Sixteen retired senior military officers are asking the Trump administration to continue the process of normalization with Cuba for the sake of U.S. national security and stability in the region.
“The location of Cuba in the Caribbean and proximity to the US make it a natural and strategically valuable partner on issues of immediate concern, including terrorism, border control, drug interdiction, environmental protections, and emergency preparedness,” the retired officers stated in a letter that was for National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and made public on Thursday.
The retired officers indicated that ensuring economic stability on the island was beneficial to the United States for security reasons.
“We acknowledge the current regime must do more to open its political system and dialogue with the Cuban people. But, if we fail to engage economically and politically, it is certain that China, Russia, and other entities whose interests are contrary to the United States’ will rush into the vacuum,” the letter said. “We have an opportunity now to shape and fill a strategic void.”
Six of the 16 letter-signers traveled to Havana from March 14-17 at the invitation of the Cuban government and met with officials from the Foreign Ministry as well as representatives from the Energy, Agriculture, Trade, and Foreign Investment ministries. The group also visited the Port of Mariel and met with 12 Ministry of Interior officials — a gathering not previously disclosed. The MININT is in charge of domestic security but also of the Cuban intelligence services.
The Cuban officials provided “a significant hour and a half Power Point brief on their security concerns and their thoughts on cooperation with the United States,” Stephen A. Cheney, a retired brigadier general in the U.S. Marine Corps, said. “A pretty interesting group of active military folks.
“Some questioned why we did not meet with dissidents, but this was not the purpose of this trip but to listen to government people, have an idea of how it works and what their concerns are.”
The letter seeks to influence the administration while it is still reviewing Cuba policy, an exercise spearheaded by the National Security Council. The Trump administration “must take into account all national security factors under consideration” and not look at the current policy “simply as something that Obama did and because Obama did it, you hate it,” Cheney said.
We have an opportunity now to shape and fill a strategic void.
Letter signed by retired military officials
The main concern from the national-security standpoint, he added, is a migration crisis if the island’s economy worsens, a possibility that “at 90 miles from our coasts, does not do us any favors.”
“If they feel desperate, they are going to reach out to those we would rather not want,” added retired Brig. Gen. David McGinnis, in reference to the growing role of China, Russia, and Iran in the region.
Cheney highlighted the level of cooperation with Cuba on issues like anti-drug efforts but said that part of the “frustration” of the Cuban government is that the routine meetings to continue these mechanisms of cooperation have been canceled by the Trump administration, “not out of a policy change but because the people are not there.”
Cheney also said the Trump administration could lift trade and financial restrictions, such as in agriculture, to the benefit of U.S. companies. “Clearly the embargo has not worked. We have to look for new actions if we want to increase our security,” said retired Lt. Gen. John G. Castellaw.
The trip and the missive were coordinated by the American Security Project (ASP), a non-partisan organization of which several of the retired officials who signed the letter are members of — Cheney is its executive director. According to an ASP statement, the trip was organized by Scott Gilbert, a member of its board and a lawyer of contractor Alan Gross, who was jailed in Cuba for five years and released on Dec. 17, 2014.
Among those who signed the letter are retired Gen. James T. Hill, who headed the U.S. Southern Command from 2002-2004 and retired Admiral Robert Inman, who held senior positions in the intelligence services under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Several signers of the letter including, McGinnis; retired Major Gen. Paul Eaton; retired Rear Admirals Jamie Barnett and Michael Smith; and retired Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis publicly supported Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign.
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres