Yanquis go home

Spring 2015

Dan Smith reports on why the full closure of the US military base at Guantánamo key to normalising relations between Cuba and its northern neighbour

Yanquis go home Much has been made recently of the proposed restoration of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the United States, the release of the Miami Five and the easing of some economic restrictions. However discussions surrounding the fate of Guantánamo Bay, illegally occupied by the United States for over a century, have been conspicuous by their absence.

Although there has been much debate in recent years about closing the prison at Guantánamo Bay, barely a voice has been heard calling for the full closure of the base and its return to Cuba. Furthermore, whilst President Obama is on record expressing his desire to close the prison at Guantánamo, he remains adamant that the retention of the Guantánamo naval base is integral to US national security.

At a recent summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, Raúl Castro made it clear that the process of normalising bilateral relations would not be possible while the blockade still exists or “while they don’t give back the territory illegally occupied by the Guantánamo naval base.” But Roberta Jacobson, the US State Department official leading negotiations with Cuba, has emphatically declared “the issue of Guantánamo is not on the table.”And while this remains the case, and the US continues to disregard Cuba’s sovereignty, the chance of any diplomatic or political rapprochement remains a distant pipedream.

Guantánamo Bay is the oldest US military base outside of the United States. It is the only foreign military base maintained against the wishes of the host government and the only US military base with an indefinite lease. It is bordered by a 29-kilometer “cactus curtain” planted by the United States and its main gate has remained closed for over five decades since the US severed diplomatic ties with Cuba.

If the economic blockade is a relic of the Cold War, then the continuing existence of the Guantánamo military base is a relic of an older conflict between Spain’s fading colonial control and the United States’ rising imperial ambitions. It originates from the remnants of a former Cuban colonialist government that was completely subservient to Washington and has continued through the growth of Cuban nationalism and the triumph of the revolution that has refused to let the United States interfere unrestrained.

In an effort to restrict Spain’s ambitions in Cuba, the United States seized control of Guantánamo Bay at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 as it was of huge strategic importance in terms of natural resources and access to the Caribbean and Latin America. The infamous Platt Amendment in 1901 fortified the United States’s control allowing the US, without a hint of irony, to retain its military presence as a means to guarantee Cuban independence. The US openly admitted this stark contradiction in Article III of the Treaty:

“While on the one hand the United States recognises the continuance of the ultimate sovereignty of the Republic of Cuba over the above described areas of land and water, on the other hand the Republic of Cuba consents that during the period of the occupation by the United States of said areas under the terms of this agreement the United States shall exercise complete jurisdiction and control over and within said areas.”

The core of the agreement, therefore, guaranteed US hegemony in the region, reserved their right to intervene in Cuban affairs and annexed land to the United States. This has underpinned US policy in Latin America ever since and has been used to justify their continued interference in post-revolution Cuba.

The agreement was further entrenched in 1934 as a new treaty gave greater autonomy to the US over Guantánamo and cancelled the termination date of the lease. This effectively guaranteed US rights to the territory indefinitely whilst allowing them to interfere in Cuba’s internal affairs.

The US attitude towards Cuba is perfectly demonstrated by the States continuing to send cheques to pay the yearly peppercorn rent for Guantánamo addressed to the “Treasurer General of the Republic” – a pre-revolutionary position that was dismantled after 1959. As Noam Chomsky said, “The poverty of the formerly colonised country was unashamedly exploited by democratic USA with the annual payment of $2,000 in gold, on the self-righteous premise that it is the moral privilege of a rich power to buy anything, including part of another country’s territory.”

Washington maintains that its continued payment of the lease affords it the right to use the land, however the Cuban government refuses to accept the cheques and refutes US claims that the acquisition of the land is legitimate.

Critics to US foreign policy have pointed to the example of the Panama Canal as historical precedent for the return of Guantánamo to Cuba. The Panama Canal is of comparable strategic importance to Guantánamo in Central America and the leasing of the Panama Canal to the US occurred around the same time as the leasing of Guantánamo under the Theodore Roosevelt Administration. However, in 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed a treaty seceding official jurisdiction of the Panama Canal to the Panamanians. This highlights the hypocrisy of the United States and raises the question of why the Panama Canal lease was nullified and returned to Panama while the Guantánamo lease remains under sole authority of the United States. As later developments suggest, the reason for this is likely that US policy vis-à-vis Guantánamo is primarily determined by Washington’s opposition to Cuba’s socialist system.

