In a speech on Wednesday at the summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, Cuban President Raul Castro said that normalized relations between Cuba and the United States would not be possible until Washington ends its economic embargo and returns the territory occupied by U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo. On its surface, Castro's condition that the naval station be removed might not seem noteworthy. While the United States has an imperative to maintain military influence over the Caribbean, the Cuban government has for decades demanded an end to what it perceives as the occupation of a piece of Cuban territory by the U.S. government. However, as Washington and Havana continue moving toward a political rapprochement, Castro's demand raises the possibility of the United States eventually yielding on the naval station issue.
To be clear, negotiations between the United States and Cuba are still at an early stage, focusing on re-establishing immediate political relations and expanding trade. More complicated issues, such as compensation for U.S. property seized by the Cuban government, an end to the economic embargo and possibly the fate of the naval station, will not be under serious negotiation anytime soon. But the geopolitical state of the Caribbean makes negotiations on Cuba's demand for the return of the territory at Guantanamo plausible at least.
Future negotiations are believable because the geopolitical environment has changed since 1903, when the United States took control of the Guantanamo base. The principal reason for the United States' wresting Cuba from Spain and establishing effective control over it was its prime location. The island sits at the northern entrance to the Caribbean. A hostile foreign power controlling Cuba could affect the U.S. economy by threatening trade routes to and from the crucial port of New Orleans. The capability of other global powers (such as the United Kingdom and France in the 19th century and Germany in the 20th century) to challenge the United States made that concern at least a possibility. Therefore, securing control over Cuba, as the United States did after the 1898 Spanish-American War, was essential to guaranteeing the military and economic rise of the United States. Consequently, having a naval base there projected military power into the Caribbean and denied other great powers a strategic staging location that could threaten the U.S. heartland.
Throughout its history, Cuba has only been a potential threat to the United States in the hands of a foreign power, not by itself. With the exception of the Soviet alliance with Cuba after the 1959 Cuban revolution, such a threat has never fully materialized. In today's geopolitical arrangement, no nation can effectively exploit Cuba's strategic location to the detriment of the United States. In the absence of any looming threat, the strategic reason for maintaining the base has waned. Still, the United States will not compromise on the need to protect the sea-lanes around Cuba.
Advances in military technology in the past century have also reduced the strategic significance of the naval station. In 1903, keeping ships in Cuba was a strategic necessity, given that a physical presence was the only way available to monitor sea-lanes or effectively respond to emergencies. However, advanced technology, such as reconnaissance satellites and signals intelligence, which can be used to vector supersonic aircraft from places like the Naval Air Station Key West, now allow the same tasks to be done efficiently from U.S. soil. The diminishing importance of Guantanamo can also be seen in the relative lack of crucial assets based there. The base still houses the Guantanamo detention camp (whose status could delay any resolution to the issue of the base as a whole) and provides logistical support for naval operations and for narcotics- and migrant-interdiction efforts.
The diminished importance of the Cuban base to the United States does not mean that it will come up in negotiations between Washington and Havana soon, if at all. Cuba needs the negotiations more than the United States does, so it likely cannot press for the removal of U.S. troops. Venezuela's economic collapse has also raised concerns over Cuba's immediate economic health, pushing Havana to negotiate for potential lifelines to the United States. It still needs to secure U.S. trade concessions to guarantee its economic survival (and that of its government). In the coming years, a possible transition from Castro's direct rule to another government is likely to monopolize Cuban and U.S. attention, and the naval station could take a backseat to these more pressing issues. But the lack of threats from Cuba, combined with U.S. military technological advances, has opened up a temporary space for discussions on whether the U.S. military wants to maintain a physical presence on Cuba's Caribbean coast.