Guantanamo: The Bigger Picture?

 The U.S. base at Guantanamo has been called many things. The “gulag of our time” (Amnesty International General Secretary Irene Khan, May 2005). “The key strategic intelligence platform in the war on terror” (Charles Stimson, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs, January 2007). The “legal equivalent of outer space” (unnamed Administration official). The right place for “the worst of a very bad lot” (Vice President Dick Cheney, January 2002) and for the “most dangerous, best trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth” (former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, January 2002).

Guantanamo is now best known as the home of oversized iguanas, banana rats, and the more than 700 “enemy combatants” who have been detained, tortured, and interrogated there over the past six years as part of the Bush administration’s global war on terrorism. But, the history of the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay stretches much further back — to the beginning of the last century — when the United States wrestled this prime real-estate from Spain to become the colonial power in the hemisphere.

Twenty-first century experiences at Guantanamo have now been exposed in a sheaf of books, including difficult, vivid memoirs from former detainees and powerful poetry, and dramatized in plays and films, such as the best-documentary Oscar winner Taxi to the Dark Side and the critically-acclaimed Road to Guantanamo. The iconic orange jumpsuits are on display at every anti-war protest and the word “Guantanamo” is often used as shorthand for the Bush administration’s whole system of indefinite detention, rendition, torture, and abuse of power established since September 2001.

Harold and Kumar Escape Guantanamo

Calls to “shut down Guantanamo” from legal and human rights experts, politicians, and the international community are now strong, irrepressible and growing louder each day. At the same time, the facility has finally penetrated pop culture. This spring, movie-goers can enjoy the sequel of the 2004 slacker-stoner Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. In the new film, the two friends are arrested after smuggling a bong on a flight to Amsterdam and end up at Guantanamo. Yep, the movie is titled: Harold and Kumar II: Escape from Guantanamo Bay. Promoted with the tag-line: “This Time, They’re Running from the Joint,” the film is described as “an irreverent and epic journey of deep thoughts, deeper inhaling and a wild trip around the world that is as ‘un-PC’ as it gets.”

Guantanamo is getting more attention (both outraged and outrageous), but the question of how the United States came to control a swath of Cuban territory is worth more discussion. If the Guantanamo prison is shuttered tomorrow, and the prisoners get their day in court, the U.S. base will continue to exist as a key colonial outpost in a post-colonial world. Now that Fidel Castro has turned over power to his brother Raul and the United States is again poised to “democratize” socialist Cuba, this question has even greater resonance.

Booty from a “Splendid Little War”

Perched on the south-eastern corner of Cuba, the U.S. Naval Base straddles the deep water harbor of Guantanamo Bay and occupies 45 square miles of Cuban territory.

In 1898, the United States and Spain battled for control of Cuba and other Spanish colonies in what Washington had come to see as part of its “sphere of influence.” The Spanish-American War is known for the Rough Riders and the “Remember the Maine” call to arms (which refers to the now historically suspect attack on the USS Maine battleship sunk in the Havana Harbor). In a letter to his good friend Teddy Roosevelt, the U.S. Ambassador to England dubbed it a “splendid little war.” Ignoring the countless (literally) Cubans, Filipinos and others who were killed, one could see his point. The United States won a lot in the war: it lasted less than four months, resulted in the death of fewer than 1,000 U.S. soldiers and put the United States in charge of Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam — all former Spanish colonies — and gave the United States control of Hawaii. The U.S. Navy also discovered the benefits of Guantánamo Bay when they sought refuge from summer hurricanes. One hundred and ten years later, they are still there.

While the U.S. Congress promised Cuba independence after the war, the Platt Amendment forced a peace treaty that granted the United States the right to “stabilize” the island militarily and established a permanent U.S. naval base in Cuba.

Cuban-American Treaty

The Cuban-American Treaty was signed in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt and Tomas Estrada Palma, the President of Cuba — a U.S. citizen fully backed by Washington. According to the text of the treaty, the U.S. military presence will “enable the United States to maintain the independence of Cuba, and to protect the people thereof, as well as for its own defense, the Cuban Government will sell or lease to the United States the lands necessary for coaling or naval stations.” The treaty goes onto acknowledge Cuba’s “ultimate sovereignty” over the territory, but asserts that while the United States occupies it, they have “complete jurisdiction and control” over the land.

