At the very least, the establishment of an embassy is likely to mean an increase in the amount of U.S. deployed to Cuba. But the United States also has maintained a 45-square-mile naval station at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba’s southeastern tip since 1903. The Communist government has long protested its existence, saying it is usurped land that was taken during the U.S. invasion of Cuba at the turn of the 19th century. But a treaty signed between the two nations in 1903 and reaffirmed in 1934 states that the United States has control of Guantanamo Bay unless it vacates or strikes a deal with Cuba that says otherwise.
Obama made no mention of the base in his remarks Wednesday. But it seems highly unlikely that the United States would give up control of a strategically valuable Navy base while at the same time making a series of diplomatic and economic concessions to Havana that the Cubans have sought for years. An Obama administration official said the policy changes with Cuba would have no impact on the future of the base.
There also is the question of whether the United States will close its controversial military detention center at Guantanamo Bay. Obama called for it in an executive order in 2009, but it remains open five years later, and more than 130 detainees are still imprisoned there.
In a Dec. 10 interview, Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, the commander of the U.S. Southern Command, told Checkpoint that he was assuming that the detention center would remain open indefinitely because “I have to, frankly.” Last year, he requested $195.7 million to build new facilities for it, including barracks for guards, a dining hall and a replacement for Camp Seven, where the most dangerous detainees are kept.
The request was denied by the Pentagon because of a lack of political support. Kelly’s staff has since examined how to make smaller, cheaper upgrades, including a renovation for the dining hall that will cost a few million dollars, the general said.
“Even if we built them all, and the day we finished the place closed — detention ops closed — the Navy station side could use those facilities,” Kelly said. “I mean, the mess hall is about to fall down. It was built as a temporary mess hall 20 years ago.”
Outside the detention center, thousands of U.S. troops and some of their families live at Guantanamo Bay. The base is used regularly for training by Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard units, and has a hospital and a few restaurants.
The renewal of diplomatic relations raises the possibility of the U.S. military building a relationship with the Cuba Revolutionary Guard Forces. They have long been considered one of the island nation’s most powerful institutions, and have strong ties to President Raúl Castro, a former defense minister.
Interactions between the U.S. military and Cuban forces probably would be slow at first. But the U.S. military has trained with forces from numerous countries in which it has uncomfortable or mixed relationships, including China and — until recently — Russia. An Air Force exercise also involving Canada and Russia in Alaska was canceled this fall in light of tensions over Russia’s aggressive involvement in Ukraine.
There are numerous military issues on which Cuba and the United States might find common ground. In one example, the Caribbean has seen thousands of economic refugees leave nearby Haiti recently, taking chances with smugglers known as “snakeheads” to get out of the impoverished country on rafts and boats.
Kelly said the United States has a close relationship with Haiti’s president, Michel Martelly, with the U.S. Coast Guard regularly picking up refugees and taking them back to Haiti. Some of them have been dumped overboard by traffickers.
The U.S. military also watches for Cuban refugees on the high seas. They have historically been put on a quick path to citizenship if they can make it to the United States, but it is unclear how that policy could change with renewed relations with Cuba. U.S. authorities have picked up thousands of Cuban refugees this year alone.