Opening Cuba and Closing Gitmo?

Havana will be pushing hard to shut the naval station at Guantanamo Bay -- but Washington shouldn’t give in.

This photo reviewed by the US military and made during an escorted visit shows a welcome board at the road to the US Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, April 7, 2014. AFP PHOTO/MLADEN ANTONOV (Photo credit should read MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images)

When I was the commander of U.S. Southern Command a few years ago, my responsibilities included military-to-military relations with all the nations of the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. My headquarters and residence were in Miami, but I traveled extensively to virtually every nation and territory south of the United States. People would often ask me where I went most often: to Brazil, the huge mega-state? Perhaps to Colombia, our closest ally in the region? To Haiti, trying to help with the disaster relief? All good guesses — but the country I visited the most was … Cuba.

Cuba, of course, is the location of Guantanamo Naval Station, our oldest and largest military installation in all of Latin America and the Caribbean. Now that we are moving forward with plans to open up our relationship with Cuba, the issue of closing Naval Station Guantanamo Bay will quickly be on the table, pushed hard and fast by the Cubans.

For a variety of reasons, we should close the detention facility, but work hard to keep the naval station under U.S. control, despite what will be intense pressure from the Cubans desperately seeking to shut it down.

I went to Naval Station Guantanamo for the first time in the summer of 1975 as a very young midshipman in training at the Naval Academy, when the carrier upon which I was embarked for summer cruise spent three weeks of damage control practice there. For decades, well before the notorious detention facility, the base has been crucial to U.S. activities south of our nation. It continues to be central to our efforts today.

Guantanamo Bay is much more than the detention facility that has become so infamous around the world since 9/11. It is the logistical hub for the Navy’s Fourth Fleet, which conducts humanitarian projects, disaster relief, and medical diplomacy throughout the region. Guantanamo Bay is the staging area to help refugees, particularly in the event of a massive displacement of people following hurricanes, earthquakes, or political upheavals. And it is a source of intelligence collection and information sharing in the multinational counternarcotics mission attempting to reduce the flow of cocaine and illegal migrants to the United States.

Today, of course, the words “Guantanamo Bay” instantly conjure up only the holding facility for combatants captured around the world. While the facility today is thoroughly inspected (including frequent visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross, media, legislators), it retains a highly negative reputation around the world. With fewer than 200 detainees remaining, it is increasingly difficult to justify the manpower and expense of keeping the facility open. But whether it can be closed will depend on the president’s willpower, the mood of the Congress, and the willingness of the international community to absorb some the detainees. We cannot know how the story of the detention facility will yet unfold.

But we can be sure the Cuban government, now armed with the status of “normal relations” will instantly, loudly, and aggressively seek to have the base itself closed — regardless of the future of the detention facility. We should strongly resist doing so.

The history is complicated: Guantanamo was essentially rented in perpetuity to the U.S. government for a nominal annual rent. The Castro regime has never recognized the legitimacy of the agreement (indeed, it has never cashed the rent checks, faithfully sent annually), and maintains that the base is an illegal enclave on their sovereign soil. As a result of the disagreement, the base is ringed with mine fields and stays in a perpetual state of quasi-alert, immortalized in the hyperbolic and exaggerated (but highly watchable) film, A Few Good Men.

The Cuban argument will be thus: The United States has given back the Panama Canal, willingly closed bases in other Latin American countries at the government’s request (air facilities in Ecuador, for example), and only operates its military throughout the region with the consent of the local state — with the exception of Cuba. Now that we are normalizing” relations, the Castro regime will insist on equal treatment with other sovereign states. That would mean closing the naval station — a big mistake.

While normal relations will require a dialogue with the Castro regime, we should seek to continue operating the base under the existing legal rental agreement. The base has vital functions that go far beyond the detention facility, though of course that facility — despite its international unpopularity — may have to operate into the foreseeable future.

But there are benefits to maintaining the base for Havana, too, especially if the economy is opened. A base the size of Guantanamo Bay could help improve the economy of southern Cuba: at the moment, everything at the naval station is imported, but that could change to local procurement. It will also continue to be a hub for humanitarian and counternarcotics efforts on the part of the United States, providing a constructive linkage between the two governments as they seek to find zones of cooperation. It could also potentially serve as a multinational location for joint efforts in defense and developmental cooperation with partners and allies in the region.

The normalization of relations with Cuba is — on balance — the right decision, and one that I have long publicly supported. But we should not rush to close a vital naval station as part of whatever deal is struck. Guantanamo Bay is much more than a detention facility.


James Stavridis is a retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral and NATO supreme allied commander who serves today as the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His latest book is The Leader's Bookshelf. Twitter: @stavridisj