Guantánamo not part of U.S.-Cuban bargain

Peering through the fence from the U.S.-controlled portion into the Cuban side of the Northeast Gate on March 20, 2014 at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Peering through the fence from the U.S.-controlled portion into the Cuban side of the Northeast Gate on March 20, 2014 at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. JOSE A. IGLESIAS

The Obama administration has no intention of withdrawing from the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, despite the sudden shift in U.S.-Cuban relations.

“There is no impact to Guantánamo from the changes announced today,” the National Security Council spokeswoman, Bernadette Meehan, said Wednesday evening.

Thursday, at the U.S. outpost in southeast Cuba, base spokeswoman Kelly Wirfel said a monthly meeting between Cuban and U.S. military officers along the fenceline dividing the base from the rest of the island was still on schedule for Friday.

The base commander, U.S. Navy Capt. John “J.R.” Nettleton, represents the United States; a U.S. diplomat attends the conversation too.

“As far as the base goes we are still maintaining current operations and policies,” she said, noting there have been “no immediate changes” for staff at the 45-square-mile base of about 6,000 residents that straddles Guantánamo Bay and sits behind a Cuban minefield.

From the earliest days of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro sought to get the United States out of the base — a prime piece of real estate long before the George W. Bush administration decided to put its iconic war-on-terror prison there.

Successive U.S. administrations have said its military has permanent tenancy under a 1934 treaty made public by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The United States cuts an annual check for $4,085 in rent, even though the Cuban government does not cash it.

Wednesday, a senior Obama official told McClatchy Newspapers that Cuban diplomats object to the continued U.S. presence on the base “in every discussion ... but there won’t be change to that status quo.”

The Pentagon spokesman for U.S. military activity in Latin America and the Caribbean said the administration was still committed to closing the base’s war-on-terror prison, which currently holds 136 foreign captives in an operation staffed by 2,000 or more U.S. troops and civilians on temporary assignment.

But the U.S. military uses Guantánamo for other purposes. Its airstrip has been a launchpad for drug-interdiction and humanitarian relief missions in the Caribbean. U.S. Coast Guard and Navy vessels pass through on resupply missions. Just this past weekend, the Coast Guard Cutter Tampa was in port.

“As of today, the Defense Department is maintaining current operations and policies throughout the region,” said Army Lt. Col. Myles B. Caggins III, the spokesman. “We continue to support the President’s goal of reducing the detainee population at Guantánamo through transfers and prosecutions.”

Beyond the Detention Center Zone, there was no hint this week of the coming upheaval in U.S.-Cuban relations on the base, which resembles small-town America. It has a church, McDonald’s, a scruffy golf course, schools for sailors’ children, and every morning at 8 a.m., the blare of the Star Spangled Banner.

At the U.S. Navy’s base radio station, Radio Gitmo, the shelves were bulging with fresh stocks of “Rockin’ in Fidel’s Backyard” T-shirts, Castro bobble head dolls and other souvenirs. It was also offering a new item: $5 Santa caps in advance of the holiday season.

During the height of the Cold War, tens of thousands of troops served at Guantánamo with munitions hidden in hillside bunkers and U.S. Marines guarding a tense frontier — as portrayed in the 1992 Hollywood hit, A Few Good Men starring Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise and Demi Moore.

The 17.4-mile fenceline was known as the Cactus Curtain. Then in 1999, U.S. President Bill Clinton had the Marines remove the minefield, heralding a new era. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, successive Guantánamo base commanders, Navy captains, described the U.S.-Cuban relationship along the minefield as “benign.”

Now, cameras and bright lights have replaced most of the Marines that once stood watch. And only the occasional sound of Cuban mines popping off in the heat or by something rustling in the minefield remind of the dangers of the frontier.

McClatchy Newspapers White House correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this report.

Full reports on Guantánamo news at Follow Miami Herald correspondent @CarolRosenberg on Twitter.

Full reports on Guantánamo news on our Miami Herald website.

Follow: Miami Herald correspondent @CarolRosenberg on Twitter

Listen: Carol Rosenberg reports on ‘Radio Gitmo’ in a 2011 WLRN collaboration here.

This time last year, the Navy base commander handled a Nativity Scene controversy. Read the dispatch here.

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