Cuban President Raul Castro demanded in a speech this week that the U.S. remove the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay before diplomatic relations between the two countries are normalized. The White House has dismissed the idea, saying in a statement that President Obama "does believe that the prison at Guantanamo Bay should be closed down... but not the naval base"
This is the only politically prudent course of action for the White House to take here. Given that Congress is already threatening to derail both the long-delayed efforts to close down the detention center and the diplomatic opening to Cuba, upping the ante by agreeing to a Cuban demand to shutter the entire base seems like a non-starter. Obama has already gone farther and faster than most expected to bring an end to the half-century old conflict between the two countries. He shouldn’t have to accede to new Cuban demands at this point.
Still, separate from the demand, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for the U.S. to take stock of why it continues to control 45-square-miles of Cuban territory and whether it should. The U.S. has controlled Guantanamo, its oldest overseas military base, since 1903 thanks to a lease signed in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. In an example of what historian Paul Kramer calls “gunboat tenancy,” the U.S. congress effectively made the American military’s access to the site a condition of troops being pulled out of Cuba, and the lease had no cut-off date. The original rent of $2,000 per year in gold was raised to $4,000 in 1934. The U.S. continues to pay the rent every year, though the Castro regime has made a point of never cashing the checks. The base has been completely isolated from Cuba since 1964, when Castro cut off electricity and water to the base.
Guantanamo was a major shipping hub during World War II and was considered strategically vital during the Cold War. Today, it’s a logistical hub for the Navy’s fourth fleet and is used for training and as a staging ground for counter-narcotics efforts and humanitarian relief missions. It hosted refugees fleeing neighboring Haiti after the 1991 coup and the 2010 earthquake. But, since 2002, it’s been best known for the controversial detention center.
Given that the Caribbean is not exactly at the top of the U.S. security agenda these days, it doesn’t seem worth it for the U.S. to hold on to a controversial vestige of a not-particularly appealing era of American history. After all, the U.S. gave back the Panama Canal and scaled back its military presence elsewhere in the region. Why not Guantanamo?
“Whatever Guantanamo's minor strategic value to the United States for processing refugees or as a counter-narcotics outpost, the costs of staying permanently—with the stain of the prisons, the base's imperial legacy and the animosity of the host government—outweigh the benefits,” wrote Julia Sweig, a Cuba expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in 2009. Harvard historian Jonathan Hansen, author of Guantanamo: An American History, argued in 2012 that the base “has served to remind the world of America’s long history of interventionist militarism. Few gestures would have as salutary an effect on the stultifying impasse in American-Cuban relations as handing over this coveted piece of land.” And retired Admiral James Stavridis, former head of the U.S. Southern Command, which includes Guantanamo, says the U.S. should hold on to the base but that it should be “internationalized”—converted into a hub where countries throughout the region could cooperate on humanitarian relief efforts and counter-narcotics programs.
The time might not be right for the U.S. to hand over Guantanamo. If anything, the administration should first concentrate on its long overdue effort to close the detention center. But that doesn’t mean nothing else should change. The U.S. and Cuban militaries already hold regular—and from all accounts cordial—meetings at the base fence. Those military contacts could be increased. Cubans also haven’t been employed at the base and U.S. service-members haven’t been able to venture outside the perimeter since the 1960s. That’s another area for improvement. The yearly $4,000 payments are a frankly insulting reminder of an agreement Cuba signed under duress more than a century ago. At some point, more equitable terms could be negotiated.
“You need me on that wall,” goes the famous speech delivered by Jack Nicholson’s fictional Gitmo commander in A Few Good Men. For a century, few have questioned the necessity of maintaining a base on enemy territory, despite the ugly circumstances of its founding. But if the long conflict between the U.S. and Cuba does come to an end, the wall should eventually come down.