According to the White House, the US will not hand back the Guantanamo Bay naval base as part of efforts to improve relations with Cuba.
Cuba’s President Raul Castro included the demand in a speech on January 28, calling also for the US trade embargo to be lifted.
President Barack Obama “does believe that the prison at Guantanamo Bay should be closed down… but not the naval base”, the White House said.
The land on which the base stands was leased to the US by Cuba in 1903.
The Cuban government which came to power in the revolution of 1959 has long demanded its return, saying it is a violation of international law, but the US points to a legal provision making the lease permanent unless it is terminated by mutual agreement.
Photo US Navy
Last month the two countries announced a thaw in relations, agreeing to restore diplomatic ties severed in 1961. Delegations have begun negotiating the re-establishment of embassies.
In his speech on January 28, Raul Castro said: “The re-establishment of diplomatic relations is the start of a process of normalizing bilateral relations.
“But this will not be possible while the blockade still exists, while they don’t give back the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo naval base.”
This condition was rejected by White House spokesman Josh Earnest in remarks to the media on January 29.
Josh Earnest agreed that President Barack Obama was seeking to shut the prison at Guantanamo Bay, as it “only serves as a recruiting tool for al-Qaeda and other extremist organizations”.
“But the naval base is not something that we believe should be closed,” the White House spokesman said.
The US has loosened Cuba travel and trade restrictions starting with January 16, US officials say.
Measures include allowing US citizens to use credit cards in Cuba and for US businesses to export some technologies.
Americans will be able to take home up to $100 in alcohol and tobacco from Cuba. Correspondents say it means the US ban on Cuban cigars is over.
The move comes after the US and Cuba countries agreed last month to restore diplomatic relations severed since 1961.
Although the latest moves put a large dent in the US trade embargo against Cuba, only Congress can lift it completely.
Earlier this week, US officials said Cuba had completed the release of 53 political prisoners agreed as part of the historic deal.
“Today’s announcement takes us one step closer to replacing out-of-date policies that were not working and puts in place a policy that helps promote political and economic freedom for the Cuban people,” said US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew in a statement.
Under the new regulations, US citizens will be allowed to travel to Cuba for any of a dozen specific reasons without first obtaining a special license from the US government.
US credit and debit cards can be used there and there will be no more limits on how much money US citizens can spend in Cuba each day.
US companies will also find it easier to export mobile phones and software to Cuba, as well as provide internet services there.
A change in the regulations will also allow US investments in some small businesses and agricultural operations.
The thaw in relations between the two countries was announced last month in simultaneous televised speeches by President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro.
Later this month, US Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson will lead a delegation to Cuba to discuss migration issues.
They will be the first high-level talks since the easing of relations was announced.
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