By Circles Robinson
HAVANA TIMES — Round two of the high level talks to normalize diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States is set for Friday, February 27 in Washington D.C. The first and foremost order of business is clearing the way to the opening of embassies in the respective capitals.
This next step to a new era for the two neighboring countries seems relatively easy, dealing mostly with logistical and travel issues like diplomat movement and banking.
Nonetheless, there is one issue that may be necessary to resolve before relations are fully restored. Cuba says it makes no sense for it to remain on the US list of countries sponsoring terrorism (along with Iran, Sudan and Syria) and have normal relations with Washington. Without specifying a date, thus far, Obama has said the designation will be reviewed by the State Department and a recommendation sent to Congress.
The fact is we don’t know what else was agreed upon during the 18 months of secret negotiations between the Obama and Castro governments that led up to the historic announcement of rapprochement on December 17, 2014.
So far we’ve seen the release of the three remaining Cuban Five agents from US prisons and the release of USAID operative Alan Gross and an undercover CIA agent from Cuban jails. Some 53 Cuban political prisoners on a list submitted by the White House were also subsequently freed.
The Obama administration has relaxed some of the travel restrictions on US citizens wanting to visit Cuba, although they still can’t go for strictly tourist reasons. He also gave telecommunications companies the OK to deal with the Cuban government, which has already led to an initial agreement with IDT Telecom.
For the first time US travelers to Cuba can bring back a limited amount of items purchased on the island and the amount of remittances that can be sent to Cuba has been greatly expanded. US visitors will soon be able to use their credit cards on the island and US financial institutions can now open accounts at Cuban banks to facilitate transactions.
During the last six weeks two large US congressional delegations have landed in Havana. One was an eight member bipartisan Senate trip headed by Sen. Patrick Leahy. Then, more recently, nine Democratic Party representatives, including House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, were in the Cuban capital for several days. While expressing their concerns on human rights limitations on the island, the legislators expressed their hope for the new relationship to advance and to open up trade and travel.
Tough Issues to Resolve
There are several thorny areas for negotiation that will no doubt be on the table sooner or later. They will also be the focus of opposition or support for lifting the 53-year embargo in the US Congress.
The issues surrounding the Guantanamo Naval Base (AKA: GITMO) located on occupied Cuban territory and the Cuban government’s expropriation of US citizen/company owned properties at the beginning of the Cuban revolution are two of the far more complicated topics to be addressed.
Those in Miami and Congress who oppose any rapprochement with Havana feel the compensation subject must be resolved before any relations should be established. They also point to Cuba’s good relations with Russia at a time when US-Russia relations have deteriorated.
The following are some suggestions on how to begin to resolve several related problems. I hope our readership will chime in with other ideas. Maybe together we can give the negotiators a hand.
President Obama wants to close the prison that still has over 100 prisoners without charges.
Since there is much pressure in the US against accepting the prisoners, and several of their home countries are unwilling, he must find other countries to accept them. This has proven to be a very slow process.
The prison camp alone at the Gitmo Naval Base costs the US taxpayers an estimated $2.7 million a year per prisoner to maintain.
Then there’s the US Guantanamo Naval Base itself, founded in 1898, which many analysts believe is no longer needed strategically for the United States. They believe the Southern Command, which was moved from Panama to South Florida when the Canal was returned to that Central American country in 1999, has proven more than capable of defending US interests.
Roque Plana, an editor for Latin American issues for the Huffington Post recently wrote: “Today, the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo is all but irrelevant for purposes of combat, according to former head of the U.S. Southern Command, retired Admiral Jim Stavridis.” “The odds of the U.S. needing the base for combat operations are essentially nil — luckily we enjoy peace here in the Americas,” said Stavridis.
Then there’s the financial issue. While I haven’t been able to find anywhere the annual budget for the GITMO Naval Base operations (aside from the prison camp) with its 6,000+ military and civilian personnel, it is no doubt in the many hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars.
Meanwhile, US citizens and companies continue to claim an estimated $6-7 billion from properties that were expropriated by the Cuban revolutionary government over a half century ago. This is the biggest stumbling block to lifting the 53-year-old US embargo on Cuba, something President Obama says he wants to accomplish while still in office.
For its part, Cuba claims the US embargo has caused hundreds of billions of dollars of damage to its economy. Likewise, Cuba has sought the return of the Guantanamo Bay property for over a half century and claims many billions in lost revenues from not possessing the territory.
Cuba could offer to accept the remaining prisoners without charges at the GITMO Prison Camp as a humanitarian gesture at the request of President Obama, in the same way that Uruguay, Oman, Estonia and other countries have already accepted small numbers of the released prisoners.
Cuba could promise to closely monitor the freed prisoners’ activities on the island and assist them to return to civilian life, until they are welcome where they wish to travel. This would enable the closing of the prison concluding the seemingly endless problem for Obama and embarrassment for the United States. The ISIS beheadings of prisoners in orange jumpsuits for publicity reasons is a vivid reminder of how much of the world regards the GITMO prison camp.
In return, the US could set a definitive date for returning the territory housing the GITMO base to Cuba as it did in Panama in 1977. A calendar could be established for the related hand-over issues.
To begin to resolve the property expropriation issue and make it easier to lift the embargo: A portion of the billions to be saved to US taxpayers from the annual cost of maintaining the base and prison camp could be temporarily directed into a compensation fund for US properties confiscated at the beginning of the Cuban revolution.
Cuba could enter into an agreement with the US to consider each claim over expropriation, as took place, and continues to take place, for example in Nicaragua from the 1990s to date.
Surely some of you readers can help make this proposal better. Please send in your suggestions in the comments section. Remember, we are trying to find some solutions that won’t satisfy the all-or-nothing crowd, but could help resolve the present and future while taking into account the past.