It’s difficult to call an agreement between a world power and a conquered colony a treaty, but it has governed operations there ever since. Only a few restrictions were placed on U.S. freedom of operation, even when the treaty was updated in 1934. The document stipulated that the site could only be used for the purposes outlined and prohibited the U.S. from conducting private enterprise there. The U.S. granted Cuba and her trading partners free access through the bay and agreed to pay Havana $2,000 in gold per year. Finally, the two countries promised to return fugitives from justice who crossed into the others’ territory.

As U.S. Navy Rear Admiral M.E. Murphy, a military historian, put it in his 1953 History of Guantanamo Bay: the land is “a bit of American territory, and so it will probably remain as long as we have a Navy.” He goes on to note “we have a lease in perpetuity to this Naval reservation and it is inconceivable that we would abandon it.”

And we have not abandoned it.

After the Revolution

When Washington’s close ally Fulgencio Batista was overthrown by the Cuban Revolution in 1958, the relationship between the U.S. base and the nation it occupied changed dramatically. When Batista fled to Spain (where he lived the rest of his life in luxury), thousands of Cubans with ties to his regime sought refuge on the base, and the rest of the island was deemed off limits to U.S. servicemen and civilians in 1959. Washington cut diplomatic relations in 1961.

In February 1964, two years after the Cuban missile crisis, Cuban President Fidel Castro cut water and supply lines to the base and since then, the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay has been self-sufficient. It is outfitted with a de-salinization plant to produce water, and windmills and other technology produce all of the base’s electricity.

In 2002, the first “enemy combatants” in the global war on terrorism landed at the Base. But this was not the first time the U.S. had confined internationals at the base. In the early 1990s, civil unrest in Haiti and economic crisis in Cuba drove tens of thousands of people from both countries to seek refuge in the United States. In little boats overcrowded with migrants, these people set off from the United States — only to end up at Guantanamo Bay. As many as 45,000 migrants were “processed” through the base, with many of the Haitians sent home to deprivation and the majority of the Cubans granted asylum.

“Honor Bound to Defend Freedom”

“Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” is the proud sentiment emblazoned above the entrance to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo. The website for the Commander of Navy Installations Command Guantanamo features a large picture of an iguana and the greeting: “welcome to the website for the oldest overseas U.S. Naval Station and the only one in a country with which the U.S. does not maintain diplomatic relations.”

Navy Commander Jeffery D. Gordon explains that the U.S. presence at Guantanamo serves “a vital role in Caribbean regional security, protection from narco-trafficking and terrorism and safeguards against mass migration attempts in unseaworthy craft.” The Navy’s Atlantic fleet is based there and the base is described as being “on the front lines of the battle for regional security.”

Changing the Rationale

The military aggressively makes the case for the base. Eighty years ago, Guantanamo was crucial to colonial expansion and the smooth extraction of resources from Latin America; 30 years ago, it would have been justified as playing a key role in supporting anti-democratic regimes in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and elsewhere. More recently, the war on drugs served as rationale.

But, before 2001, the number of military personnel stationed at the base had dwindled to about 300. And many saw Guantanamo’s greatest value as a carrot to dangle before the Cuban people in Washington’s long project to unseat Fidel Castro. Part of the 1996 Helms Burton Act (the chief aim of which was to strengthen and continue to U.S. trade related embargo on Cuba) — for example — offered to open negotiations with a “democratically elected Cuban government” to return the base at Guantanamo to Cuba or redefine the lease.

Then, Washington decided that the Guantanamo base would be an ideal place to try and hide war on terrorism detainees from the law and public scrutiny. And planeloads of shackled prisoners wearing blacked-out goggles, noise canceling headphones, and orange jumpsuits began landing at the U.S. base. Initially, many were housed in chain-link cages. In June 2005, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that the Pentagon had invested $100 million to construct new prisons and barracks and upgrade other facilities. Operating the base and the prison cost another $95 million a year. For U.S. soldiers and Marines stationed there, Guantanamo is a slice of the American mall culture transported to coastal Cuba — there is a weekly newspaper, The Guantanamo Bay Gazette, a movie theater that offers current films like “I Am Legend” and “The Spiderwick Chronicles.” McDonalds and Starbucks are both on base.

