Idael Fumero Valdes is not someone you’d expect to see as an honored guest of the U.S. military. As chief of investigations for Cuba’s National Revolutionary Police, a part of the military-controlled Ministry of the Interior, he plays a key law enforcement role in a state where beating and arresting human rights activists is considered law enforcement. Yet there he was at a U.S. naval air base in Key West, Fla., on April 21, touring the facilities at the invitation of the U.S. military command for Latin America.
Accompanying Valdes were senior officials of the Cuban anti-drug agency and border guards, plus a diplomat. Separately, U.S. officials have attended a security conference outside the United States with a Cuban delegation headed by Gustavo Machin Gomez, who was expelled from a previous diplomatic post in the United States 14 years ago due to his involvement with a highly damaging Cuban espionage operation against the Defense Intelligence Agency. Apparently the White House has decided to let that bygone be a bygone.
Welcome to the brave new world of military-to-military contact with Cuba, the Obama administration’s latest idea for engagement with that island nation. Direct communications between the two countries’ security forces have been going on for years, of course — in limited, operational contexts such as avoiding clashes around the Guantanamo Bay naval base and repatriating Cuban rafters plucked from the sea by the U.S. Coast Guard. That’s necessary and appropriate.
As the Key West visit suggests, however, the administration has a wider agenda in mind. For the first time, the United States accepted Cuban participation, alongside military officers from democracies, in this year’s Caribbean Nations Security Conference in Kingston, Jamaica. The deputy secretary of homeland security, Alejandro Mayorkas, visited Havana recently to discuss law enforcement cooperation. At a conference on the benefits of expanded contacts Thursday sponsored by the American Security Project think tank, a retired Army colonel suggested that the United States could seek information from Cuban military intelligence about North Korea and other countries.
Latin American military and police crave the legitimacy that comes from ties with their U.S. counterparts. A great bipartisan achievement in U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America over the past three decades has been to condition military cooperation and assistance increasingly on respect for the rule of law and human rights — rather than turn a blind eye to military abuses in the name of either anti-communism or the war on drugs, as U.S. officials so often did in previous years.
Today, in a hemisphere where military dictatorship was once widespread, no generals rule. The exception is Cuba, where Gen. Raul Castro’s word is law. Normalizing military-to-military ties between the United States and Cuba, for the sake of fighting drugs or other “common threats,” would imply that civilian rule doesn’t matter so much to us anymore — that Cuba’s military is morally equivalent to its hemispheric counterparts — when, in fact, it is deeply complicit in political repression and corruption.
Legislation pending in Congress would block full military-to-military normalization until Cuba democratizes. At a time when Cuba’s beleaguered civilian democracy activists need unequivocal U.S. moral support, the administration and outside supporters of its Cuba policy should not be eager for potentially compromising relationships with the Cuban people’s uniformed oppressors.
The above editorial appeared in The Washington Post.