Cuba, the Coast Guard, and Chaos

By Lieutenant Commander Brian Smicklas, U.S. Coast Guard

A Pre-existing Relationship

Unknown to most, the U.S. Coast Guard has been at the forefront of diplomatic and operational engagement with Cuba for the past 15 years. In an effort to foster a mutual interest to combat the illegal narcotic flow in the northern Caribbean, Cuba has welcomed the addition of a Coast Guard officer billeted as a Drug Interdiction Specialist in Havana to assist in nearly all matters of maritime consequence. 2 The Coast Guard’s efforts in Cuba have directly resulted in the interdiction of tons of narcotics, as well as routinely coordinating maritime efforts between Cuba and the United States to save lives and property in the maritime domain. As the Coast Guard accumulated operational successes coordinating within Cuba, a high level of trust and respect has been formed between Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior and the Cuban Coast Guard, known as Tropas Guardafronteras. Moreover, the position has been repeatedly lauded as one of the best examples of cooperation between Cuba and the United States throughout the diplomatic freeze. In addition to interdicting narcotics, the U.S. Coast Guard has contributed to many areas of mutual concern between the two countries, such as assisting in the return of wanted U.S. felons and stolen U.S. property, coordinating protocols for potential pollution incidents, and ensuring the safe repatriation of Cubans rescued at sea attempting to illegally enter the United States. 3 Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of this unique cooperation has been the insight into Cuba’s dedicated fight against drugs.

Cuba is the largest and most populous island in the Caribbean, and most of the island’s 11 million inhabitants have lived with shocking deprivation. A complete lack of privacy (due to the ever-pervasive state police and the presence of the neighborhood Committee Defense of the Revolution communist representative) combined with zero disposable income made narcotic abuse and trafficking undesirable, if not impossible, for Cubans. In addition, despite growing conditions similar to other drug-producing regions, industrial agriculture has not arrived in Cuba, and most arable land is worked with non-mechanical means. As such, nearly three generations into Castro’s regime, today’s Cuba does not have a significant demand for narcotics. In fact, the only drugs to be found in Cuba are small quantities hidden in tourists’ luggage or waterlogged bales jettisoned by go-fast vessels bound for the Bahamas. On average, Cuba’s island-wide counter-drug efforts have interdicted between 7 and 11 tons of narcotics annually, mostly in bales washed ashore. 4 By comparison, a single U.S. Coast Guard interdiction in the Eastern Pacific could yield nearly the same amount as Cuba’s annual tally.

According to the Department of State’s annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, despite limited resources and the geographical misfortune of lying between the largest producers and consumers of illegal narcotics, Cuba’s counter-narcotic efforts have been dutiful and transparent. The U.S. Coast Guard officer stationed in Havana is routinely invited to review drug destruction facilities, inspect interdicted go-fast vessels, and work on a case-by-case basis to interdict smugglers working in or near Cuban territorial seas. 5 Cuba should be considered as one of the United States’ best partners in the fight against drug smuggling, and could legitimately claim to be the most drug-free island in the Caribbean, if not the entire Western Hemisphere.

The Cartels’ Lebensraum?

As programs such as Plan Colombia and Mexico’s Merida Initiative pushed drug cartels to other regions, a significant amount of imagination is not required for TOC networks to see the promise of folding Cuba into their portfolio. Cuba’s many remote, mangrove-lined natural harbors are as accommodating as the potentially coercible Cuban who earns just $20 per month. 6 As the United States begins to untie the knotted lines of economic sanctions, wealth and investment will flow into Cuba. Inevitably, a middle class will develop, and the resulting growth of disposable income will create a ripe opportunity for TOC networks to spread throughout the island with devastating results. Allowing the TOC networks to develop a foothold in the Caribbean’s largest island, just 90 miles from the United States, would be devastating.

Annually, thousands of Cubans on board homemade rafts discover that the Southern U.S. coastline remains exploitable. The drug-smuggling barrier Cuba currently provides the United States could turn into a perfectly placed transit hub for smuggling drugs from South America into the United States. A focused effort to strengthen the U.S.-Cuban counter-drug partnership, such as a “Plan Cuba,” could keep Cuba’s counter-drug efforts thriving and maintain the bulwark of the Caribbean’s largest island between smugglers and U.S. shores.

A growing number of Latin American countries are weighing the high costs of fighting drugs and TOCs and debating whether decriminalization or even legalization is more appropriate. Due in part to the reasons that brought about Cuba’s revolution, recreational drug use will never be decriminalized in Cuba while under the single-party system. As a result, an opportunity exists to bolster cooperation with Cuba in the effort to prevent TOC networks from infiltrating the island nation. As stated in the U.S. Coast Guard’s Western Hemisphere Strategy , “It takes a network to defeat a network.” Therefore, while U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations improve, strong support for Cuba’s counter-TOC efforts should be a top priority throughout rapprochement. Doing so could deter the potential for Cuba to be used as a hub for narcotics trafficking and decrease the threat of Cubans being seduced by the unlimited supply of narco-laced money and the destabilizing effects that ensue (witness Central and South America).

