By Carol Rosenberg, Miami Herald (TNS)
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has no intention of withdrawing from the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, despite the sudden shift in U.S.-Cuban relations.
“There is no impact to Guantanamo from the changes announced today,” the National Security Council spokeswoman, Bernadette Meehan, said Wednesday evening.
Hours earlier, at the U.S. outpost in southeast Cuba, base spokeswoman Kelly Wirfel said amid reports that American prisoner Alan Gross was on his way to freedom that there was no change in security posture at the 45-square-mile outpost of about 6,000 residents that straddles Guantanamo Bay and sits behind a Cuban minefield.
From the earliest days of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro sought to get the U.S. 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 the 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 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 hold 136 foreign captives there in an operation staffed by around 2,000 U.S. troops and civilians on temporary duties.
But the U.S. military uses Guantanamo for other purposes. Its airstrip has been a launch pad 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 Guantanamo 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, called 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 Guantanamo with munitions hidden in hillside bunkers and U.S. Marines guarding a tense frontier — as portrayed in the Hollywood hit A Few Good Men, starring Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise and Demi Moore.
The 17.4-mile fence line 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 Guantanamo base commanders, Navy captains, described the U.S.-Cuban relationship along the minefield as “benign.”
Now, 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.
(Lesley Clark of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.)
Photo via Wikimedia Commons