Diplomat: US won't return Guantanamo to improve ties with Cuba

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The Obama administration on Wednesday ruled out handing over the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, rejecting a central demand of Cuban President Raul Castro for restoring normal relations between the two countries.

Roberta Jacobson, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America, also said the U.S. would continue transmitting radio and television broadcasts into Cuba that are opposed by Castro's government.

While Guantanamo and the broadcasts are irritants, Washington believes neither is likely to stand in the way of U.S. and Cuban embassies being re-established after a half-century interruption. The U.S. is hoping to clinch an agreement with Cuba on embassies in the coming months.

Jacobson's testimony before a largely hostile House Foreign Affairs Committee came as an Associated Press-GfK poll found broad support in the United States for warmer ties with Cuba.

Forty-five percent of those surveyed supported full diplomatic relations between the Cold War foes, with only 15 percent opposing. Sixty percent backed the end of the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba, with 35 percent for its continuation.

But the views expressed at Wednesday's hearing were different. Senior Republicans and Democrats took turns excoriating President Barack Obama for negotiating in secret a December spy swap that also included promises from him and Castro to turn a new page in the U.S.-Cuban relationship.

Castro last week laid out his long-term objectives for the rapprochement. They include the U.S. returning the Guantanamo base and prison, lifting the embargo and compensating his country for damages. The U.S. established the naval base in 1903; Cuba's communist government has sought its return since coming to power in 1959.

"The issue of Guantanamo is not on the table in these conversations," Jacobson told lawmakers. Cuba has raised the issue, she said, but "we are not interested in discussing that."

Jacobson, who testified Tuesday before a Senate panel, traveled last month to Havana for two days of talks. It was the highest-level trip to the island by a U.S. official in 35 years. She plans to resume talks with the Cubans in Washington this month.

The most immediate goal is embassies. The U.S. says Cuba must first end restrictions on American diplomats, shipments to the current U.S. Interests Section in Havana and entrance by Cubans to that building.

Cuba's most pressing demand is an end to banking restrictions, many of which are linked to its U.S. designation as a "state sponsor of terrorism." The Obama administration is likely to lift Cuba from that list in the next months.

The AP-GfK poll found self-identified Democrats overwhelmingly in favor of restoring embassies and eliminating the U.S. embargo, which Obama has eased but only Congress can revoke.

Among Republicans, the blocs are closer. Thirty-four percent want diplomatic relations, with 30 percent opposed. Forty-nine percent want the embargo lifted, with 50 percent believing it should stay.

The AP-GfK Poll of 1,045 adults was conducted online Jan. 29-Feb. 2, using a sample drawn from GfK's probability-based KnowledgePanel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods, and later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn't otherwise have access to the Internet were provided access at no cost.