January 2012, Week 2


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Wed, 11 Jan 2012 21:28:49 -0500
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Give Guantanamo Back to Cuba


Published: January 10, 2012

IN the 10 years since the Guantanamo detention camp
opened, the anguished debate over whether to shutter the
facility -- or make it permanent -- has obscured a deeper
failure that dates back more than a century and implicates
all Americans: namely, our continued occupation of
Guantanamo itself. It is past time to return this
imperialist enclave to Cuba.

From the moment the United States government forced Cuba
to lease the Guantanamo Bay naval base to us, in June
1901, the American presence there has been more than a
thorn in Cuba's side. It has served to remind the world of
America's long history of interventionist militarism. Few
gestures would have as salutary an effect on the
stultifying impasse in American-Cuban relations as handing
over this coveted piece of land.

The circumstances by which the United States came to
occupy Guantanamo are as troubling as its past decade of
activity there. In April 1898, American forces intervened
in Cuba's three-year-old struggle for independence when it
was all but won, thus transforming the Cuban War of
Independence into what Americans are still wont to call
the Spanish-American War. American officials then excluded
the Cuban Army from the armistice and denied Cuba a seat
at the Paris peace conference. "There is so much natural
anger and grief throughout the island," the Cuban general
Maximo Gomez remarked in January 1899, after the peace
treaty was signed, "that the people haven't really been
able to celebrate the triumph of the end of their former
rulers' power."

Curiously, the United States' declaration of war on Spain
included the assurance that America did not seek
"sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control" over Cuba and
intended "to leave the government and control of the
island to its people."

But after the war, strategic imperatives took precedence
over Cuban independence. The United States wanted dominion
over Cuba, along with naval bases from which to exercise

Enter Gen. Leonard Wood, whom President William McKinley
had named military governor of Cuba, bearing provisions
that became known as the Platt Amendment. Two were
particularly odious: one guaranteed the United States the
right to intervene at will in Cuban affairs; the other
provided for the sale or lease of naval stations. