MIAMI (AP) — A delegation from Cuba will take part for the first time in an annual Caribbean regional security conference co-sponsored by the U.S. military's Southern Command, a senior official said Tuesday, portraying the participation as a significant step in the ongoing thaw between the long-hostile neighbors.
The Cuban government's decision to accept an invitation to the Caribbean Nations Security Conference in Jamaica this month follows other relatively small but symbolic forms of military engagement between countries that normalized relations in December 2015, said Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, the commander of Southern Command.
"We've normalized now and, regardless of how we think of each other in terms of politics, we have very, very common challenges," Kelly said in an interview two days before he ends his tenure as commander of U.S. military operations in the Southern Hemisphere.
The conference takes place over three days starting Jan. 27 in Kingston, Jamaica. Senior military and other security officials are expected from 16 Caribbean countries as well as the U.S., Canada, France, the Netherlands and United Kingdom. Cuba has not yet said who it will send and its government had no immediate response to a request for comment by The Associated Press. Venezuela, which has a chilly relationship with Washington, won't be there, Kelly said.
In the past, the conference has focused on cooperative efforts to combat drug trafficking as well as the smuggling of people and weapons. It is not clear if Cuba would take the opportunity to again raise its vehement objection to the presence of the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The administration of President Barack Obama has said it wants to close the Guantanamo detention center, where it holds 103 men, but has said discussion of the future of the base, which occupies 45 square miles (117 square kilometers) on the southeastern corner of the island, is not on the table.
Kelly said he believes the facility remains strategically valuable, a deepwater port in the Caribbean, and he would like to see it remain open even if the detention center closes. He suggested it could be run jointly with the Cubans, offering employment to the local population as it once did. But the general says he hasn't discussed it with anyone in the Castro government. "It wouldn't be appropriate," he said.
Working with the State Department, the military in September hosted a delegation of Cuban doctors on board the USS Comfort hospital ship during a humanitarian visit to in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, which Kelly pointed to as evidence of improved relations.
Cuban military officials and the Navy commander of the base at Guantanamo have long held regular private meetings to discuss issues such as fire protection in the arid no-man's land around the base.
The level of security between the base and the rest of Cuban territory has also changed. Kelly, who is retiring after a 45-year career, recalled being sent to Guantanamo in 1971 when he was a Marine Corps private first class. At the time, there was a battalion of 1,400 troops guarding the fence, reinforced with tanks, artillery and tens of thousands of mines, which have since been removed.
"I don't even know if they man their side of the fence anymore. We have minimal security on our side," he said.