While the decision to partner with the United States is ultimately a Cuban internal choice, the U.S. Coast Guard already has a functioning relationship in place there for cooperating on counter-drug activities. The United States should seek out and rapidly act on Cuban requests for assistance with the goal of countering TOC networks. Failing to do so will result in yet another stern chase against TOC networks, determined to bring illicit cargoes to American shores, unless effective action is taken to strengthen our partnership with Cuba to combat illicit maritime activity.

A Go-Fast Surge

Although building partnerships is paramount to regional security, and strengthening the Coast Guard’s partnership with Cuba promotes a layered homeland-defense strategy, the Southern U.S. border remains at risk without increased coordination and additional assets. The fight against human smuggling into South Florida provides an excellent example for successfully countering a specific threat. Between 2005 and 2010, the Coast Guard partnered closely with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to respond to a surge of Cuban immigrant smuggling using go-fast boats. 7 Human smuggling of Cubans using privately owned vessels skyrocketed to never-before-seen levels. Hundreds of speedy, low-radar signature craft from South Florida were illegally entering Cuban waters, retrieving their “cargo” of Cubans paying to leave the island, and dangerously fleeing back to U.S. shores without regard to the safety of their passengers or security of the United States.

To counter the threat, the Coast Guard’s network of small boat stations along the South Florida coast were outfitted with faster, more robust vessels designed for high-speed interdiction and apprehension. Tactics for using warning shots and disabling fire on outboard engines were employed by Coast Guard and Customs vessels often co-located at Coast Guard facilities. Additionally, the Coast Guard effectively positioned vessels in the transit zone for detection and monitoring far offshore, and stricter laws for vessels “failing to heave to” while being pursued expanded criminal-prosecution options. As a result, human smuggling of Cubans by go-fast vessels dropped dramatically from 2007 to 2009, marking a clear victory in maritime border security and providing an excellent example of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) interdepartmental coordination. However, given the level of potential activity between Cuba and the United States, even this highly successful campaign may prove insufficient in the face of potential threats posed by TOCs. Rather than sort through the expected traffic in the Florida Straits, the most effective course of action is to work with Cuba to prevent TOC networks from infiltrating and exploiting Cuba. Doing so effectively adds another level into the layered security model between source countries and the United States.

Adding to concerns of potential maritime threats around Cuba, after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Port au Prince, Haiti, instability in that region continued to warrant more offshore cutters and aircraft to deter unsafe and illegal maritime immigration. This further reduces assets available for the Florida Straits, and increases the vulnerability to a major increase in illegal maritime activity. Furthermore, the cutters routinely tasked with patrolling these waters are at the end of their service lives, requiring frequent and expensive repairs just to remain operable. The potential increase of maritime activity in the Florida Straits underscores the need for further cooperation with Cuba in maritime security, as well as replacing the Coast Guard’s vintage medium-endurance cutter fleet, a mainstay of effective operations against TOCs.

Partnering with Cuba smartly combines the efforts of like-minded counter-drug nations. The United States should continue to lead the fight against TOC networks in the transit zones off Central and South America and enhance efforts to improve the security of the Southern maritime border before Cuba is inundated by TOC networks. Led by the DHS, the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have very recently stood up three joint task forces to unify operational efforts. Moreover, the Coast Guard is investigating the feasibility of deploying its new fast-response cutters to assist interdiction efforts along transit-zone littorals. Much like the victory against human smuggling into South Florida from 2006 to 2009, these initiatives are a smart step in the right direction.

As maritime activity increases between Cuba and the United States, working with Cuba to strengthen established partnerships and enhancing DHS capabilities in the effort to prevent TOC networks from taking root in Cuba should be made a top priority, as outlined in the Coast Guard’s recently released Western Hemisphere Strategy . The trust built over the years between the Coast Guard and Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior should continue to be cultivated to significantly expand the U.S.-Cuban partnership—an expansion that potentially could include additional offshore assets in the transit zone and the inclusion of Coast Guardsmen with boat forces, marine safety, and deployable specialized-forces capabilities. Doing so could improve the security of our Southern maritime border by significantly aiding Cuba in the fight against TOC networks.

1. “Florida Census: 1960,” Floripedia, .

2. U.S. Department of State, Narcotics Control Reports, .

3. Author served at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 2010 to 2012 as the U.S. Coast Guard Drug Interdiction Specialist.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Oficina Nacional de Estadistica e Informacion, Republica de Cuba, .

7. Carol J. Williams, “Cuban Smuggling Business is Thriving,” Los Angeles Times , 17 September 2007, .

Lieutenant Commander Smicklas is a 2000 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and a career cutterman with more than 10 years’ sea time. As commanding officer of the USCGC Key Biscayne (WPB-1339), he patrolled the Florida Straits intercepting go-fasts and interdicting and caring for Cubans rescued at sea. He also served as the Coast Guard’s Drug Interdiction Specialist in Havana.




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