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Despite decades of enmity, U.S. and Cuba find common ground on anti-drug effort

HAVANA, CUBA - OCTOBER 5:  Cuban soldiers stand on the deck of a Havana Coast Guard boat dedicated to intercepting drug traffickers October 5, 2004 in Havana, Cuba. Cuban authorities said drug smuggling operations from South America to the U.S. have been foiled by increased patrols by sea and air.  (Photo by Jorge Rey/Getty Images)

HAVANA, CUBA - OCTOBER 5: Cuban soldiers stand on the deck of a Havana Coast Guard boat dedicated to intercepting drug traffickers October 5, 2004 in Havana, Cuba. Cuban authorities said drug smuggling operations from South America to the U.S. have been foiled by increased patrols by sea and air. (Photo by Jorge Rey/Getty Images)  (2003 Getty Images)

For decades the United States and Cuba have been bitter opponents on nearly every issue from human rights to foreign policy. There is, however, one area where Washington and Havana have made – and hope to continue being – unlikely allies: combating the drug trade.

As international drug smugglers shift operations from the Central America/Mexico corridor back to the Caribbean basin and U.S. relations with Cuba begin to thaw, the tacit truce between the countries could continue to expand their cooperative efforts to stem the flow of drugs into the countries.

"The Caribbean now is a soft spot with its economic hardships in the region and Mexico reducing the flow of drugs into the United States," Susan K. Purcell, the director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami told FNL.

For decades, Cuba has acted as a major obstacle for drug traffickers bringing cocaine, marijuana and other illicit substances through the Caribbean – thanks in large part to the country’s strict anti-drug laws and its cooperation with the U.S.

"The Cubans have a very minor drug problem compared to their rest of the Caribbean, and they want to keep it that way," Geoff Thale, program director of the Washington Office on Latin America told Fox News Latino.

Cuban authorities have worked hand-in-hand with their U.S. counterparts to alert them to everything from fast boats carrying drugs to the remote islands between the two countries to tanker ships covertly trafficking cocaine to Europe. The Cuban Coast Guard has also used its limited forces to detain traffickers attempting to sneak through its waters on the way to the U.S.

Many analysts and government insiders speculate this anti-drug cooperation could expand, especially given the apparent inability of most other countries in the region to mount any decisive action against drug traffickers.

The U.S. State Department called efforts by Jamaica – one of the largest suppliers of marijuana to the U.S. and a major conduit for cocaine and synthetic drugs – "moderately effective … because of a lack of sufficient resources, corruption, an inefficient criminal justice system" and no "meaningful legislation to combat corruption and gangs." 

The Caribbean region of Honduras, which has the world’s highest per capita murder rate, is "vulnerable to narcotics trafficking due to its remoteness, limited infrastructure, lack of government presence and weak law enforcement institutions," the State Department noted.

Given the lack of options for effective partners in the Caribbean, the State Department report highly praises the Cuban anti-drug effort – citing the country’s active policing, harsh sentencing, low consumer disposable income and limited opportunities to produce illegal drugs as some of the reasons for its success.

"Despite its location between some of the largest exporters of illegal drugs in the hemisphere and the gigantic U.S. market, Cuba is not a major consumer, producer or transit point of illicit narcotics," The State Department report noted. "Greater communication and cooperation between the United States, international partners and Cuba, particularly in terms of real-time information-sharing and improved tactics, techniques, and procedures, would likely lead to increased interdictions and disruptions of illegal trafficking."

Some experts argue that Cuba’s anti-drug push is less an altruistic move to prevent drugs entering the U.S., but instead more of a way to control its own population and keep order amid a turbulent political situation.

"Cuba is really only interested in keeping [its] own population in line," Purcell said.

Still any counter-narcotics talk is good politics for Havana in terms of its relations with Washington. Thale theorized that whenever the U.S. does open an embassy in Havana, it will send more Coast Guard and Drug Enforcement Administration officials to work alongside their Cuban counterparts.

"Both countries, whatever their political interest, have the same interests here," Thale added.

Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.

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