John Perry*

Guantanamo Naval Base gate.
Guantanamo Naval Base gate.  Photo: Bil Mesta

HAVANA TIMES — Those who would protest that only regime change and full recognition of human rights in Cuba should precede any deal have surely had their arguments demolished.

This month marks the 112th anniversary of the signing of the lease for the Guantánamo base between the Cuban and US governments. For at least half this period the base hasn’t been welcome in Cuba, and it’s high time the US worked out a timetable to hand the land back to the Cubans.

The current negotiations between the two governments provide an excellent chance not only to recognise the injustice of the lease but also for the US to pursue two of its own objectives about the base and about Cuba. So far, the issue isn’t even on the table, but it should be.

The legality of the base and especially of the GITMO prison has long been in doubt. For a start, the original lease is for a naval base and coaling station, not a prison, and expressly excludes use of the land for any other purpose. On the face of it, as soon as the prison was established there, the lease was violated. But the questionable legality of the lease goes right back to before it was even signed.

At the very end of the nineteenth century, Cuba became a virtual colony of the United States as a result of the latter winning the so-called Spanish-American war. Initially the US gained Cuban support by promising (through the ‘Teller Amendment’) that its role was temporary and it would then ‘leave the government and control of the island to its people’.

But what should have been the final stages in Cuba’s war of independence became instead (according to Richard Gott) a four-year US military dictatorship that lasted until 1902. When Cubans showed renewed signs of wanting the independence they thought they’d already won, it was permitted only after they were humiliated into accepting the ‘Platt Amendment’. This effectively reneged on the earlier promises, established a permanent right for the US to intervene whenever it felt the need, and specifically required Cuba to lease land for ‘coaling or naval stations’.

On the face of it, Platt both legitimized a series of military interventions over the period until 1923 and paved the way for the Guantánamo lease. Although it was repealed in 1934, the amendment was replaced with a new treaty that allowed the naval base to be kept indefinitely. The US hold on Guantánamo was further tightened by the Helms-Burton Act in 1996: this effectively made the return of the base conditional on regime change in Cuba.

However, this did not make the holding of the base legitimate under international law. As Cuba has pointed out, the ‘lease’ was effectively imposed under the threat of force and would now be illegal under the Vienna Conventions. As a measure forced on the then Cuban government, it was hardly a mutually beneficial arrangement. The fact that the US only pays just over $4,000 annually for the lease (with checks that are never cashed) is a further indicator of the scale of the injustice. It is an anomaly that cannot be sustained if normal diplomatic relations between the two countries are to be restored, as Obama wishes.

Guantanamo_Bay_mapHow could both sides reach an accommodation which isn’t seen as a climb-down? Obviously, Obama’s ongoing embarrassment about Guantánamo has little to do with the lease of the base and everything to do with his undelivered promises to close GITMO. Over 100 prisoners are still incarcerated there, with few signs that the prison’s closure can be secured before the end of Obama’s term of office. Can the two issues – ending of the lease and closure of the prison – be solved through an extension of the current diplomatic talks between the two countries, which have just resumed in Havana?

A brilliant suggestion which warrants wider discussion has been made in The Havana Times, a blog run by Circles Robinson. Robinson builds on the apparent success of the transfer of a handful of GITMO prisoners to Uruguay, where they were welcomed by former President Mujica and (so far) seem to have resettled without problems. Why not, he suggests, ask Cuba to accept GITMO prisoners in a similar way? Their transfer across the land boundary could be phased, there could be agreement about how they would be treated, and Obama could progressively shut down the prison. On the precedent of the handover of the Panama Canal in 1999, he could also agree to a date for the future termination of the lease, allowing plenty of time for deactivation of the naval base.

One of the obstacles to normal US-Cuba relations will inevitably be the confiscation of land from US citizens (or people who have subsequently become US citizens) after the 1959 revolution. This is an issue which continues to dog Nicaragua, more than thirty years after its own revolution, but nevertheless a process is in place there to recognize and deal with claims, and it is moving towards a conclusion. Cuban land claims are likely to present more formidable problems, but (as Robinson suggests) one way in which the US could ease their resolution would be by putting some of the savings from closure of the base into an agreed restitution fund. Indeed, this fund could also be created partially in recognition of the massive underpayments on the true value of the lease which have gone on for more than a century.

