Because the treatment of detainees in the prison for “unlawful combatants” at the naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, was found by the Supreme Court to be contrary to both US law and international law, the facility has become an embarrassment that even the Bush administration wants to be closed, if they can find other ways to detain these people without actually giving them a fair trial.
Guantánamo was chosen for imprisonment of these alleged unlawful combatants precisely in order to exclude them from access to US courts and constitutional guarantees, on grounds that the base is not on US territory. It was argued that they could be detained indefinitely and subjected to aggressive modes of interrogation that most would consider torture. They could be denied the right to a lawyer, denied the right to habeas corpus, denied the right to a trial. All these claims have now been rejected by the Supreme Court. Since both Obama and McCain also support closure, we may reasonably expect that to happen next year, at last.
Beyond closing the prison, it’s time to give the base back to Cuba. When the US defeated Spain in 1898, Cuba (along with Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam) was occupied by US forces. Unlike the other three territories which were kept under US sovereignty, Cuba was allowed to become formally independent in 1903, but only if it accepted the so-called “Platt Amendment,” which granted the US the right to intervene to maintain “a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty.” Cuba was effectively made a protectorate of the United States. Pursuant to that protectorate, Cuba was required to sell or lease to the US lands necessary for coaling or naval stations. The base at Guantánamo Bay is the fruit of that offer it couldn’t refuse.
When Franklin Roosevelt abrogated the right in intervene in Cuba, Guantánamo was placed under the jurisdiction of a 1934 treaty that affirmed the lease in perpetuity unless both parties agreed to terminate it. The rent was set at $4085. That sum was paid annually, and accepted by the Cuban government until the rise of Fidel Castro in 1959. The revolutionary government inadvertently cashed the first check, thereby implicitly consenting to the arrangement, in the view of the US government. No further checks have been cashed, and the current position of the Cuban government is that the base should be returned to Cuban control.
The initial purpose of the base was to provide the means to control Cuba if necessary. Once the Panama Canal was in place, Guantánamo had a key role in protecting sea lanes in the Caribbean. This was the dominant mission through the Second World War and the Cold War.
After the Cold War it had no function at all, except as part of policy toward the Castro regime. Long before it became a symbol of arrogant lawlessness, Guantánamo Bay was a metaphor for Yankee imperialism. The idea that the US asserted the right to unilaterally replace sovereign governments in the Western Hemisphere has outraged Latin Americans for over a century, and the presence of the base at Guantánamo has been a focal point of that outrage. The US insists on keeping the base only as part of nearly fifty years of obsessive opposition to the revolutionary regime of Fidel Castro. In conjunction with a succession of economic sanctions, travel restrictions, and covert interventions, the base was a stone in the shoe of a regime that proudly defied the might of 10 presidents, and the venom of generations of Cuban exiles.
To return the base to Cuba would be a gesture of good will, for Cuba and for all of Latin America, at a time when Cuba is embarking on an uncertain path of change in the wake of Fidel’s departure. It could take place in the context of reestablishing normal diplomatic relations for the first time in half a century. We’ve done it with China, Vietnam, and even the former member of the “Axis of Evil,” North Korea.
John Peeler is a retired professor of political science at Bucknell University, specializing in Latin American and international affairs. His op-ed essays have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today, as well as many in local papers here in central Pennsylvania where he lives. He has had letters published in both the New York Times and the Washington Post.
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