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The U.S. Defense Department announcement that it will use Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba to set up prison facilities and military tribunals where terrorists captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere will be held and tried raises important questions. Why select Guantanamo base rather than, Utah or the Marshall Islands which are more isolated and the surrounding […]

Al-Qaeda at Guantámamo

by Nelson P Valdés

The U.S. Defense Department announcement that it will use Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba to set up prison facilities and military tribunals where terrorists captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere will be held and tried raises important questions.

Why select Guantanamo base rather than, Utah or the Marshall Islands which are more isolated and the surrounding territory is controlled by the United States military? What possible military or political attraction could Cuba provide?

It should be noted that the base has 71 square miles, of which 48 square miles are on land (swamps claim 13 square miles). This small territory is surrounded by the Sierra Cristal mountain range controlled by the Cuban military. Thus, in a sense the real security of the base will not depend on the US government alone but on the Cuban armed forces. It is odd that the United States will hold such high profile prisoners in a place that is so close to another country’s territory.

Even more peculiar is the fact that the U.S. State Department in its most recent 2001 report on “international terrorism” claims that Cuba harbors and supports terrorists. Then why set up the tribunals and the prison facilities on the island? Obviously the U.S. military consider that Cuba does not present any real terrorist threat, despite what the State Department has claimed. So, which side of the US government is correct?

From the Cuban government perspective the U.S. government decision constitutes an outright political provocation.

Since 1959 the Cuban government has asked the United States government to leave the base (which was granted “in perpetuity” to the US military by a Cuban Congress handpicked by the US armed forces in 1901. Yes, the base is the outcome of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Big Stick” policy and the Platt Amendment. When in the 1990s Cuban rafters were intercepted by the US Coast Guard and refused entry into the US mainland, the INS transported thousands of Cubans to Guantanamo base. At the time Cuba complained about the new use given to the military base. It will not be surprising if again the Cuban government denounces the new function given to the base. The Cuban authorities have not been consulted nor asked by anyone in the U.S. government. They have earned about the matter from the American media.

But there may be an added insult as far as the Cuban government is concerned. Five Cuban nationals have just been sentenced in the last 2 weeks to long prison terms (three have received life) by a Miami. They were accused of having engaged in espionage. The Cuban agents were in Miami spying on anti-Castro terrorist organizations. Thus, Cuba antiterrorism agents have been tried and found guilty by a Miami court precisely for attempting to thwart what the US claims to be trying to stop as well. The government in Havana, and many Cubans in the island, consider such developments an outrageous affront.

So, why was Cuba chosen? Secreatry of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has stated that Cuba was “the least of the worse” options. Seemingly, the argument for not having the prison and the tribunals on the US mainland would be a matter of security for the American people. But, if that is the argument, should the security of Cubans not be taken into account as well?

What would happen if an Al Qaeda agent manages to get to the Cuban mountains surrounding the base and literally attacks the base? Is the Cuban government going to be held accountable by the United States government? Then what?

If the Cuban government rejects the Defense Department plan (Rumsfeld assumes the Cubans will keep silent), then it is possible that the U.S. government could claim that the Cuban government has rejected collaborating with the anti-terror campaign, which could open another chapter of conflict between the two countries.

It is clear that if the “detainees” are held at Guantanamo within Cuba, it can be assumed that Al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations may attempt to do something about it. Thus, the United States government decision has externally impose a political, military and economic cost on the Cuban government. After all, it is not in the interests of Cuba to have terrorists running around the island. or attempting to attack the base. Thus, Cuba, the only country that has stated that it opposed the terrorists as well as the war against Afghanistan will be forced to deploy Cubans and limited resources to protect Cuba’s “home security” against Cuban exile terrorists as well as those that are the enemies of the United States.

But what can Cuba’s government do about the decision made by the United States government? Not much.

The base is under U.S. control. If the Cuban government officially denounces the new use given to the base, then the Bush administration as well as the rightwing Cuban exiles will have one more issue to exploit against any kind of improvement in relations. On the other hand if the Cuban government consents to the new function, it could be interpreted by the most reactionary sectors within the US government and in Miami as a Havana concession made out of fear.

The Cuban government will have to opt for a policy that denounces all forms of terrorism, expresses its willingness to work with the United States, yet demands of the Bush administration to address the issues involving terrorism against the Cuban government. Hence, Cuba’s government might not openly state its opposition of the use given to Guantanamo as long as the United States addresses the historical problem of rightwing Cuban exile terrorism against the island, including over 600 assassination attempts against Fidel Castro.

That probably will be the message that the Cuban revolutionary government would like to convey to the US mass media, the Congress and the American people.

United States’ unilateral decisions on the use of Guantanamo base, without taking into account of Cuba’s security needs will only contribute to greater instability throughout the Caribbean region and will exacerbate the poor relations between the United States and Cuba. The strategists at the Pentagon and the politicians in Washington, DC. should reconsider their ill-conceived decision or, at the very least, become more sensitive of the rational demands made from Havana.

It is doubtful, however, that Cuba’s needs or interests will be recognized by the Washington crowd. To do so would be to go against over 42 years of confrontation and arrogance.

Nelson Vald?s is director of the Program of Academic Research on Cuba at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.