The Guantánamo Bay Naval Base: The United States and Cuba—Dealing with a Historic Anomaly

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The following are excerpts from an article by Michael Parmly (former U.S. Chief of Mission, U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba from 2005 to 2008) recently published in the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs. In this article, Parmly traces the fundamental reasons for the United States’ desire to establish a base at Guantánamo Bay from the late nineteenth century until today, on soil that is that is ultimately subject to Cuban sovereignty; stances on both sides of the debate; economic/ political factors; emblematic figures and interest groups that have played a role through the decades; and ideas for getting past a zero-sum situation.

This paper is based on a pipe dream. It deals with a political (international) reality that nobody in a position of responsibility has seriously addressed. It raises a matter in which the status quo is locked, seemingly permanently but certainly for the time being, in rigid U.S. Congressional legislation. It takes up a relationship between two countries—the United States and Cuba—that at this point can hardly be said to exist at all. One can legitimately ask the question: Why discuss the matter at all?

The answer is simple: Guantánamo Bay is back in the news. As a result of a hunger strike by as many as one hundred of the 166 detainees from the anti-terrorist efforts of the last decade who are—held in the various camps scattered around the naval base, hardly a day goes by without an article in the New York Times or another major media outlet reporting or commenting on the detainees, their jailers, or the judicial processes that for now have kept the 166 on Cuban soil.

[. . .] In an April 30, 2013 press conference devoted almost entirely to the Syrian conflict, the President went out of his way to comment—“emotionally,” as per one journalist; almost certainly extemporaneously in any case—on the status of the detainees. The President stated, “It is critical for us to understand that Guantánamo is not necessary to keep America safe. It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.”

[. . .] Yet in all the recent discussion and commentary, only rarely is the discrete factoid—that the detainees are being held on soil that is ultimately subject to Cuban sovereignty—ever even brought up. President Obama alluded to the fact in his May 23 remarks, but he was paying attention to Guantánamo primarily because of the detainees. The renewed attention to their fate at Guantánamo Bay, especially in light of the widespread hunger strike, is understandable: people’s lives may be at stake. That attention is also a distraction, and President Obama may be missing a key point. At its core, the question is not how the United States is treating the 166 detainees. The central issue is why the U.S. government feels it can behave exactly as it wishes, on soil that has repeatedly—by legislative as well as judicial branches of the United States—been affirmed as Cuban territory.

[. . .] The fundamental matter is the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and that base’s relationship with the government and the people of Cuba. What is the base used for? Guantánamo Bay was developed in the early years of the last century as a naval and a coaling station for U.S. warships and to protect access to the soon-to-be-built trans-isthmus canal. In the 110 years that the United States has occupied the forty-five square miles of base land, its mission has evolved significantly. Most Americans—and much of the world’s population—primarily associate Guantánamo today with the holding of the detainees from the anti-terrorist effort. Most are probably unaware that the base does anything more than that, even though at least two other missions, assuring a U.S. naval presence in the Caribbean, and processing migrant refugees, arguably are at least as important—if not as politically topical—as the first.

[. . .] The core issue, quite frankly, is political. However, those politics are evolving. Determined opposition to any rapprochement between the two countries is shifting in the United States. Cuba’s leadership, while still under a Castro, is very different with Raul than when Fidel ran the country. Indeed, as this paper will demonstrate, Raul expressed sympathy, on the record, in January 2002 for the U.S. military’s mission of guarding detainees accused of terrorism in Guantánamo.

[. . .] The United States retains key interests in its ability to continue to operate out of Guantánamo Bay, and the presence of the GWOT detainees is the most prominent—or certainly most high profile—of them. That will likely remain the case even after the United States returns control over the base to Cuba. Because make no mistake about it: that return will happen, sooner or later. The aim of this paper is to explore whether and how U.S. interests can be reconciled with Cuban operational sovereignty and overall control of the base. [. . .]

[Many thanks to Michael Connors for sharing this item.]

For full article, see http://www.fletcherforum.org/2013/09/24/373-special-edition-2013/ and http://www.fletcherforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Parmly-FA.pdf

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