The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation at Fort Benning may soon train students from Cuba, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere said Thursday.
Frank Mora, director of the Latin America and Caribbean Center in Miami, made the announcement to about 250 students and faculty during the 15th anniversary celebration of the institute at Fort Benning. Getting students from Cuba is possible after President Barack Obama announced in 2014 that the United States is re-establishing relations with Cuba.
"I look forward to the time when there are Cuban military officers here," said Mora, also a professor of politics and international relations at Florida International University. "I think we are going to be moving into that direction."
Since 2001, the institute has provided professional education and training to eligible military, law enforcement and civilian personnel from the Western Hemisphere nations. Although Cuba is just 90 miles away from the United States, ties had been severed between the two countries since 1961, more than five decades until the change.
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Mora said three things always got in the way of U.S. relations with Cuba during his conversations with Latin American counterparts and diplomatic officials. They included the war on drugs, immigration and Cuba.
In the war on drugs, people no longer hear from Washington or the Obama administration. The president also has made changes in the immigration debate through executive decisions, Mora said.
The issue of Cuba is off the table.
"I do believe that relationship between United States and Latin America has been strong, deep and dense in its relationship," Mora said.
"Whether the war on drugs or the issue of Cuba was getting in the way, deepening and improving that relationship, I think that was just rhetoric."
Relations between the United States and Latin America couldn't be stronger than it is today, Mora said.
Col. Keith W. Anthony, commandant of the institute at Fort Benning, hopes to see students from Cuba before his assignment ends at Fort Benning, in less than two years.
"We are very hopeful," he said of the chance to add Cuban students. "Lean forward as much as you can without getting ahead of foreign policy. As you know, security assistance is one of those things that are pretty easy to do. Maybe one student can come to our medical course or something like that, and build a relationship from there. It's slow baby steps but I'm hopeful that within the 18 months I'm in command and have left, we will have our first Cuban student."
Cuba is part of the Americas and it has been alienated for a period of time.
"To bring them here whether they are students or instructors, and for them to be seen equal to us and represented here, I think is important," the commandant said. "We want to put their flag up, which will say a lot -- just for them to be included in the community of the Americas."
Anthony described the school as an adult, since it opened a decade and half ago. The beginning was a time when no one thought the institute would be around another year.
"This is the 15th ceremony we've had," Anthony said. "In the Latin culture, it is the day when proud parents see their child as an adult. I think WHINSEC has made that transition as well."
The anniversary program ended with a cake cutting led by Lt. Sophia Navedo, the youngest instructor. There are currently 75 students in training at the institute where 1,983 were trained in fiscal 2015, said Lee Rials, a public affairs spokesman.