Obama's Cuba Visit Raises The Question Of Guantanamo Bay's Future : Parallels The Americans have had it for more than a century, longer than any other U.S. military base abroad. Obama wants to close down the detention facility. So what are the plans for the military base?
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Obama's Cuba Visit Raises The Question Of Guantanamo Bay's Future

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Obama's Cuba Visit Raises The Question Of Guantanamo Bay's Future

Obama's Cuba Visit Raises The Question Of Guantanamo Bay's Future

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Iconic photos are coming out of Cuba. Consider one by The New York Times. It shows President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama beneath an umbrella, walking Old Havana on cobblestones shiny with rain.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The president's visit marks the restoration of relations. It's also a reminder of unfinished business.

INSKEEP: Such as the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Cubans want the U.S. out, as NPR's David Welna reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER")

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: At this isolated outpost 600 miles southeast of Havana, the day begins with loudspeakers blasting the national anthem. It underscores just who's in charge here. Officially, the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay occupies Cuban territory. But the stars and stripes have flown over the United States longest standing military base abroad for 118 years.

MAC THORNBERRY: It's a very important military installation for us. It's the most important we have, certainly in the Caribbean.

WELNA: Texas Republican Mac Thornberry chairs the House Armed Services Committee. The naval station at Guantanamo Bay is the only U.S. military base left in the Caribbean. And Thornberry wonders if its days are numbered.

THORNBERRY: The Cubans have said clearly, to have normal relations with us, you have to give us back Guantanamo Bay. And with the president going there, the concern has been that he would take some sort of action that would result in the loss of that important facility.

BEN RHODES: Guantanamo Bay, I'm sure that will be part of the discussion.

WELNA: That's White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes. He expects Cuban officials to broach Guantanamo in talks with President Obama.

RHODES: I've had that discussion many times with my Cuban counterparts. You know, they are insistent, obviously, that our presence there is not legitimate and that the facility be returned to them.

WELNA: Rhodes insists that as far as the U.S. is concerned, Guantanamo is not on the table. But Republicans have their doubts. At a recent hearing, Michigan Congressman David Trott pressed Secretary of State John Kerry on the naval base's future.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID TROTT: Is it going to end up like the Panama Canal, where we - if we move the detainees out of there as they're going to call...

JOHN KERRY: There's no discussion.

TROTT: Any plan to close that...

KERRY: No plan.

TROTT: ...To give it to Cuba?

KERRY: No discussion. I would personally be opposed to that. There's no discussion that I'm aware of.

WELNA: The waters that washed the shores of Guantanamo Bay have long attracted sailors from other shores, according to Harvard historian Jonathan Hansen.

JONATHAN HANSEN: Mount Vernon is named after a British admiral that George Washington's half-brother Lawrence served with in Guantanamo Bay in 1741 for three months.

WELNA: In his book titled "Guantanamo: An American History," Hansen describes a bay well known by Britain's American colony.

HANSEN: There were newspapers up and down the Atlantic seaboard talking about Guantanamo Bay literally as the promised land. So they were thinking about - this is back in 1740s - of actually having an American colony there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “EL HIMNO DE BAYAMO”)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Spanish).

WELNA: As Cuba's de facto national anthem attests, Guantanamo is dear to the hearts of Cubans as well. The American colony there would not become a reality until 1898, when Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders helped topple Cuba's Spanish overlords. The U.S. imposed military rule in Cuba. And Guantanamo Bay became its spoil of war. Five years later, as U.S. president, Roosevelt pressured Cuba into officially recognizing this arrangement, which, as Hansen notes, was spelled out in the so-called Platt Amendment.

HANSEN: He and his lieutenants were saying, we're not going to leave Cuba - all of Cuba. This military occupation won't end until we get this Platt Amendment adopted into your constitution. And with that, we get Guantanamo. And we get the right to intervene at will in Cuban affairs.

WELNA: And that, some say, defined U.S.-Cuban relations from the start.

MICHAEL PARMLY: It's original sin.

WELNA: That's Michael Parmly, a retired U.S. diplomat speaking via Skype from Geneva. Parmly headed the U.S. mission in Havana the final three years of the George W. Bush administration. He says most Americans don't realize how deeply Cubans resent being the world's only country with a U.S. military base and no treaty rights to close it.

PARMLY: How would we like it if out on the tip of Long Island there was 54 miles of territory controlled by another country?

WELNA: During the more than five decades they've ruled Cuba, Fidel and Raul Castro have refused to cash the annual rent checks the U.S. sends under Guantanamo's open-ended lease. Their values remained unchanged - $4,080. Still, only once have military tensions flared over the base.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Meanwhile, the United States continues to reinforce its Cuban base at Guantanamo Bay, the naval depot that Castro wants the U.S. to give up.

WELNA: For all of the melodrama in this newsreel of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Cuba has never tried to oust its unwelcome tenants militarily. Once a coaling station for U.S. warships, the naval base held Cuban and Haitian refugees in the 1990s. It's now known for its war-on-terror prison camps, which President Obama wants closed. But Admiral Kurt Tidd told Congress this month that the naval base he oversees as head of the U.S. Southern Command should not be closed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KURT TIDD: We have significant strategic interests at the Naval Station Guantanamo Bay that will continue long past whenever detention operations end.

WELNA: That's nonsense, says former SOUTHCOM commander and retired general Barry McCaffrey. For him, Guantanamo no longer serves a good purpose.

BARRY MCCAFFREY: I think it's an historical anomaly. At some point, we clearly should return it to Cuba. It does not play a vital U.S. national security role.

WELNA: A congressional ban on relinquishing the naval base is set to expire Oct. 1. David Welna, NPR News.

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