Critics suggest U.S. return Cuba base

The Baltimore Sun

GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA -- President Fidel Castro wages a silent protest against the U.S. "tenants" of this bay in southern Cuba from a drawer in his desk. There lie 47 uncashed checks drawn on the U.S. Treasury, each for $4,085, the annual rent fixed in a 1903 lease agreement that has vexed Cuba's leader since a leftist revolution brought him to power nearly a half-century ago.

The presence of U.S. troops on Cuban soil has long rankled Castro, who has often ranted about the "imperialist occupation."

Julia Sweig, director of Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted the international outcry over the Pentagon's use of the base at Guantanamo to detain and prosecute prisoners in the war on terror.

"One way to unload the problem would be to give it back to Cuba," she said. "The question is, would the Cubans want it back? Because it's become such a global symbol of what has gone wrong with America - not just a symbol of our colonial impulses but of the anti-imperialist fight throughout Latin America - it's something Cuba uses to greater benefit than getting the base back."

In a report last month on Guantanamo's role in the troubled relationship between Havana and Washington, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs think tank concluded that returning the territory is essential to ending the perceived U.S. domination of Latin American neighbors.

During President Bush's trip last month through Latin America, even friendly leaders reminded him of the message conveyed to the region by U.S. military occupation of the Cuban territory, said the council's director, Larry Birns.

"Guantanamo is the symbol of 19th-century gunboat diplomacy practiced by Washington," Birns said. He added that a movement is gaining ground throughout the Western Hemisphere "questioning the United States' legitimacy in occupying Guantanamo under the present arrangement."

The U.S. government gained control of Guantanamo Bay and surrounding territory in 1903 under an agreement the newly independent Cuban government accepted from U.S. liberators after the 1898 Spanish-American War. The U.S. military wanted a base to position forces to protect the Panama Canal, then being built. The base also played an important role during the Cold War, allowing U.S. forces to monitor Soviet movements in the region.

But since the demise of the Soviet Union and its communist empire in 1991 and the return of the Panama Canal to its host nation in 1999, the U.S. base has lost its strategic significance and now serves as little more than "a colonial relic," Birns asserted.

The agreement limits use of the Cuban territory to "coaling and naval purposes only," neither of which appears to cover the prison or tribunal operations. The agreement prohibits "commercial, industrial or other enterprise," but the U.S. base has a McDonald's, two Starbucks, a Subway and other concessions.

Such breaches render the treaty voidable, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs stated in its report.

Caleb McCarry, the Bush administration's point man on a post-communist Cuba, said Guantanamo is on the table - if and when Cuba throws off its one-party regime. But some U.S. officials say the base is crucial to U.S. interests.

Carol J. Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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