Guantanamo echoes U.S. ‘gunboat’ past

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Anti-American forces use Navy base as rallying symbol
Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

Sunday, April 22, 2007

(04-22) 04:00 PDT Guantanamo Bay, Cuba — Fidel Castro wages silent protest against the U.S. military “tenants” of this bay in southern Cuba from a drawer in his desk.

There lie 47 uncashed checks drawn on the U.S. Treasury, each for $4,085, the annual rent fixed in a 1903 lease agreement that has vexed the Cuban leader since a leftist revolution brought him to power nearly half a century ago.

The presence of U.S. troops on Cuban soil has long rankled Castro, who, before taking ill in July and temporarily ceding presidential authority to his brother Raul, often ranted about the “imperialist occupation” in speeches and broadcasts.

But would he take it back if Washington offered to tear up the lease today?

Julia Sweig, director of Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out the international outcry over the Pentagon’s use of the base at Guantanamo to detain and prosecute prisoners held in the U.S.-declared war on terrorism, and she suggested handing over the property as a possible solution.

“One way to unload the problem would be to give it back to Cuba,” she said. “The question is, would the Cubans want it back?

“Because it’s become such a global symbol of what has gone wrong with America — not just a symbol of our colonial impulses but of the anti-imperialist fight throughout Latin America — it’s something Cuba uses to greater benefit than getting the base back.”

In a report issued last month on Guantanamo’s role in the troubled diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs think tank concluded that returning the territory to Cuba was essential to end the United States’ perceived domination of Latin American neighbors.

During President Bush’s trip last month through Latin America, even friendly leaders reminded him of the message conveyed to the region by U.S. military occupation of the Cuban territory, said the council’s director, Larry Birns.

“Guantanamo is the symbol of 19th century gunboat diplomacy practiced by Washington, Birns said. He added that a movement was gaining ground throughout the Western Hemisphere “questioning the United States’ legitimacy in occupying Guantanamo under the present arrangement.”

Caleb McCarry, the Bush administration’s point man on a post-communist Cuba, said that Guantanamo would be on the table — if and when the island threw off its one-party regime. The U.S. government gained control of Guantanamo Bay and its surrounding territory in 1903 under an agreement between the newly independent Cuban government and its U.S. liberators after the 1898 Spanish-American War. At the time, the military wanted a base to position U.S. forces to protect the Panama Canal, then under construction. The base also played an important role during the Cold War, allowing U.S. forces to monitor Soviet movements in the region.

But since the 1991 demise of the Soviet Union and its communist empire and the 1999 return of the Panama Canal to its host nation, the U.S. base has lost its strategic significance and now serves as little more than “a colonial relic,Birns asserted.

The 103-year-old agreement limits use of the Cuban territory to “coaling and naval purposes only,” neither of which appears to cover the prison or tribunal operations. The agreement also expressly prohibits “commercial, industrial or other enterprise within said areas,” but the U.S. base now sports a McDonald’s, two Starbucks outlets, a Subway sandwich shop and other American concessions.

Such breaches of the treaty render it voidable,the Council on Hemispheric Affairs stated in its report urging the U.S. government to cease its use of Guantanamo against the host country’s wishes.

Although U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice publicly have acknowledged that many foreign allies view the detention center and war crimes tribunal as illegitimate, some U.S. officials argue that the base remains crucial to American interests in the region.

“Guantanamo serves a vital role in Caribbean regional security, protection from narco-trafficking and terrorism, and safeguards against mass-migration attempts in unseaworthy craft,” said Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Pentagon spokesman, the latter referring to use of the base as a refugee camp for intercepted Haitian and Cuban rafters.

Analysts such as Sweig point out, however, that the idea of closing Guantanamo has surfaced repeatedly over the years during Pentagon belt-tightening efforts that have led to the closure of nearly 100 other military bases. Before the January 2002 arrival of the first terrorism suspects, Guantanamo had dwindled to about 300 military personnel. It now has more than 8,500.

In the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, also known as the Libertad Act, Washington offered to open negotiations with a democratically elected Cuban government aimed at returning Guantanamo or redefining the lease terms to Havana’s satisfaction.

The State Department’s acting Cuba desk chief, John Regan, said Havana had not made an issue of the base, which under the agreement is leased in perpetuity unless both sides agree to end the arrangement.

“To my knowledge, the Cubans have never officially asked for it back,” Regan said.

Nor have they raised any objection to the detention mission at the monthly fence-line meeting of U.S. and Cuban military officials, the forum at which they were advised of the new role for the base at a January 2002 meeting, Regan said.

Neither officials in Havana nor Cuban diplomats in Washington responded to numerous telephone and e-mail requests to express their views on Guantanamo. But American business, political and cultural figures with regular contact with Cuban leaders say they have the impression that Castro’s government wants the U.S. military off the island but that the issue isn’t a priority now.

Sarah Stephens, head of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, said she’d never heard Cuban officials mention Guantanamo during any of her 30-plus trips to Havana with congressional and other delegations.

“I always just assumed it was something they know they can’t control,” she said of the lease deal, noting that the annual rent checks hadn’t been cashed since the first year Castro was in power.

Castro hadn’t yet aligned his government with the Soviet Union when, in the summer of 1959, he cashed the U.S. Treasury check for that year’s base rental. U.S. officials have cited that action in defending their continued use of the base, contending that it signaled his acceptance of the 1903 agreement.

“About two years ago I asked President Fidel Castro, ‘What is the policy the Cuban government takes if one of the terrorists escapes from Guantanamo onto Cuban soil?’ ” said Albert Fox, a Tampa businessman and head of the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy, a pro-engagement lobby. “He responded, ‘They are already on Cuban soil.’ ”

This article appeared on page A – 17 of the San Francisco Chronicle