It’s no surprise that after more than 50 years of open hostility, the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba has its ebb and flow. But despite the pullback on both sides in recent months, the experience of the U.S. Coast Guard testifies to the improvement in public safety that this budding relationship offers to both countries.
For decades, there was no more searing indictment of U.S.-Cuba relations than the images of Cuban refugees dangling for life on anything that would float as they headed toward South Florida. Washington unveiled a new approach in 1995, the so-called “wet foot/dry foot” policy, which allowed Cubans who reached U.S. soil to remain but called for returning those caught on the water. The policy prompted the launch of countless boats as desperate Cubans sought a new life of freedom, but the risks and abuses it encouraged caused many to perish at sea.
President Barack Obama ended the policy in the waning days of his administration in January. Since then, the number of Cuban refugees intercepted at sea has dropped precipitously, from 6,000 or more per year to a fraction of that figure. In April, the Coast Guard did not seize a single Cuban migrant — the first month that has happened in seven years. Interdicting fewer migrants on the sea creates an opportunity for the Coast Guard to redirect resources to other areas, in particular fighting the increase in drug trafficking.
Rear Adm. Peter J. Brown, who commands the Coast Guard’s 7th District, which includes Florida, characterized the Coast Guard’s relationship with Cuba’s border guard as “uniquely productive.” In a meeting last week with the Times editorial board, Brown said the United States and Cuba have strengthened their operational ties in several areas, from improving responses to search and rescue to cooperating on marine protections. These are vital capabilities for Cuba, which is growing its tourism sector and looking to mine offshore energy resources. Given that Florida is only 90 miles away and a hub for Cuba cruise ship travel, the Coast Guard’s strong relationships on the island further the security and economic interests of the Sunshine State.
The Trump administration has pulled back on the loosening of U.S. travel to Cuba begun under President Obama, and Cuban President Raul Castro has hit the pause button on some of the communist island’s market reforms. But underneath all the politics, the Coast Guard and its counterparts in Cuba continue to work to save lives on the water, to stop the flow of illegal drugs and to protect the region’s natural resources. That is a good sign for two neighbors with many shared interests.
Tampa Bay Times, August 26, 2017