The Obama administration is not discussing the possibility of handing the naval base at Guantanamo Bay back to Cuba as part of its ongoing talks with top Cuban officials, a State Department official assured Congress Wednesday.
"The issue of Guantanamo is not on the table in these conversations," Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "I want to be clear that what we're talking about right now is the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, which is only one first step in normalization."
The issue came up at the committee because the Obama administration is trying to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba, and Cuba has said the return of the base is one of three steps the U.S. must take before this can happen. Cuban President Raul Castro said the U.S. must also lift the embargo, and compensate Cuba for the economic damage caused by the embargo.
The Obama administration has been criticized for agreeing to talk to Cuba without asking for any concessions from Cuba at all, in areas such as improved human rights, respect for democracy, or compensation for property Cuba stole decades ago during the revolution. That has fueled fears among supporters of the embargo that Obama may try to lift the embargo and other sanctions freely, without any concessions.
Another factor is that the Obama administration has said openly that it wants to close down the terrorist detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay. Late last year, State said it would try to transfer the 64 or so terrorist detainees that are still be held in Cuba and have not yet been approved for transfer.
But Jacobson stressed that the talks so far are focused only on setting up formal embassies in the U.S. and Cuba.
"Obviously, the Cuban government has raised Guantanamo," she said. "We are not interested in discussing that. We are not discussing that issue or return of Guantanamo."
Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) asked whether the U.S. might be considering ending its pro-democracy broadcasts, which have been beamed into Cuba for decades. But Jacobson again said State is not considering this step.
"The Cuban government has always raised Radio and TV Marti, both in migration talks and they raised them again as part of the list of things that they object to in the normalization talks," she said. "But we have no plans to end those either."
Some have charged that the Obama administration has made a big concession by just agreeing to formalize its relationship with Cuba, but Jacobson rejected this argument.
"Moving forward with the establishment of diplomatic relations is not a gift or a concession to governments," she said. "It's a channel of communication."
She also added that formal U.S. diplomats are not necessarily something Cuba wants, and said if this happens, the U.S. would be able to better press its case for Cuba to reform, and the 70 or so fugitives from U.S. justice.
"We're quite irritating to governments sometimes," she said. "It's not necessarily something that the Cuban government wanted."