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Obama's Cuba Visit Raises The Question Of Guantanamo Bay's Future

Crew members of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Jason Dunham load supplies while docked in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2015. The U.S. and Cuba have restored diplomatic relations, but the U.S. says it remains committed to keeping the base.
David Welna/NPR
Crew members of the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Jason Dunham load supplies while docked in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2015. The U.S. and Cuba have restored diplomatic relations, but the U.S. says it remains committed to keeping the base.

President Obama wants his visit to Havana to open up American ties with Cuba. He also wants to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, on the southern tip of the island.

Does that mean his next move might be to return the whole naval base?

"The Cubans have said clearly: 'To have normal relations with us, you have to give us back Guantanamo Bay,' " said Rep. Mac Thornberry, the Texas Republican who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "With the president going there, the concern has been that he would take some sort of action that would result in the loss of that important facility."

Thornberry and other Republicans point to deals the Obama administration has struck confidentially and then announced afterward, including the initial push to normalize relations with Cuba and the agreement to exchange five Taliban prisoners held there for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

But administration officials say that although they want the Guantanamo Bay prison closed, the base itself is not up for discussion.

That doesn't mean, however, that the Cubans won't bring it up.

"I've had that discussion many times with my Cuban counterparts," Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, told reporters ahead of Obama's trip. "They are insistent, obviously, that our presence there is not legitimate and that the facility be returned to them."

Critics argue that Obama is making concessions to Cuban leader Raul Castro and getting nothing in return.

Republican Rep. David Trott of Michigan invoked the 1977 decision by President Jimmy Carter to relinquish control of the Panama Canal, which Trott called a major loss for the U.S.

When Trott pressed the issue in a recent hearing, Secretary of State John Kerry said nothing like that is in the offing for Guantanamo.

"There's no plan, no discussion — I would personally be opposed to that," Kerry said. "There's no discussion that I'm aware of."

Coveted Since The 18th Century

Americans and other outsiders have coveted the deep-water seaport in southeastern Cuba since the 18th century.

President George Washington named his home at Mount Vernon, Va., after British Vice Adm. Edward Vernon, with whom Washington's brother Lawrence served in the Royal Navy, said Harvard historian Jonathan Hansen.

In Guantanamo: An American History, Hansen described how excitement over Guantanamo predates the American Revolution.

"There were newspapers up and down the Atlantic seaboard talking about Guantanamo Bay literally as the Promised Land," Hansen told NPR. "They were thinking about — and this is back in the 1740s — of actually having an American colony there."

The dream of American control didn't come true until 1898, when Col. Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders helped topple Cuba's Spanish overlords.

The United States imposed military rule in Cuba following its victory in the Spanish-American war, and control of the naval base became one condition for withdrawal.

The Platt Amendment, passed in 1901, called for the departure of American troops from Cuba if Havana agreed to a long-term lease for Guantanamo Bay. That arrangement became enshrined in Cuba's Constitution and has remained a point of dispute.

"It's original sin," said Michael Parmly, who headed the U.S. mission in Cuba during the George W. Bush administration. "How would we like it if, out on the tip of Long Island, there was 54 miles of territory controlled by another country?"

Most Americans don't realize how deeply Cubans resent being the only country with a U.S. military base but no treaty rights to challenge or close it, Parmly said.

An Annual Rent Check

For its part, Washington at least is diligent about paying its rent.

The U.S. Treasury sends Havana a check every year for $4,080, a payment unchanged over the history of the open-ended lease. Rulers Fidel and Raul Castro have refused to cash the checks in the years they've ruled the island, but the brothers have never tried to eject the American troops by force.

Some American sailors, Marines and others will likely stay in Cuba even if Obama is able to close the prison there. Adm. Kurt Tidd, the head of U.S. Southern Command, told senators this month that the base should not be closed.

"We have significant strategic interests at the naval station in Guantanamo Bay that will continue long past whenever detention operations end," he said.

One of Tidd's predecessors, however, said he thought that's no longer true. Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey told NPR that he believes Guantanamo no longer serves a good purpose.

"I think it's a historical anomaly," he said. "At some point, we clearly should return it to Cuba. It does not play a vital U.S. national security role."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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