RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
There are American military bases all over the world, welcomed by host countries for the most part, with one glaring exception - the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A treaty signed in 1934 leases Guantanamo to the United States in perpetuity. Today, the base is best known for holding suspected terrorists, which means that even though the two countries are starting a new relationship, the base remains important for the U.S. NPR's David Welna takes us there to find out why.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All passengers please deplane. And again, welcome to the Pearl of the Antilles.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: That Pearl of the Antilles would be Cuba, the enormous island this Pentagon-chartered airliner has just landed on at the airstrip next to the U.S.-controlled Guantanamo Bay. Because this legally is still Cuba, once on the ground, I have to show my U.S. passport.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Just check in and just change these out of there and mark...
WELNA: The man checking it is with the U.S. Navy.
Cuban officials cannot set foot on the U.S. Naval Base, which spreads across 45 square miles of hilly, cactus-sprouting land on both sides of Guantanamo Bay. Nothing connects the two sides. To cross the bay, you have to take a ferry. On the other side, where most of the base's 6,000 or so residents live, the day begins with a loudspeaker blasting a familiar tune.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAR-SPANGLED BANNER")
WELNA: This Naval Base was built in 1903 for U.S. warships to stock up on coal and other supplies. But these days, it's a rare occasion when a modern U.S. warship makes a call.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Captain, United States Navy, arriving.
WELNA: The arrival of this advanced Navy destroyer equipped with Aegis radar and Tomahawk missiles on its way to the Baltic Sea marks only the third ship docking in half a year. Its skipper welcomes me aboard.
DARREN DUGAN: My name's Commander Darren Dugan. I'm the commanding officer of USS Jason Dunham. She's an amazing warship, and we're happy to be down here in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
WELNA: Commander Dugan says it's actually easier to refuel at sea. Still, he's happy about making this port call.
DUGAN: Guantanamo Bay is great. It gives us the ability to refuel, get maintenance done. The crew enjoys some time ashore.
WELNA: The attractions include an outdoor movie theater with free admission.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: For tonight's feature presentation, we will bring to you "American Sniper." It's rated R. Thank you for coming. Enjoy the movie.
WELNA: In the audience sits 50-year-old Carl Davis, who's a fire chief on the base.
CARL DAVIS: My father was in the Navy here, and me and my twin brother were born here.
WELNA: For Davis, Guantanamo is a kind of Mayberry, USA, with iguanas. He does not think the U.S. will or should relinquish the base.
DAVIS: I think it would be a good loss for a lot of the military folks because getting stationed in Guantanamo is a - really a hidden gem of duty assignment for the active-duty folks.
WELNA: Indeed, many in the military are determined to keep it open indefinitely.
JOHN KELLY: Guantanamo Naval Base is a hugely useful facility to the United States.
WELNA: That's Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, head of the U.S. Southern Command in Florida, which oversees Guantanamo. Earlier this year at the Pentagon, Kelly acknowledged President Obama wants to close the prison camp at Guantanamo, with its 116 war captives. But Kelly said the base is still needed for dealing with refugees from nearby Haiti and elsewhere picked up at sea.
KELLY: We construct camps, temporary camps, treat them right, feed them, you know, take care of them in the way that - you know, the U.N. particularly has got guidelines for refugees. And then we assist the DHS and repatriate them. So it's a very useful base.
WELNA: But Miami-based immigration lawyer Ira Kurzban says U.S. officials are using Guantanamo to skirt the law.
IRA KURZBAN: What is the purpose of taking people to Guantanamo? It's to keep people who are seeking asylum and who may have genuine claims for asylum out of the United States, so they can't assert those claims.
WELNA: Retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis visited the base many times when he was in charge of the U.S. Southern Command six years ago. Now dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, Stavridis thinks the U.S. could manage without it.
JAMES STAVRIDIS: It has significant strategic value, but I wouldn't describe it as vital to the national security needs of the United States.
WELNA: Despite the recent restoration of diplomatic ties, two big issues remain thorns in Cuba's side - the U.S. trade embargo and Guantanamo Bay. Last month, on the day the American Embassy in Havana reopened, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez once again demanded...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BRUNO RODRIGUEZ: The return of the territory occupied illegally by the Guantanamo Naval Base.
WELNA: But Secretary of State John Kerry, who stood next to Rodriguez, would not make any promises.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHN KERRY: At the moment, there is no current discussion or plan to change the arrangement with respect to Guantanamo.
WELNA: The only Cuban presence these days on the naval base is what you can hear on the radio.
(SOUNDBITE OF CUBAN RADIO BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Speaking Spanish).
WELNA: It boasts of the Cuban revolution, now in its 57th year.
BILL CONDON: Can I get a side of jerked pork?
WELNA: At a base restaurant called The Jerk House, Bill Condon, whose wife works at the military hospital, is waiting for his order. He thinks Cubans who resent the U.S. being here may have a point.
CONDON: I don't think they're going to let us forget about the fact that they want this base back.
WELNA: You think the U.S. should give it back?
CONDON: I don't think this is going to continue on forever.
WELNA: But for the 1934 perpetual lease treaty to end, one of two things would have to happen. Either the U.S. would have to abandon the base or both countries would have to agree to a pullout, similar to the U.S. handover of the Canal Zone to Panama. Former Southcom Comdr. Stavridis sees a similar future for Guantanamo, but not until relations with Cuba get warmer and the war captives prison is shut down.
STAVRIDIS: To have the negotiation before we have a clear path to closing the detention facility will be an exercise in futility for both sides.
WELNA: In the meantime, the U.S. will likely keep sending Havana its annual Guantanamo rent checks for $4,087, and Cuba will continue refusing to cash them. David Welna, NPR News.
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