GENEVA U.S. President Barack Obama should return the naval base at Guantanamo Bay to Cuba, and some detainees could stay on at a U.S.-run jail there, a former U.S. envoy to Cuba said.
Obama, by negotiating a deal with Cuban leader Raul Castro about the base on the communist island, could build a long-term relationship with its people, said Michael Parmly, head of the U.S. interests section in Havana from 2005-2008.
Since 1903, the United States has had treaty rights to Guantanamo Bay, a 45 square-mile territory in southeastern Cuba, originally needed as a fuelling station for U.S. warships.
The prison was set up by former U.S. President George W. Bush's administration for foreign suspected militants after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
The U.S. base is a "historic anomaly" even though the two countries have not had diplomatic relations since 1961, Parmly wrote.
"The current partisan tensions on the (Capitol) Hill ensure that it would be an uphill climb, but it is the thesis of this paper that a similar bold step, akin to the Panama Canal, is called for regarding Guantanamo," he said, citing that 1977 U.S. return of the waterway to Panama as a precedent.
"Both sides would have an interest."
The 26-page paper by the retired diplomat, obtained by Reuters, is to appear shortly in the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, published by the Fletcher School in Massachusetts.
Obama has pledged to close the prison which has held dozens of suspected militants, most without charge, for more than a decade. But he has faced congressional resistance.
Parmly, who now lives in Geneva, said the U.S. and Cuban governments could agree that 46 "problem cases" remain at a U.S.-run jail even after operational control of the base is transferred. The remaining 118 inmates could be sent to U.S. prisons and then face trial or be released.
An agreement could also be reached with Cuba allowing the U.S. Navy to use the base for its operations in the Caribbean, he said. The U.S. centre at Guantanamo for processing Cuban and Haitian migrants picked up at sea could be kept or transferred, said.
"Guantanamo Bay Naval Base is not U.S. territory. Cuba is the ultimate owner," Parmly said.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Pravin Char)