At the end of the first round of Cuba-U.S. talks on bilateral relations, which took place in Havana on Jan. 22 and 23, the delegations for both countries identified a list of areas with great potential for establishing agreements on cooperation and mutual assistance. Among the most significant of these areas are the fight against drug trafficking, protecting the environment, natural disaster prevention and the fight against epidemics.

To get a closer look at this issue, with the need for more detailed information on the subject, Cubaminrex.cu has published its exclusive interview with the academic, Santiago Espinosa Bejerano, who holds a masters in contemporary history and international relations and is an expert from the Center for International Political Research.

Why have areas that represent mutual threats for both nations been specifically chosen as a first step in bilateral negotiations?

In accordance with international relations, cooperation between countries must be in function of those subject areas that guarantee the achievement of national objectives. The case of the United States is very peculiar because its objectives and national interests are always overseas. Its territory is located on the American continent, but its national interests can be located in Africa or the Middle East.

However, given the close geographical proximity between Cuba and the United States, the impossibility of establishing cooperation agreements in areas where there are common threats remains incongruous.

This concept has become much more relevant following the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, especially at the end of the 1960s, when the level of development that Cuba attained in the fields of health, education and social security transformed it into an enabling element for establishing this type of cooperation.

Nevertheless, we must take into account that there are still no official relations between Cuba and the United States. Exchanges between both nations take place through interests sections that are warranted by a third country, in this case Switzerland, and are made via ad hoc contact between different bodies and in the case of an eventual need.

This continues to be the situation, although Cuba has, on several occasions, reiterated its intention to sign agreements that facilitate joint action in issues that impact both countries. But because U.S. policy systematically refuses to recognize Cuban authorities as a legitimate interlocutor, these proposals have simply remained as signed letters of intent.

Which of the proposed areas has the most potential for future bilateral cooperation?

In my opinion, several areas can be used to initiate negotiations of mutual interest. First and foremost is people trafficking where it is valid to highlight the need to stop U.S. encouragement of illegal emigration using unsafe vessels, or even the incitement to hijack state vessels or aircraft to this end, as has been repeatedly denounced by Cuban authorities.

Another important point is establishing bilateral agreements on environmental issues, especially with regard to preventing and combating oil spills. This point is further justified by the fact that both countries border exclusive economic zones with great prospects for oil exploration. Moreover, an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico would inevitably affect the coastal areas of both countries.

The restoration of postal correspondence services between both nations is an issue of particular interest because of its humanitarian impact, as this would directly benefit both the people of Cuba and the U.S.A., especially emigrants of Cuban descent within this context.

There are also points of similarity that could result in a joint agreement with regard to air and maritime borders ...

With respect to this issue, are there any concrete events that could serve as the basis for a possible regulatory agreement?

There are several events that illustrate the potential for bilateral cooperation in the field. For example, in the case of the missing American civilian aircraft a few months ago, it was considered that the pilots were possibly unconscious. At no time was the plane escorted by U.S. military aircraft. According to the flight path that it was on, the plane was heading directly into Cuban airspace.

In light of this, the U.S. government requested access to Cuban airspace to keep track of the airplane. Cuba authorized the use of specific air corridors to track said plane, until it had left the national airspace, heading south. This is a clear example of a relevant event that was resolved through the willingness of, as well as the need for, both countries to cooperate.

There is another event, which is even more significant with regard to the Cuban government’s willingness to cooperate with its U.S. counterpart in exceptional situations. As a result of the chaos that ensued in the U.S. following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Cuba provided its airspace and medical assistance with the aim of securing humanitarian aid for the victims of this appalling event. And these are just two examples. There are many more.

These events show the Cuban government’s willingness to cooperate …

I repeat: These two events, all by themselves, present real opportunities for strengthening cooperation between Cuba and the United States, once these relations are established between equals and in total respect of Cuba’s national sovereignty, as has been expressed by the country’s highest authority on several occasions.

Another essential point, which came up in the talks, deals with public health, specifically with regard to confronting different epidemics and emergency situations. Why was this subject particularly dealt with by both parties?

Every year, the head of the U.S. intelligence community presents a report showing what it considers to be “global threats,” which directly affect the United States. Among these threats is the existence of potential epidemics that could have a direct impact on their territory.

Top this off with the undisputed development that Cuba has achieved in the field of health, together with the attention and budget that the Cuban government has historically dedicated to this area. So why not reach a collaboration agreement that could directly help mitigate these threats?

The United States has, on several occasions, recognized the possibility of bilateral relations given the high standards achieved by Cuba in this field, and I believe, that one event which underscores our country’s ability in this regard is the proposal made by the Cuban Revolution’s historic leader, Fidel Castro Ruz, as a result of the devastation that Hurricane Katrina left behind, particularly in the state of Louisiana; he offered medical collaboration through a brigade, which was specially created to respond to this tragic situation. To the detriment of the U.S. people, the former Bush administration did not accept this proposal — a decision that resulted in evident humanitarian consequences.

Additionally, the current role that Cuba plays in combating the Ebola pandemic in Africa is significant; even the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, the very leader of the U.S. delegation who participated in the first talks on bilateral relations here in Havana, said that we could jointly develop extensive cooperation.

