Un-Occupy Guantanamo and give the land back to Cuba
Jonathan Hansen has written a bullseye piece for the New York Times. It may be of little interest to some, but it's of considerable interest to me. Give Guantánamo Back to Cuba.
This is a history I know well, international relations with an emphasis on Latin America having been the subject of my undergraduate degree. The seizure of Guantánamo was justified the way many U.S. "interventions" were justified. The Caribbean, after all, was considered an "American lake," and those who used the term did not mean, in any way, Latin American. Hansen superbly condenses the sordid history of U.S. intervention on the island into the cramped space of an Op-Ed:
The circumstances by which the United States came to occupy Guantánamo are as troubling as its past decade of activity there. In April 1898, American forces intervened in Cuba’s three-year-old struggle for independence when it was all but won, thus transforming the Cuban War of Independence into what Americans are still wont to call the Spanish-American War. American officials then excluded the Cuban Army from the armistice and denied Cuba a seat at the Paris peace conference. “There is so much natural anger and grief throughout the island,” the Cuban general Máximo Gómez remarked in January 1899, after the peace treaty was signed, “that the people haven’t really been able to celebrate the triumph of the end of their former rulers’ power.”
Curiously, the United States’ declaration of war on Spain included the assurance that America did not seek “sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control” over Cuba and intended “to leave the government and control of the island to its people.”
But after the war, strategic imperatives took precedence over Cuban independence. The United States wanted dominion over Cuba, along with naval bases from which to exercise it.
Out of this desire for bases and an utter disregard for the self-determination of Cubans came the Platt Amendment. This allowed Washington to step into Cuban affairs whenever it felt like it and to forcibly lease land for naval bases. Cuban leaders naturally despised this. But what could they do? Resist the way Filipinos had done after the U.S. had kicked Spain out of their country and wind up being crushed? Under duress, they chose to incorporate the hideous amendment into their Constitution.
It was, as Hansen notes, as if the French had stayed around to run things after the American Revolution, which could not have been won without their help. Imagine if Paris had, after years of occupation demanded an amendment be included by the Founders in Philadelphia saying France could intervene whenever it wanted in U.S. affairs and, oh, by the way, we'd like to perpetually lease the Port of Boston. The argument for ratification with that in place might have made for interesting reading in the Federalist Papers.
The Platt Amendment was given up under the Good Neighbor Policy in 1934. But the 45 square miles around Guantánamo stayed under U.S. control. The annual lease, which cannot be ended unless both sides agree or the U.S. walks away, now costs about $4,200 annually in rent that is indexed to U.S. inflation. Perhaps Fidel has pondered what he might do if the payment is late, but it never is.
It was just a naval base for a long time, an imperialist foothold in the American lake, ignored by history textbooks that asserted American never had colonies. Ten years ago, as we all know too well, it became something else when the Bush administration installed its military prison there, based on the clever idea that Guantánamo was not subject to U.S. law because it was leased foreign property and also not subject to Cuban or international law because, well, just because. A jurisdictionless playground for torturers who viewed the Geneva Conventions as quaint and the angry consternation of human rights organizations as nonsense in the New American Century.
Today, on its 10th anniversary, three years after President Obama signed an executive order to close it, the prison at Guantánamo remains open and the indefinite detention of its remaining inmates is enshrined in the law, the product of another executive order signed in March 2011 and the recent National Defense Authorization Act. One of the prisoners still there is Suleiman al-Nahdi. Like several dozen others, he was cleared five years ago for release. The way things are going, he may well live out his life in the tropics.
Two evils in one. Our nation's imperialist past, denied, glossed over, rationalized and justified under American "exceptionalism" and, contradictorially, by its self-interested Manifest Destiny. And America's imperialist present, backed both by a core military budget that is larger in real terms than any since the end of World War II and slated to grow larger still over the next decade, and by a law that permits indefinite detention of anyone executively deemed a terror suspect.
While no new prisoners will probably ever be sent to Guantánamo, its unending presence as naval base and precedence as stolen foothold are a stain our leaders would excoriate were any nation not a U.S. ally operate such an facility on seized foreign territory.
Hansen is right to say:
If President Obama were to acknowledge this history and initiate the process of returning Guantánamo to Cuba, he could begin to put the mistakes of the last 10 years behind us, not to mention fulfill a campaign pledge. (Given Congressional intransigence, there might be no better way to close the detention camp than to turn over the rest of the naval base along with it.)
Despite the longevity of the Castro regime, it certainly is nearing its end, and what better way to begin building fair relations between sovereigns than to acknowledge that prying Guantánamo out of Cuban hands more than a century ago and using it in a criminal way is no way for 21st Century nations to interact. In other words, the United States should behave in the way that our leaders so often tell other leaders, including Cuban leaders, to behave instead of like outlaws and rogues.
But short of massive pressure from the American people, that's not going to happen any more than dismantling most of the hundreds of U.S. bases overseas will happen. Such pressure certainly won't emerge in an election year. The question is: Will it ever?