President Obama’s drive to normalize ties with communist Cuba is raising new concerns among security officials and experts that the administration will give up the strategic naval base at Guantanamo Bay in deal with Havana.
White House, Pentagon, and State Department officials offered assurances that the Obama administration currently does not plan to negotiate the return of the base, leased by the United States since 1903.
"I’ve not been involved in any talks on normalization in the past … but it will not be on our agenda for upcoming talks," Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson told the Washington Free Beacon, referring to discussions with the Cubans on the future of what the Pentagon calls Naval Station Guantanamo Bay.
U.S.-Cuba talks on normalization are scheduled for later this month. U.S. officials expect the Cuban government to demand the return of the base, located at the southeastern tip of the island, during the talks led by Jacobson.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), a leader in Congress on scrutinizing the administration’s new Cuba policy, expressed concerns over the future of the naval base.
"Sen. Rubio continues to believe that Guantanamo Bay remains an essential U.S. military outpost that significantly enhances U.S. security and that of our partners in the region," said Rubio spokeswoman Brooke Sammon. "He will make every effort to ensure that this does not become yet another concession that the Obama administration tries to make to the Castro regime."
Congress is expected to hold hearings on the normalization policy as early as this month.
President Obama announced the new Cuba policy Dec. 17, saying the U.S. policy of seeking to isolate the regime had not worked. Many in Congress and the Cuban-American community reacted angrily to what they said was a sellout to the Havana regime.
A defense official said the strategic importance of the Guantanamo naval base is increasing based on Moscow’s announcement in November of plans to conduct strategic bomber patrols over the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. The increased bomber flights are part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber rattling.
Intelligence officials have said there are indications that Russia may seek access to Cuban and Venezuelan air bases for the regional bomber patrols.
Additionally, Cuba and Russia signed a new security agreement aimed at boosting military and intelligence ties in May.
The defense official said the U.S. repudiation of its decades-long hardline policy toward Cuba by Obama and his senior advisers has caused concerns among some military and civilian officials in the Pentagon over the future of the naval base.
The official noted similarities between President Obama’s concessions to the Cubans and those of President Jimmy Carter, who in 1977 gave away U.S. control over the Panama Canal.
Retired Adm. James Stavridis, former commander of the U.S. Southern Command, said the administration should not give away the base, currently the location of the controversial prison for al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorists.
"Guantanamo Bay Naval Station has immense strategic value above and beyond its reputation as a detention facility," Stavridis told the Free Beacon. "It is the logistic, planning, surveillance, and basing linchpin for the U.S. Fourth Fleet."
The naval facility also is "crucial to the military for disaster relief, humanitarian work, medical diplomacy, and counter-narcotics," he added, noting they are "all key missions for the U.S. Navy in Latin America and the Caribbean."
"The U.S. should do all in its power to maintain its legal control over the base," said Stavridis, a former NATO commander and current dean of Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Stavridis said the Cubans will try desperately to press the United States to close the naval base, citing the return of the Panama Canal and the closure of other U.S. bases in the region.
The 46-square-mile Navy base is located on the southeast corner of the island. It was set up under a U.S.-Cuban lease agreement in 1903 for a payment of about $2,000 a year in gold coins. The amount was increased to $4,085 annually in 1934. Termination of the lease requires consent of both the U.S. and Cuban governments, or abandonment of the base by the United States.
The communist regime that took over the island in 1959 cashed a single U.S. check for the lease, solidifying the standing of the 1903 accord.
Cuba’s government, however, has since said the naval base is "illegal."
A former senior military commander with experience in the region said in addition to regional security needs, Guantanamo is also important for U.S. Coast Guard interdiction of drug shipments, which increasingly are coming over water from Venezuela.
"That adds to its value," the officer said, noting that with decreasing U.S. defense spending, the need for forward deployed naval forces on the island is "critical."
Army Col. Lisa Garcia, spokeswoman for current U.S. Southern Command commander, Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, said: "Beyond the detention operations, the naval station has played a key role as a logistical hub in support of disaster relief, migrant, contingency, and counter-illicit trafficking operations by various U.S. federal agencies, including DOD."
At the White House, National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the recent policy changes announced by the president "result in no change to the status of Guantanamo," adding that "no change is anticipated" for the naval facility.
Pressed on the president’s view of keeping the naval base, Meehan said: "We consider it important to U.S. national security."
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Myles B. Caggins III also said the naval base at Guantanamo "remains an important location for our operations in the Caribbean."
"We do not anticipate any significant changes to our mission or policies for personnel assigned there in the near future," Caggins said in an email.
The administration’s new policy calls for expanded travel to Cuba, an increase in cash payments permitted to the island from Cubans outside the country, and increased trade.
Additionally, the administration hopes that increased interaction will lead to greater openness within Cuban society and improved interaction with the world, including increased use of the Internet.
Some U.S. economic sanctions will be lifted, and the State Department was ordered to review Cuba’s listing as a state sponsor of terrorism.
The Castro regime is currently harboring terrorists, including members of the Spanish separatist group Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA), and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Since the announcement of the new policy in December, the Cuban government has continued to crack down on dissidents seeking democratic reforms.
The new policies "will enhance our ability to have a positive impact on events inside Cuba and to help improve the lives of the Cuban people," wrote Secretary of State John Kerry, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew in a recent Miami Herald op-ed article.
"It will put American businesses on a more equal footing," they stated. "And it will enhance the standing of our own country in the hemisphere and around the world."
Critics say the new policy, which included a prisoner swap that freed a U.S. aid worker, a U.S. intelligence agent held in Cuba, and several Cuban spies held in the United States, will bolster the communist government, one of the remaining Soviet-style Stalinist regimes.
Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote to Obama on Tuesday urging him to cancel the upcoming normalization talks. The senator said Cuba’s promise to release 53 political prisoners has not taken place, and he noted that repression of dissidents continues.
The crackdown on dissidents and artists "again shows the true nature of the regime that you have now decided to legitimize and enrich," Rubio stated in the letter.
Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official and senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information told Military.com that he believes the normalization process will involve negotiations on the naval base lease.
"We probably should be out of there," Korb said. "It's caused us lots of problems. It was a way for us to get around U.S. laws and traditions, which came back to hurt us with this torture thing."
Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla told the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2013 that in addition to closing the prison, the United States must hand back the naval base.
"We are deeply concerned about the legal limbo that supports the permanent and atrocious violation of human rights at the illegal naval base in Guantanamo, a Cuban territory that was usurped by the United States, a center of torture and deaths of prisoners who are under custody," Parrilla said.
"That prison and military base should be shut down and that territory should be returned to Cuba," he said.
Cuba’s aging leader Fidel Castro stated in a 2007 article published in state media that the U.S. rent for the "illegal" Guantanamo base is $4,085 a month and that Cuba has only cashed one check from the U.S. government.
U.S. checks are made out to "Treasurer General of the Republic" although that post was eliminated under the communist regime, Castro told the state newspaper Granma.
The sole U.S. check cashed in 1959 was done so as a result of "confusion" by the new regime’s officials.
The base was initially used as a ship coaling station for the Navy for ships protecting the Panama Canal.
Fidel Castro stepped down as Cuban leader in 2008 and turned control of the country over to his brother Raul.