By Damien McElroy in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba | The United States is considering transforming the Guantanamo Bay terrorism prison into a base for a Marines “rapid reaction force” to deal with threats in Central America.
In the first official admission that closure of the camp had entered the planning stage, the base commander, Captain Mark Leary, said regional US Marines commanders have surveyed the site to assess its suitability.
“The southern command has looked into the possibility of the station bringing in a marine forward deployment,” he said.
“It assumes that there is a lot in Guantanamo base that would allow a marine expeditionary presence to support training and other tasks. There have been discussions on future missions.”
Capt Leary said strategic planners had identified a need for a marine base to be ready to intervene in the troubled Caribbean and Central American region. That could mean up to 3,500 marines would take up occupancy of the sprawling Camps Delta and Echo after the last detainee leaves.
The plans come amid increased speculation about the base’s future. Last week it emerged that the Bush administration was preparing to empty Guantanamo of its 235 inmates, possibly transferring them to the US mainland.
While no specific threat has been identified by the Pentagon, tensions have risen between the US and Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, who has sought ties with Iran and is accused of supporting Farc Leftist terrorists in Colombia.
The US has a long history of intervention in the region, including invasions of Panama and Grenada, and covert operations across Central America.
Capt Leary said that, alternatively, the facility could be mothballed or knocked down but it was clear that a new role would be a “better option”.
America has leased the 45-square-mile base from Cuba since 1903 but, until 2002, it was a rundown refuelling station for navy and coast guard boats that was occasionally opened up to refugees.
Since 2002, the Pentagon has laid sewage, water, electricity and fibre optic cable systems. New harbour berths and support facilities have been built.
Navy personnel and their dependents make up the majority of the 7,300 people based there. Without a marine contingent, its most important function would be as a listening station on communist Cuba.