Thursday, January 12, 2012

Give Guantanamo Back to Cuba

Give Guantanamo Back to Cuba




Published: January 10, 2012


IN the 10 years since the Guantanamo detention camp

opened, the anguished debate over whether to shutter the

facility -- or make it permanent -- has obscured a deeper

failure that dates back more than a century and implicates

all Americans: namely, our continued occupation of

Guantanamo itself. It is past time to return this

imperialist enclave to Cuba.


From the moment the United States government forced Cuba

to lease the Guantanamo Bay naval base to us, in June

1901, the American presence there has been more than a

thorn in Cuba's side. It has served to remind the world of

America's long history of interventionist militarism. Few

gestures would have as salutary an effect on the

stultifying impasse in American-Cuban relations as handing

over this coveted piece of land.


The circumstances by which the United States came to

occupy Guantanamo 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

Maximo Gomez 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.


Enter Gen. Leonard Wood, whom President William McKinley

had named military governor of Cuba, bearing provisions

that became known as the Platt Amendment. Two were

particularly odious: one guaranteed the United States the

right to intervene at will in Cuban affairs; the other

provided for the sale or lease of naval stations. Juan

Gualberto Gomez, a leading delegate to the Cuban

Constitutional Convention, said the amendment would render

Cubans "a vassal people." Foreshadowing the Cuban Missile

Crisis, he presciently warned that foreign bases on Cuban

soil would only draw Cuba "into conflict not of our own

making and in which we have no stake."


But it was an offer Cuba could not refuse, as Wood

informed the delegates. The alternative to the amendment

was continued occupation. The Cubans got the message.

"There is, of course, little or no real independence left

Cuba under the Platt Amendment," Wood remarked to

McKinley's successor, Theodore Roosevelt, in October 1901,

soon after the Platt Amendment was incorporated into the

Cuban Constitution. "The more sensible Cubans realize this

and feel that the only consistent thing now is to seek



But with Platt in place, who needed annexation? Over the

next two decades, the United States repeatedly dispatched

Marines based at Guantanamo to protect its interests in

Cuba and block land redistribution. Between 1900 and 1920,

some 44,000 Americans flocked to Cuba, boosting capital

investment on the island to just over $1 billion from

roughly $80 million and prompting one journalist to remark

that "little by little, the whole island is passing into

the hands of American citizens."


How did this look from Cuba's perspective? Well, imagine

that at the end of the American Revolution the French had

decided to remain here. Imagine that the French had

refused to allow Washington and his army to attend the

armistice at Yorktown. Imagine that they had denied the

Continental Congress a seat at the Treaty of Paris,

prohibited expropriation of Tory property, occupied New

York Harbor, dispatched troops to quash Shays' and other

rebellions and then immigrated to the colonies in droves,

snatching up the most valuable land.


Such is the context in which the United States came to

occupy Guantanamo. It is a history excluded from American

textbooks and neglected in the debates over terrorism,

international law and the reach of executive power. But it

is a history known in Cuba (where it motivated the 1959

revolution) and throughout Latin America. It explains why

Guantanamo remains a glaring symbol of hypocrisy around

the world. We need not even speak of the last decade.


If President Obama were to acknowledge this history and

initiate the process of returning Guantanamo 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.) It would

rectify an age-old grievance and lay the groundwork for

new relations with Cuba and other countries in the Western

Hemisphere and around the globe. Finally, it would send an

unmistakable message that integrity, self-scrutiny and

candor are not evidence of weakness, but indispensable

attributes of leadership in an ever changing world. Surely

there would be no fitter way to observe today's grim

anniversary than to stand up for the principles Guantanamo

has undermined for over a century.


Jonathan M. Hansen, a lecturer in social studies at Harvard, is the author of "Guantanamo: An American History."


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