HAVANA, Cuba, February 13, 2015 (AMG) — The process of diplomatic normalization between the United States and Cuban governments stalled last week over the issue of the American-held military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Speaking at a summit of Latin American and Caribbean States late last month, Cuban President Raúl Castro stated that the U.S. would need to relinquish control of Guantánamo Bay to Cuba in order for negotiations between Havana and Washington to continue. He also demanded that the U.S.’s half century trade embargo on the island nation be fully lifted, and that the U.S. compensate his country for damages resulting from the American government’s decades-long anti-Castro campaign.
The U.S. officials’ response was relatively swift and seemingly definitive: in a congressional hearing on February 4, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson, explained that, “we are not interested in discussing [the status of Guantánamo Bay]. We are not discussing that issue or return of Guantánamo.”
Guantánamo Bay – which Castro contends is illegally occupied by the U.S. government – has been in American hands for well over a century. After the U.S. helped Cubans gain their independence from Spain during the Spanish-American War at the close of the 19th century, the new Cuban government was compelled to agree to a number of conditions stipulated in the Platt Amendment of 1901, for the withdrawal of American troops from their country.
One of these conditions was that the Cuban government cheaply leases Guantánamo Bay, and its surrounding acreage, to the United States. The complex subsequently became an important warm-water naval base and training ground for the U.S. military.
Human rights infractions: Today, the U.S. installation at Guantánamo Bay is infamous for the controversial detention facility that is housed there. Here, the American government holds terror suspects outside the bounds of U.S. or international law. A 2006 report by the Centre for Constitutional Rights uncovered repeated instances of torture and cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment of prisoners – who often remain uncharged for years and are subject to trial by a military commission, rather than conventional civilian courts.
More recently, Staff Sgt. Joseph Hickman – a marine who served at the detention complex – alleged that the CIA tortured three detainees to death in 2006 and subsequently attempted to cover it up.
Amnesty International contends that the U.S. government’s prison facilities at Guantánamo Bay “have become emblematic of the gross human rights abuses perpetrated by the U.S. government in the name of fighting terrorism.”
Though U.S. President Barack Obama has repeatedly expressed a desire to shut down the contentious prison facility at Guantánamo Bay since assuming office in 2009, he has failed to do so thus far, citing congressional obstruction as a major obstacle. Even so, legal experts are quick to point out that, according to the National Defence Authorization Act of 2012, the president could close the facility immediately and unilaterally if he desired.
Aside from a failed attempt to force-out the Americans in 1964 by cutting off the base’s water supply, the Castro government has largely turned a blind eye to the U.S.’s presence in Guantánamo Bay.
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro likely feared that any serious attempts to dislodge the Americans from the area would be utilized as a pretext by Washington for hostile military intervention in Cuba. His brother’s fresh attempt to regain the area – and assert Cuba’s sovereignty in doing so – likely indicates diminished fear.
Whatever the case, the U.S. Government’s apparent intransigence on the issue does not bode well for the effort. Nor does it help the recent process of diplomatic re-engagement that has excited so many in both countries.
If the current thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations is to persist, somebody in Washington or Havana will have to give a little ground in Guantánamo.
Cover photo: U.S. Army