With no end in sight to the global war on terrorism, more than 8,000 military personnel are now based at Guantanamo. So, for the time being, the military has a new way to fend off calls to shut down the U.S. military base there. In a January 2007 interview on C-SPAN, Charles Stimson, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs, justified the U.S. base at Guantanamo, saying “It is important during time of war to have a place where, number one, you can take people off the battlefield and not allow them to go back to the battlefield, but also, exploit intelligence that they may possess… Guantanamo today remains the key strategic intelligence platform in the war on terror.”

“To my knowledge, the Cubans have never officially asked for it back” John Regan, the acting Officer at the State Department’s Cuba Desk, is quoted as saying in an April 2007 Los Angeles Times article. He goes on to say that they have not raised objections to the presence of war on terrorism prisoners. He must not be listening very closely.

In June 2002, at the United Nations General Assembly, Cuba demanded that the Guantánamo territory be returned to the island. And two years later, Cuba’s Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque proposed a resolution before the United Nations Human Rights Commission that would have condemned the violation of human rights at Guantanamo. More recently, these calls have grown louder. In a December 2007 speech in Havana, Roque said: We demand today, on the World Day of Human Rights, that the President of the United States and that the U.S. Government close down the torture center in Guantánamo and return to our homeland the territory that they occupy illegally.” Cuba protests in other ways as well. The U.S. Treasury continues to pay the “gold” that Roosevelt promised 105 years ago. Annual checks for $4,085 are deposited into an account for the Cuban government, but not a single one has been cashed in 47 years.

Toxic Brand

Cuba doesn’t like Guantanamo, and many in the administration agree that the detention facility has become a problem. During Robert Gates’ first week as Secretary of Defense following the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld, he argued that the detention facility should be closed, pointing out that the U.S. image abroad is so tainted that any legal proceedings for detainees at the base will be viewed as illegitimate. He commented: “I think that Guantanamo has become symbolic, whether we like it or not, for many around the world.” He also cut one big zero off Rumsfeld’s plan to spend $100 million on new infrastructure, resulting in a more modest (but still significant) $10 million expenditure for air-conditioned pods and other amenities for the military commissions hearings.

President George W. Bush acknowledges Guantanamo as a problem too, saying during a June 2006 press conference: “I’d like to close Guantanamo. No question: Guantanamo sends a signal to some of our friends and provides an excuse — for example, to say the United States is not upholding the values that they’re trying to encourage other countries to adhere to.” Despite his claims to being the “decider in chief,” Bush has not taken any executive steps to change the signal we are sending.

What is at the heart of the administration’s discomfort with Guantanamo? It is not torture — President Bush just vetoed a law that would have prohibited water-boarding. It is certainly not respect for Cuba’s sovereignty — the State Department has a whole office devoted to meddling in the country’s affairs. It is the PR problem. In March of last year, William Taft, a former State Department adviser, testified before the House of Representatives on Guantanamo. He acknowledged that the logistical advantages of housing prisoners at Guantanamo are outweighed by the “political costs of continuing its operation. At some point a brand becomes so toxic that no amount of Madison Avenue talent can rehabilitate it.”

One solution is to give the base back to Cuba. But, Julia Sweig, the Director for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, is not sure Havana would want it back, saying “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 is something Cuba uses to greater benefit than getting the base back.” Rhetorical benefits are of value — but you can’t eat, trade or wield geo-political power with rhetoric.

What Next?

But closing the prison and relinquishing control of the territory are two completely different things. Can Cuba get Guantanamo Bay back?

