In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Barack Obama once again called for the U.S. to shut down the military prison at Guantánamo, Cuba. Most human rights advocates would agree that jailing people indefinitely without trial, at times in solitary confinement or other harsh conditions, is hard to justify. The biggest problem with Obama's call to close the military prison at Gitmo is that it doesn't go far enough.
Few symbols stand as such a potent reminder that in Latin America, for more than a century and particularly in the context of the Cold War, the U.S. has often stood against the side of freedom, democracy and self-determination. Instead, it has repeatedly attempted to force its will on the region through economic pressure, political destabilization and, when all else failed, military might.
The U.S. invaded or intervened militarily in Cuba alone at least four times over the last 120 years -- in 1898, in 1906, in 1917 and in 1961. Over the same 120-year period, the U.S. invaded Mexico, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic (twice), Haiti (twice) and Panama, while helping to topple or destabilize governments in Chile, Brazil, Argentina and Nicaragua. The U.S. also backed violent dictatorships in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Argentina... you get the idea.
Obama has played down this ugly past at times in his addresses to Latin American leaders, preferring to focus on how to improve the future. When refusing, for example, to apologize for the role the U.S. played in overthrowing the democratically elected government of Chile during a press conference in 2009, he said, "I'm interested in going forward, not looking backward." He was standing next to Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, whose father was killed by the Augusto Pinochet military dictatorship that the U.S. helped usher into power. Bachelet herself was jailed and tortured by the same government.
But let's take Obama's advice and think about how to improve the future. As Cuba expert Julia Sweig has argued before, the United States shouldn't just shut the military prison at Guantánamo down -- it should give that chunk of land back to Cuba.
The most obvious reason to let Gitmo go is that it undermines otherwise legitimate demands from U.S. policymakers for Cuba to respect human rights. Some 122 detainees remain at the military prison in Gitmo, a figure that tops the 114 prisoners of conscience in Cuban jail cells identified by the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. While the commission's figure doesn't include the thousands of Cubans dissidents detained for short periods of time for political reasons, seeing Cuba hold fewer political prisoners in its jails than the U.S. holds detainees at the notorious Gitmo prison makes it hard to take U.S. human rights rhetoric seriously.
The base's lack of legitimacy offers an equally good reason to give the territory back. Many have raised objections to the fact that the United States is indefinitely detaining people without charges at the military prison in Gitmo. Fewer people seem to wonder why we have a military base at all in a country with which, until last month, the U.S. did not even have diplomatic relations.
The military base was founded shortly after the United States invaded Cuba in 1898, effectively occupying the country at the tail end of a three-decade-long, Cuban-led series of wars for independence. As a condition for withdrawing, the United States required the new Cuban government to allow the U.S. to build a naval base there. It made perfect sense for an aspiring imperial power. At the time, military dominance meant controlling the seas.
To maintain the fiction that the United States had acquired the base legitimately, the U.S. government created a system by which the U.S. paid an annual fee to "lease" the property. The so-called lease can only be terminated by "mutual consent," which sounds suspiciously similar to a military occupation that continues despite Cuba's protest. The State Department still sends Cuba the un-updated sum of $4,085 every year to rent the land for the base, which the Castro government refuses to cash.
Today, the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo is all but irrelevant for purposes of combat, according to former head of U.S. Southern Command, retired Admiral Jim Stavridis. The U.S. isn't fighting any wars in the Americas right now, and despite occasional saber rattling from those who want to portray Cuba, or Venezuela, or Ecuador, or Bolivia, or -- most laughably -- Nicaragua as a national security threat, a war in the Western hemisphere doesn't seem very likely in the near future. If a war did unexpectedly break out, victory probably wouldn't hinge on controlling the waterways of the Caribbean to protect against enemy battleships because this isn't 1914.
There's nothing noble about the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo, let alone the military prison. Obama should do more than shut it down. He should give the territory back to Cuba, its rightful owner.
This post is part of a Huffington Post blog series called "90 Miles: Rethinking the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations." The series puts the spotlight on the emerging relations between two long-standing Western Hemisphere foes and will feature pre-eminent thought leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the NGO community, and prominent observers from both countries. Read all the other posts in the series here.
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