In relation to this subject, it is important to highlight that Cuban authorities have repeatedly denounced the existence of an officially U.S.-endorsed program that encourages the desertion of doctors on collaborative missions. So that Cuba loses personnel that cost it years and resources to train ...

This does not only affect our country, which invests its resources into training these specialists, but it also affects those countries that receive their humanitarian aid and generally have health emergencies.

Another aspect that is a sensitive issue for both countries’ populations is drug trafficking and the chaos that it brings. We have all expressed concern for the situation in Mexico and other Central American countries. How could Cuba and the United States cooperate in this area? Is there some sort of bilateral exchange?

Drug trafficking is a common threat, but there is no cooperation agreement in existence regarding this issue, which is a very delicate one for the U.S.A. However, the existence of direct dialogue between the U.S. Coast Guard Service and the Cuban Ministry of the Interior needs to be highlighted. Moreover, in Havana’s Interests Section, there is a U.S. official from this service who liaises with Cuban authorities.

When did these exchanges begin?

These exchanges first came about during the time of the Clinton administration, in light of the growing threat of the influx of drugs to U.S national security, but it has always remained an ad hoc mechanism in the fight against drugs and other related crimes.

These ad hoc exchanges were only made possible through the success of the Cuban government in protecting its borders and combating drugs, as it is publicly known that many of the main entry points for drug trafficking are located within the Cuban territory.

The U.S. government has recognized this through the same reports in which the Department of State classifies Cuba as a country that sponsors terrorism. This is one of the topics that makes the content of the report both irrational and contradictory because, if we read carefully, we will realize that the report first recognizes the success of Cuba’s fight against drug trafficking, and later on, it irrationally states that Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism.

What would be the benefit of having a bilateral anti-drug cooperation agreement between both nations?

For the U.S.A., this would mean coming to an agreement with a capable and serious interlocutor that also possesses a counter-narcotics system of renowned regional prestige, with proven effectiveness in the fight against drugs. Cuba has engaged in agreements of this type with over 25 countries and has adhered to the United Nations anti-drug convention since 1993.

This would mean better protection of its air and maritime borders, as well as a greater exchange of real-time information, which would improve its own operational efficiency.

Additionally, both governments could extend the agreement to include medical health care cooperation that could result in joint action toward treatment prescription for rehabilitating patients, who are not only from these two countries, but from others as well.

Both parties would obtain more detailed information on the new means and routes used for drug trafficking.

What would Cuba gain? Training, access to cutting edge technologies and related workshops, as well as greater bilateral exchanges in this area. In my opinion, this is the subject area that has seen the most progress and has the greatest prospects for a future bilateral agreement. Moreover, the evolution of ad hoc mechanisms into an anti-narcotics agreement, founded on Cuba’s idea of negotiating between equals, would be of great benefit to our respective populations, and would also have a decisive impact on curtailing this calamity in the region.

Next year, the United States will hold its presidential elections, and there is always the possibility that a Republican candidate might win. Considering the negative views of the Republican Party’s pre-candidates with regard to the policy changes concerning Cuba, what would be the future of the agreements emanating from the current bilateral negotiations?

First, it must be made clear that President Obama did not make this decision because it is considered acceptable or because he loves Cuba and its people. The proposals remain the same, and these are not my words; they are the ones who are responsible for publicizing the matter every chance that they get.

With regard to the scenario you have described, it is very difficult to predict what would happen with this process if a Republican is elected president in 2016. What is certain is that said president would have to be ready to assume a high political cost if he or she were to decide to dismantle all or part of what is achieved in the negotiation process. This is because, in spite of what everyone may say, there is no real difference between the Republican and the Democratic parties; this is a single party carrying both names. In the end, both share the same interests but publicly express them in different ways.

Another point to keep in mind is that the United States and, above all, the Obama administration, needed to take a step that would give foreign policy a break, and, in my view, Cuba was the most feasible case. We do not need to examine the situation in depth to see that the U.S. government has been at a dead heat for years in Afghanistan; it has been deep in Six Party Talks with North Korea, while engaged in additional negotiations with Iran; it has been concerned with the strengthening alliance between Russia and China, and has not remained indifferent to the influence of the BRICS countries and what they regard as a direct dispute over areas that have historically been considered their own.

As such, what was announced on Dec. 17 was a bold and intelligent move, which, moreover, does not constitute any political cost for President Obama since it is no longer possible for him to be re-elected. Yet, why did he do this during his second term of office? Obama is seen as the president who had the courage to take the decisive step. Another can come along and try to reverse his decision, but he or she would have to find a very strong pretext since this process is not only a victory for the Cuban people, but also for the various sectors in the U.S. that promote and defend relations with Cuba.

There is also another important element to consider. Through this decision, the United States is beginning a process of improving relations with Latin America, since relations between the U.S. and the region have always been marked by its conflict with Cuba.

At present, our country is part of most Latin American integration systems, and this is a crucial element. For all these reasons, I believe that it would be very hard for a supposed Republican president to reverse the current process.

The above researcher is well-known for his talks at high-profile international events such as LASA 2014, WOLA 2014, and the 2012 Cyber-Security Conference in Beijing. His work has been published in various media across the region, including the Latin American journal “Cuadernos de Nuestra América,” and “Norteamérica, Academic Journal” by UNAM´s Center for Research on North America (CISAN).

The author’s opinion may not necessarily coincide with the views of Cubaminrex.cu.