The Guantanamo prison is not a hot-button campaign issue. Lee Feinstein, Director of National Security for Senator Hillary Clinton’s campaign, says that “as President, she would direct the Justice Department to evaluate the evidence amassed against these prisoners and make a determination.” Not exactly a rousing and definitive call to shut down Guantanamo, but at least she has a process. For his part, Senator Barack Obama does not see the need for military justice proceedings there, asserting “I believe that our civilian courts or our traditional system of military courts-martial are best able to meet this challenge and demonstrate our commitment to the rule of law.” On the Republican side, Senator John McCain has pushed for Guantanamo to be closed and the prisoners sent to maximum security prison in Ft. Leavenworth, Kentucky.

On the larger issue of U.S.-Cuba relations, Obama favors engagement and dialogue without preconditions, while Clinton would predicate diplomatic overtures on Cuba’s steps towards democratization. McCain holds the position that U.S. containment policy has worked, and he would not talk to Cuba until they held free elections and released political prisoners and made other reforms.

Returning the occupied territory to Cuba has not been mentioned as an option by Presidential candidates, and it is not high on the list of objectives in Cuba policy circles. Close Cuba-watcher Patrick Doherty — the Deputy Director of the New America Foundation’s American Strategy Program — predicts it would come up only in “the later stages of a long-term process of rapprochement.” That’s because, in addition to the geographic value of an American military base at Guantanamo, Doherty says “one of our most effective areas of quiet cooperation with the Cuban government is at the mil-mil level in managing our presence and operations out of Guantanamo… and working on counter narcotics, counter-crime, and general Caribbean security issues. Without many other vehicles for official dialogue, Guantanamo, ironically, is acting like a confidence-building measure.”

Some international law experts assert that the United States is in violation of the treaty made with Cuba and that could be the basis of a movement to win the territory back. Dr. Alfredo de Zayas, a professor of international law at the Geneva School for Diplomacy, argues that even before looking at specific violations, the treaty can be nullified because, “the lease for the military base in a foreign country is conditioned on the friendly relations between states.” While relations between Cuba and the United States were friendly at the time of the treaty, that is no longer the case. De Zayas also asserts that the treaty is “voidable by virtue of a material breach,” because it clearly stipulates that the area should be used for naval purposes (coaling refers to re-fueling naval vessels when they were steam powered) and “for no other purpose” including housing war on terrorism detainees. Additionally, the treaty bars the United States from establishing “commercial, industrial or other enterprises” but the base is home to McDonalds, Starbucks, Subway sandwiches, and other commercial enterprises, another material breach.

While Washington does not make a habit of abiding by the treaty or its obligations under it, the 1903 agreement was repeatedly cited as a reason to keep Guantanamo detainees and their cases out of U.S. courts. During Supreme Court hearings for Rasul vs. Bush and Al Odah vs. United States, government lawyers argued that under the 1903 treaty and the 1934 revisions, the United States “recognizes the continuance of the ultimate sovereignty” of Cuba over Guantanamo and that the base is thus “not part of the sovereign territory of the United States,” and therefore not under U.S. law, meaning that the prisoners at Guantanamo should not be allowed access to U.S. courts.

In 2004, the Supreme Court rejected those arguments, but the legal fight continues.

Shut it Down

The decision of what to do with the prisoners at Guantanamo will most likely be left to the next administration. Washington’s policy and attitude towards Cuba will also be shaped by the next person to sit behind the big desk in the Oval Office. The next steps in the global war on terrorism; a major change (up or down) in the size, scope and objective of the U.S. occupation of Iraq; a shift in how (or if) we communicate and cooperate with the rest of the world; an exploration of the effectiveness of U.S. military might in resolving problems: these pressing issues will be seen through new eyes post-November 2008.

The U.S. military occupation and control of territory — from Guantanamo to Germany to Okinawa and beyond — should be included in this reckoning. Shutting down Guantanamo — not just the prison where men are tortured, abused, and held in contravention of U.S. and international law, but the sprawling colonial-holdover enterprise that the United States came to control and continues to occupy illegitimately and illegally — would be a huge symbolic step towards the rule of law, respect for other nations and the dawning recognition that military might is a tool of last resort not first assault. One hundred and five years later, the time has more than come.

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Frida Berrigan is a senior program associate at the Arms and Security Project of the New America Foundation.