THE BLOG
01/07/2015 10:24 am ET Updated Mar 09, 2015

Reimagining Guantanamo Bay

MLADEN ANTONOV via Getty Images

Some years ago, I was the Commander of U.S. Southern Command, the 4-star military command that oversees all military activity south of the U.S. My headquarters was in my hometown of Miami, Florida -- which was terrific. And best of all, I traveled extensively throughout the many countries in this vibrant region. I went frequently to Cuba, although I never set foot in Havana or anywhere besides Guantanamo Bay. Many people don't know that Guantanamo Bay Naval Station is the largest US base in the region, and has been a fundamental part of U.S. activity in the region. It is far more than the notorious detention facility, which we should close as quickly as we can.

The base serves today as the logistical, training and naval hub of the Caribbean and south Atlantic. It is where the U.S. military stages and operates an extensive program of humanitarian activity, medical diplomacy and disaster relief -- swinging into action after the frequent hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters of the region. Guantanamo Bay is leased from Cuba (although the Castro regime disputes the legitimacy of the agreement and doesn't cash the rent checks). Two interesting trends that converge on Cuba will have a significant impact on Guantanamo Bay, and we should consider them and plan for a sensible outcome for the Naval Station.

First is the ongoing effort to close the detention facility. The President desperately wants to do so before he leaves office (something he promised many years ago as a candidate for office). He is trying to depopulate the facility by sending the less dangerous detainees to other countries (six just decamped for Uruguay); and negotiating with the Congress to bring the hard cases back to the U.S. If he is successful, this will have the effect of returning the Naval Station to its previous existence as a logistic and training center.

Second is the "normalization" of relations with Cuba. This is a good thing on balance, as it will probably end up creating more pressure for liberalization of the regime in Cuba than the embargo had accomplished across the decades. Over time, it will gradually have the effect of helping the people of Cuba achieve their potential. And -- ojallah as we say in Spanish -- it will ultimately strengthen the democratic movement there and resolve the last remaining dictatorship in the Americas in a positive way.

Over the next five years, the U.S. will come under serious pressure from the Castro regime and its partners in the Americas (Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia and others) to close the Naval Station and return it to Cuba sovereignty. They will say: You gave back the Panama Canal, closed bases elsewhere (in Ecuador, for example), and generally do not deploy forces without the consent of a host government. If relations with Cuba are "normal," why would Cuba not get the same treatment?

One answer would be to begin using the base as the hub of a U.S.-led international effort to address the challenges of the region. Naval Station Guantanamo, with the cooperation of Cuba and the U.S., could be used for:

  • Large-scale disaster-relief efforts as the inevitable hurricanes and earthquakes devastate the region
  • Humanitarian-relief work, cooperating to build clinics, schools, sources of clean drinking water
  • Basing hospital ships and training vessels focused on civil-improvement projects and education
  • Storage of relief supplies -- major facilities for this already exist
  • Collective counter-narcotics efforts, partnering with the Joint Interagency Task Force in Key West

All of this would require a delicate negotiation with the Cubans, agreement from the U.S. to continue providing the lion's share of the funding, and cooperation from other partners (Brazil, Colombia, Mexico all have capacity). It would probably also require closing the detention facility, as other nations are unlikely to participate without the departure of Joint Task Force Guantanamo (the detainee command). All very complicated.

But the idea of essentially internationalizing Naval Station Guantanamo has real possibilities and would allow the U.S. and Cuba to work together on a positive project going forward. The odds of the U.S. needing the base for combat operations are essentially nil -- luckily we enjoy peace here in the Americas. We should explore the possibilities for collective use of Naval Station Guantanamo in addressing the real problems in this hemisphere: poverty, natural disasters, development and narcotics.

This post is part of a Huffington Post blog series called "90 Miles: Rethinking the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations." The series puts the spotlight on the emerging relations between two long-standing Western Hemisphere foes and will feature pre-eminent thought leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the NGO community, and prominent observers from both countries. Read all the other posts in the series here.

If you'd like to contribute your own blog on this topic, send a 500-850-word post to impactblogs@huffingtonpost.com (subject line: "90 Miles").