cuba as an entry point for influence over the West may seem like a relic of the Cold War era. But Wilkerson warned that China might decide it has the right to start sailing its vessels in the Gulf of Mexico in response to the U.S. sailing intelligence vessels in the South China Sea.
Improved relations with Cuba could negate some of this, pulling the island nation closer towards the Western Hemisphere.
As far as Cuba is concerned, with better ties to the United States come better ties with European nations as well. Thus far, companies in France, Germany and England have been hesitant to do business in Cuba out of deference to U.S. trade policy. That, too, may start to change now, aided by Cuba's own need for benefactors -- particularly as two of the island's main allies, Russia and Venezuela, are struggling economically.
But with tangible gains in these areas come risks in others. Conservatives in the United States, for example, have begun worrying that a better U.S.-Cuba relationship will result in the U.S. giving away the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, which has been leased by the U.S. since 1903 and serves as a controversial prison site for many high-value detainees.
A senior Obama administration official told HuffPost, however, that the president's new policy would have no impact on the base.