Guantanamo Bay control not likely to halt renewal of U.S.-Cuba relations

By Tyler Pager, Medill News Service  |  March 15, 2015 at 9:59 AM
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The United States and Cuba do not agree on what closing Guantanamo Bay means, and the disagreement could prevent relations between the two countries from fully normalizing.

For the United States, it means shutting down the controversial detention center that currently houses 122 detainees, although it has held more than 700 prisoners since it opened in January 2002.

For Cuba, it means the United States will return the land it has leased since 1903, closing both the detention center and the naval station.

The dispute over Guantanamo, however, is unlikely to play a major role in the renewal of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

In fact, Roberta Jacobson, the diplomat leading the talks for the United States, said that "the issue of Guantanamo is not on the table in these conversations" at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in February. She said the United States is not interested in discussing Guantanamo even though the Cuban delegation has brought it up.

But the fight over U.S. presence in Guantanamo may result in a continued tenuous relationship between the two countries.

"We'll have embassies, but we won't be the best of friends," said Brian Latell, a senior research associate at University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. "We're going to have lots of disagreements, including Guantanamo."

Restoring diplomatic ties

In December, President Barack Obama ordered the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba, including the opening of an embassy in Havana. Both sides are still in talks, but Jacobson said the embassies could open before the Summit of the Americas in April.

Cuban President Raul Castro, however, included the return of Guantanamo as one of four hurdles to restoring diplomatic relations in a January speech at a summit of Latin American countries.

"If these issues are not resolved, a diplomatic rapprochement between Cuba and the United States would not make sense," Castro said.

Other "absolutely sovereign" issues brought up by Castro included lifting the U.S. embargo, paying reparations for the "human and economic damages" suffered by the Cuban people and ending American radio and television transmissions to Cuba.

Cuba's request for Guantanamo is not new. The Castro brothers have been demanding the return of Guantanamo for more than 50 years.

A strategic purpose

For the United States, Guantanamo has served a strategic military purpose since 1898 when U.S. troops were first stationed there during the Spanish-American War. In 1903, the U.S. signed a lease with Cuba to retain control for as long as necessary over the 45 square miles that make up the Navy base, and since the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the detention center.

Despite the break in diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, the U.S. has continued to control the land in spite of Cuban leaders' continued appeals to the United States for its return. To terminate the lease, both parties must agree.

Most people have "a short-term memory" of Guantanamo, focusing only on the detention center, said Charles Stimson, manager of the National Security Law Program at the Heritage Foundation.

"The place has been under a unique lease for well over 100 years and hopefully will remain and can remain in our hands for the foreseeable future," Stimson said. "I cannot imagine a set of circumstances where we would want to renege on that lease."

The station is currently the only Navy base in the Caribbean, providing fuel and supplies to military vessels. The base also supports the Department of Homeland Security in U.S. immigration operations.

"It's sort of a legacy of the past. There's no place that I can think of that the United States is still occupying a piece of territory, which the government of the country wants back," said Vicki Huddleston, a former U.S. ambassador, who also served as the principal officer of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1999 to 2002.

The path forward

Even before Obama took office, he called for the closure of the Guantanamo detention center. In 2009, Obama signed an executive order requiring the closure of the center within a year. He has failed so far and the GOP-controlled Congress is making it even more difficult to close the facility before his term ends.

Republicans have drafted legislation that would prohibit the transfer of detainees to the United States or Yemen for two years, effectively making it impossible for Obama to close the facility.

Experts agree the continued American presence in Guantanamo will make normalizing relations with Cuba more difficult.

The chances of closing the detention center in the near future are slim, and the United States has no interest in shutting down the Navy base at this point so it is not feasible for American diplomats to use Guantanamo as a bargaining chip, said Wells Bennett, a fellow at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution.

"To really bargain meaningfully on that issue you would have to be in a position to really do something about Guantanamo pretty quickly and right now they're just not in that position," he said. "They're a long way from it."

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