Returning the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay to Cuba isn’t part of the deal in re-establishing relations between the United States and the Havana government, the Obama administration told Congress on Wednesday.
Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that returning Guantánamo Bay and the U.S. base there “is not on the table in these conversations.”
“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,” Jacobson said. “Obviously, the Cuban government has raised Guantánamo. We’re not interested in discussing that. We are not discussing that issue or the return of Guantánamo."
Cuban President Raúl Castro last week demanded the return of Guantánamo Bay, lifting of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba and compensation from the United States for damages to his country before the two nations can normalize relations.
Jacobson and other administration officials faced a second straight day of congressional questioning on President Barack Obama’s outreach to Cuba.
A Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee chaired by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., had pressed the officials Tuesday. In Wednesday’s hearing, Foreign Affairs Committee Republicans, and some Democrats, expressed deep skepticism over Obama’s plan to undo more than a half century’s worth of trade, travel and diplomatic restrictions on Havana.
“Instead of dismantling a 50-year-old failed policy, as it claims, the administration may have given a 50-year-old failed regime a new lease on life to continue its repression at home and militant support for Marxist regimes abroad,” said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the committee’s chairman.
Royce and other committee members argued that the U.S. got little in return in its secret talks with the Cuban government in terms of advancing human rights and democracy on the island nation.
“I always felt the embargo and the pressure on Cuba would lead to some changes in Cuba,” said Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J., who came to the U.S. from Cuba in 1962. “I don’t see what we negotiated where it’s going to lead to anything. It’s just beyond me that a signature on a piece of paper somehow relieves these dictators of these pressures.”
Obama’s action on Cuba has divided Congress and the two major political parties.
Lawmakers such as Royce, Rubio and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. have criticized the White House, while others, such as Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., have introduced bills that would ease restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba.
Still, several lawmakers in both parties took umbrage Tuesday at the secretive nature of the administration’s talks with Cuba and with the White House for not consulting Capitol Hill about the historic policy shift.
“I might have been more favorably impressed by the policy if it hadn’t been such a complete shock and if Congress had been involved,” said Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif.
Jacobson defended the administration’s approach, saying the long-standing U.S. policy toward Cuba had “failed to empower the Cuban people and isolated us from our democratic partners in this hemisphere and around the world.”
“The president’s initiatives look forward and are designed to promote changes that support universal human rights and fundamental freedoms for every Cuban, as well as changes that promote our other national interests,” she said.
Several committee members strongly disagreed. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., whose family also arrived in the U.S. from Cuba, accused the Obama administration of ignoring human rights abuses while it was secretly negotiating with Havana on normalization.
“This foreign policy decision is in line with the president’s other example of executive overreach and bypassing consultations with Congress,” she said.
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the committee’s ranking member, noted that Obama’s move to re-establish relations with Cuba “is not the end of the story.”
“The onus is now on the Cuban government to respond by moving forward with real reform,” Engel said. “To me it means free and fair elections, respect for the rule of law, an independent press. . . . It also means releasing each and every political prisoner currently jailed in Cuba and ending the harassment of every political activist . . . only then will we be comfortable with Cuba moving along the path to democracy.”