McKENNA: Guantanamo base sure to be U.S.-Cuba sore point
Published May 13, 2015 – 4:46pm
The legal fate of former Guantanamo detainee Omar Khadr is taking up a
fair amount of political oxygen these days.
I’m just back from Guantanamo City, Cuba, whose blistering heat surely
doesn’t minimize the harsh prison conditions for the remaining 120 or so
detainees at the U.S. naval facility in Guantanamo Bay. Nor is it clear
what their fate will be if the U.S. base is eventually returned to the
Taking up 117 square kilometres, which includes more than 1,000
buildings and two airfields, Gitmo is hard to miss in southeastern Cuba.
But will it prove to be a major stumbling block in the way of a
normalized U.S.-Cuba relationship?
Interestingly, it is a self-contained U.S. military facility (or
reservation) — replete with its own grocery store, movie theatre, church
and golf course. It even has its own McDonald’s restaurant, the only one
on the island.
The initial 1903 Cuban-American Treaty, which laid out the terms of the
lease agreement, put the annual rental fee at 2,000 U.S. gold coins. The
1934 Lease Agreement set the current cost at $4,085 US and essentially
gave the U.S. government a lease in perpetuity for the territory around
Guantanamo Bay (for use as only a naval coaling station).
It is said in Cuba that the Castro brothers have either sent the lease
cheques back to the Americans or left them uncashed in a desk drawer
somewhere. The Castro governments have always maintained that the lease
component of the 1934 revised treaty is illegal.
Ever since the 1959 Cuban Revolution and the coming to power of Fidel
Castro, Cuba has seen the U.S. base as “occupied territory” and has
consistently demanded its return. To this day, Cuba’s political
leadership views Guantanamo as a matter of national sovereignty and as
rightful Cuban territory. And just about every Cuban whom I spoke with
feels that same way about the base, its tarnished colonial legacy and
its connection to Cuba’s identity.
Just in case, the Cubans have military bases (at least three) near and
around the U.S. naval facility. There are other trenches, prickly cacti,
fences and observation/guard posts to repel the Americans — to say
nothing of the deadly minefield.
The crux of the problem, though, is that the United States maintains
that the 1934 treaty states that it has control of the areas around
Guantanamo Bay. As one clause says: “Until the two Contracting Parties
agree to the modification or abrogation of the stipulations of the
agreement in regard to the lease to the United States of America of
lands in Cuba for coaling and naval stations … the stipulations of
that Agreement with regard to the naval station of Guantanamo shall
continue in effect.” So there it is: to break the arrangement would
require both parties to agree to do so.
For the U.S. government, the domestic politics of relinquishing control
of Guantanamo would suggest an American resistance to even broaching
negotiations over its return. It also still has strategic importance in
terms of the Caribbean (and China’s growing involvement in the region),
value as a naval training facility, and as a means of keeping a watchful
eye on Cuba. Notwithstanding a substantial financial operating cost, it
will certainly not be easy for the U.S. to walk away from Guantanamo.
That explains why the Barack Obama White House said plainly in early
2015: “The president does believe that the prison at Guantanamo Bay
should be closed down. But the naval base is not something that we
believe should be closed.”
However, at a regional summit meeting in Costa Rica in late January,
Cuban President Raul Castro was adamant about the transfer of Guantanamo
back to Cuban hands. He noted that normal bilateral relations “will not
be possible while the blockade still exists, while they don’t give back
the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo naval base.”
Most Cubans know that the issue of Guantanamo is complicated and not
likely to be resolved easily. But they are determined to get it back,
which might make it a diplomatic deal-breaker.
Both sides may simply continue to agree to disagree about the base. Or,
the prison could be closed down and the U.S. military presence further
reduced (or wound down entirely over a set period of time). It is also
possible that the stalemate over Guantanamo remains frozen in time — at
least in the short to medium term — while an improvement in bilateral
relations limps along.
One hopes that a normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations doesn’t get
torpedoed by an antiquated lease agreement. But if Cuba and the United
States are unable to come to a meeting of the minds on Guantanamo (e.g.,
essentially a complete transfer back to Cuba), it’s hard to see how a
full-fledged rapprochement can take place.
Peter McKenna is professor and chairman of political science at the
University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.
Source: McKENNA: Guantanamo base sure to be U.S.-Cuba sore point | The
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