The territorial battle over Guantánamo remained relatively unchanged until President Bill Clinton introduced the Helms-Burton Law in 1996 which implied that the US would only return the territory of Guantánamo to Cuba if Havana met its demands for regime change.

The Helms-Burton Act acknowledges that the United States “should be prepared to enter into negotiations with a democratically elected government in Cuba either to return (the base) to Cuba or to renegotiate the agreement under mutually agreeable terms.” Without exploring the merits of Cuba’s democratic model – which are multifarious but fall outside the scope of this article – the Helms-Burton Act crystallises the United States’ flagrant disregard for democratic values by co-opting the rhetoric of freedom and democracy to justify its illegitimate occupation of Guantánamo and violation of Cuba’s sovereignty.

Furthermore, it is wrong to suggest – as the Helms-Burton Act does – that hostility in Cuba to the US naval base is the sole preserve of the revolutionary leadership. As the former Chief of Mission at the US Interests Section in Havana, Michael Parmly, freely admits, “opposition among Cubans to the presence of the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base long predates the arrival of Fidel Castro to power in 1959. Indeed, opposition to the base is much stronger than his rhetoric or mere communist propaganda; it is intimately related to Cuban nationalism, to Cuban identity, to Cuban self-image, to the present-day Cuba and, most importantly, the Cuba of tomorrow.” Therefore, if the United States really is interested in democracy, then it would respond to the desire of the majority of Cuban people and return Guantánamo Bay to Cuba.

The dispute over Guantánamo has attracted international attention due to Washington’s decision to transform the base into an extrajudicial detention facility far outside the jurisdiction of the US legal system to intern prisoners of the “war on terror”. Although clearly morally reprehensible, the global fixation with the Guantánamo prison serves to distract attention away from the root territorial legal battle between the US and Cuba.

Conventional theory amongst Cubans regarding the legality of the Guantánamo naval base holds that the Cuban Revolution invalidated any previous agreements with the US because the Cuban Revolution was partly fought to reverse the pro-US stance of the Batista government and, therefore, all previous treaties are presumed void.

Since 1959, Cuban authorities have argued ferociously that the retention of the Guantánamo territory violates international law. This is based on Article 52, Section 2, of the Vienna Conventions on the Laws of Treaties which states that “a treaty is void if its conclusion has been procured by the threat or use of force in violation of the principles of international law embodied in the Charter of the United Nations.” Therefore, because the Platt Amendment was issued as an ultimatum, and the refusal to sign the treaty would have meant possible military intervention, the treaty is considered void.

Furthermore, contemporary controversial activities currently occurring in Guantánamo strengthen Cuba’s oppositional stance because the US has extended their operations from a naval base to an extrajudicial detention centre, and the 1903 Cuban-American treaty only authorised the settlement of a naval base, not the creation of a prison. This undermines the reciprocity principle of the original treaty because the US has deviated from the initial accord. Therefore, this fundamental divergence from the original purpose of the treaty nullifies the agreement.

In theory, the solution to the problem is simple: the United States must withdraw its troops, close the base and return the territory to Cuba. However, the situation is complicated by labyrinthine historical treaties and, more significantly, the existence of the detention centre at Guantánamo, US human rights abuses and the illegal incarceration of dozens of prisoners without trial. The United States’ disregard for Cuban sovereignty is matched only by their disregard for international law.

If President Obama is serious about rapprochement with Cuba, then the issue of Guantánamo Bay must be a central issue. Without substantial concessions, it is clear that US policy towards Cuba remains one of dominance and interference. Efforts by Obama to soften the blockade are to be welcomed; however failure to address the longstanding territorial dispute over Guantánamo will undermine any further efforts towards reconciliation and draw into question motivations behind recent US policy changes.

The continuing occupation of Guantánamo by the United States is a flagrant violation of international law, an affront to Cuba’s sovereignty and an impassable obstacle to reconciliation. Only when the US can forgo its territorial claim on Guantánamo can Havana be assured that Washington finally recognises Cuba’s right to self-determination. Until then, we must build the international campaign for Guantánamo to be returned to Cuba.

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