As the author of a history of the Guantánamo base, Jonathen Hansen, has said in the New York Times, Obama has the chance to ‘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’. Those who would protest that only regime change and full recognition of human rights in Cuba should precede any deal have surely had their arguments demolished by the growing evidence of the massive abuses that the US has itself perpetrated on Cuban soil. Obama has the chance to deal with two huge causes of US embarrassment: one that he is partly responsible for and one that dates back over a century and that previous presidents have ignored.
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(*) John Perry lives in Nicaragua and writes about Central America, but also writes on issues about housing and migration in the UK. He blogs for the London Review of Books and Public Finance.


9 thoughts on “Guantanamo – Time to End the Lease

  • I clearly understand your position. You would have the lack of freedom and the increase of injustices in Cuba to somehow work itself out without US intervention. The ‘un-level playing field’ in Cuba between the Castros and the Cuban people seems to cause you no heartburn. What you call “warts”, the Ladies in White call arrests and beatings. What you see as the US “arrogantly shoving their demands”, I call responsible leadership. You seem to “embrace” the Castro tyranny without reservation. The 56 years of one family controlling an entire nation makes me want to vomit.

  • The difference is, Moses, the US is continuing to (1) occupy contested Cuban territory, and (2) continuing to force regime change in Cuba, rather than leading by example. Cuba is not occupying a portion of the US…nor is it insistent on attempting to force the US to adopt their brand of political structure. Can you imagine the uproar in the US if they held those positions? Having said that, can you then comprehend how the Cuban government must feel about the injustice of US interventionist policies directed towards Cuba? Logic dictates that it MUST be the US that acts first to respectfully level the playing field in advance of normalizing relations. Cuba doesn’t OWE the US a thing. Regime change is inevitable, as you say. But the Cuban revolution will continue to live on. The US must cease their dictatorial terms and simply embrace Cuba, warts and all. The US can achieve much more by leading by example than continuing to arrogantly shove their demands and expectations down the throats of the Cuban government. GITMO needs to be returned to Cuba, and the full normalization of relations must proceed, regardless of Cuba’s current position.

  • Just GIVE this little chunk of land back to the PEOPLE who REALLY own….NO strings attached

  • The author claims that the Platt Amendment, “established a permanent right for the US to intervene whenever it felt the need”. That is not accurate. The Platt Amendment provided a limited set of causes for the US to intervene: to prevent foreign takeover of Cuba (at the time, Spain was the contemplated threat), to protect US interests (including the growing number of US citizens and corporations in Cuba), and to re-establish political stability.

    The 3 times the Platt Amendment was exercised were to re-establish political stability and protect US interests which it was feared might be harmed in the political chaos. In 1906, the US intervened when the Cuban elections were disputed and no party would give way to allow the other to form a government. In 1912, Cuban President Gomez asked the US to send troops to bolster his forces in their battle against the Negro Rebellion. 688 US Marines were sent to protect US owned sugar plantations and related properties, but not to join the fighting. (The rebels attacked the Marines once, but nobody was killed in the skirmish.) In 1917, US troops again intervened when another rebellion between Conservatives and Liberals broke out, threatening US sugar interests in eastern Cuba. US troops did not take part in the fighting between Cuban factions, but confined their actions to protecting US owned plantations, mills and mines.

    After that, the US did not intervene again. During the rebellion against Machado in 1933, some Cuban politicians called for the US to intervene, but FDR declined to get involved, saying the Cubans will have to sort out their own problems.

    The Platt Amendment is often described as a flat out license for the US to do whatever they wanted with Cuba. While it certainly was an infringement on Cuban sovereignty, the Platt Amendment did have limits.

  • Why is it that those who would see the US make changes first always see those changes as simple? Yet, when those of us who seek freedom of the press, assembly, etc. and open and independent elections in Cuba as the appropriate first changes, these changes are seen as complicated and overreaching? John Perry suggests closing GITMO as if it were a simple thing. I submit scheduling an election and allowing freedom of the press is also a simple thing. So why not demand that freedom in Cuba stand as a prerequisite to giving up the lease on GITMO? The Castros (thank God) won’t live forever. Regime change, one way or another, is inevitable. Why not make it the first step?

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