President Barack Obama once again has made it plain that he intends to close Guantanamo. Those who doubted his previous promises on immigrant rights and Cuba should realize that he is serious about Guantanamo as well.
Most of the remaining 122 Guantanamo detainees, including 47 of 54 already cleared for release, are from Yemen. Obama cannot realistically send them back to that unstable center of civil strife and chaos. He therefore is proceeding to release small handfuls of detainees to places like Uruguay while asking congressional Republicans to lift their ban on sending Guantanamo detainees to high-security U.S. prisons. If those efforts prove fruitless, there now is a new way to achieve his promise:
Return Guantanamo to Cuban sovereignty, where it belongs historically.
Arrange to release the remaining detainees to Cuban soil under Cuban security. Involve regional diplomats, the United Nations and the Vatican in working out the arrangements.
With changing times, there is no national security or commercial argument for Guantanamo remaining under U.S. control. The base is a complete anachronism on the one hand, and a constant blight on America’s global reputation.
The 45-square mile Guantanamo base was taken as a consequence of the 1901 Platt amendment, over the objections of a Cuban constitutional assembly. It was meant to locate coaling or naval stations for the projection of American military power in the region. The underlying strategic reason was declared by the island’s American overseer, Col. Leonard Wood, chief commander of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, in 1901:
With the control which we have over Cuba, a control which will soon undoubtedly become possession … we shall soon practically control the sugar trade of the world … the island will gradually become Americanized and we shall have in time one of the richest and most desirable possessions in the world.
Those days are over, and so is the Cold War, when the base was considered strategic for rapid response to guerrilla insurgencies or Soviet expansion. Similarly, the Panama Canal was returned to Panama in 1977 without any significant geopolitical consequences, although it cost Jimmy Carter serious political capital at home.
Today, when the U.S. is attempting to build more constructive relations with Latin America and facing non-military competitors like China for influence, Guantanamo is a burden.
It will shock many Americans to realize that the U.S. attempts to pay Cuba less than $5,000 annually for use of the base, and that the Cubans have not cashed any of the checks (since an accidental cashing in 1959, according to Castro), a gesture of refusal that has lasted more than a century.
The Cubans have rightly worried in past decades that Guantanamo would be used as a launching pad for American troops against Cuba. Sixteen thousand U.S. Marines were deployed there during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The base was a support station for the 1994 U.S. invasion of Haiti. U.S. military exercises have been conducted on a number of occasions, including beach landings by Marines.
The prestige of the U.S. Navy, which is broadly questioned as gunboat diplomacy in Latin America, is hardly a reason to defend a base whose purposes are obsolete. The Obama administration should be conducting talks at the highest levels, if it has not already begun, in order to correct the injustice of Guantanamo not only as a torture site but as a violation of the sovereignty of a state with whom our government finally is normalizing relations.