President Obama has promised to shut down the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, seeking to erase a blot on America’s global image. He has also reached out to Cuba, easing some travel and financial restrictions in an effort to recast Washington’s approach to the island. These two initiatives have proceeded on separate tracks so far, but now is the time to bring them together. Hiding in plain sight, the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay is the ideal place for Obama to launch a far-reaching transformation of Washington’s relationship with its communist neighbor.
How? By preparing to give Guantanamo back to Cuba.
It’s not as impossible as it sounds. The United States has scaled back, modified or even withdrawn its military presence elsewhere; think Okinawa, South Korea, Subic Bay in the Philippines or Vieques in Puerto Rico. 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.
The time to begin this transition is now. By transforming Guantanamo as part of a broader remaking of Washington’s relationship with Cuba, the Obama administration can begin fixing what the president himself has decried as a “failed” policy. It can upend a U.S.-Cuba stalemate that has barely budged for 50 years and can put to the test Raul Castro’s stated willingness to entertain meaningful changes.
I visited the 45-square-mile U.S. naval base at the southeastern tip of Cuba last month at the invitation of Adm. James Stavridis, head of U.S. Southern Command. I went less to see the prison cells or learn about detainee treatment (though I did both) than to explore a region that I’d never visited in a quarter-century of traveling to and writing about the island. I not only wanted to see what was actually happening there, but also to imagine how the base could evolve once the detention facility is shut down and the eyes of the world shift elsewhere.
During my trip, it hit me how much Guantanamo — two-thirds of which is made up of the pristine waters of the bay that bears the same name — is really a part of Cuba. Overlooking the western side of the bay sat a pair of well-kept 1940s-style houses, precise replicas of the kind of residences I had seen in Havana weeks earlier. I hadn’t expected the natural environment to capture my attention the way it did. Manatees, which are disappearing elsewhere, breed in abundance; dolphins dart out of mangrove swamps and swim alongside the Navy’s ferries and motorcrafts as they cross the bay.
Driving along the fence line and seeing the Cuban flags and watchtowers, I was struck by the relative peace and quiet that both sides maintain at the one spot where they deal with each other most. In a way, when flag officers and staff from both sides meet each month at the base’s east gate, they continue a long history of pragmatic if ambivalent engagement that started well before Guantanamo became the nightmarish Gitmo.
After the United States intervened in the Spanish-American War in 1898, Washington forced Cuba to accept the creation of a naval coaling station at Guantanamo Bay in 1903 as a condition of independence. During several peak years of activity and construction in the 1940s, at least 9,000 Cuban civilians worked on the base, and small cities such as Caimanera and Boqueron catered to foreign soldiers with bars, brothels and the like. During the revolution, Cubans smuggled all sorts of supplies off the base to aid the rebel cause. Even after 1959, as the new Castro regime sharpened its attacks on symbols of American power, working on the base did not necessarily preclude being a good revolutionary. To this day, the United States provides pension benefits and health care to a handful of retired Cuban workers, some of whom still live on the base.
Since the Bay of Pigs invasion more than four decades ago, Havana has demanded the return of the base territory, but Washington has found little incentive to leave. The base is a financial freebie; the annual rent is only $4,000, although on grounds of pride and principle, Cuba has not cashed the check since 1959.
Yet the Cuban government has never taken steps, military or otherwise, to get the base back. “We are audacious and valiant,” remarked Cuban President Osvaldo Dorticos in 1964, “but we are not stupid.” Echoing such practicality, Raul Castro has referred to Guantanamo as a “neutral place” where dialogue with the Obama administration might one day unfold.
Since the 1990s, the monthly “fence-line” talks have ensured safety for the people who work in and around Guantanamo’s air, land and maritime borders. Shortly after the United States began housing terrorism suspects at the base, Raul Castro even offered to send back any detainee who tried to escape into Cuban territory. But as allegations of torture emerged and Guantanamo’s symbolism went global, Cuba joined the world in excoriating the United States.
Despite the glimmers of political will on both sides, a rapprochement between Washington and Havana will take time. Obama has called for the release of Cuba’s political prisoners. Cuba has its eye on the dismantling of American commercial sanctions and the return of Cuban spies now serving lengthy sentences in U.S. jails. The Castro brothers are unlikely to frame any reforms as a concession to Washington, while the Obama administration will wait to see how the government of Raul Castro fulfills its commitment to “improve the material and spiritual lives of the Cuban people.”
Of course, just as Obama is not going to lift the embargo tomorrow, neither will he simply give back the base the next day. But short of anything so bold, the two governments and their armed forces have already shown that Guantanamo can eventually become an ideology-free zone.
The two nations could expand their monthly gate talks beyond the issue of perimeter security to include drug trafficking, human smuggling, refugee processing and disaster preparedness and relief. Such confidence-building talks could lead to deeper cooperation, even on human rights and political prisoners.
Next, the United States should invite those same Cuban officers to cross the gates and tour Guantanamo, in part to view evidence of the Navy’s stewardship of the natural environment — a dimension of the American presence that is bound to challenge Cuban preconceptions. Third, hundreds of U.S. and international journalists, lawyers and refugee experts have visited the base in the past few years. Surely we can extend the same courtesy to their Cuban peers.
Finally, the Navy could invite public-health professionals from Cuba, the United States and other countries in the region to the base to develop strategies for cooperation. Proposals to convert the base to a public health research and treatment center date back to the Kennedy White House and have been viewed favorably by Havana ever since, especially in light of Cuba’s world-class expertise in infectious and tropical diseases.
These initiatives defy the argument that the United States should cling to the base — and the embargo, for that matter — as leverage to push Cuba toward democracy. The past 50 years have proven the fallacy of that logic. Returning Guantanamo Bay to full Cuban sovereignty and control is a win for the United States: Aside from the boon to America’s credibility with the Cuban people and throughout Latin America, these first steps would probe the Cuban government’s apparent disposition to use the base as a point of contact with the United States — and gauge the regime’s willingness to move the ball forward even more.
“As a president, I say the U.S. should go. As a military man, I say let them stay,” Raul Castro quipped last year. It’s hard to know exactly what he means. Floating these proposals would be a good way to find out.
Julia E. Sweig, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Inside the Cuban Revolution and the forthcoming Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know. CFR research associate Michael Bustamante contributed to this article.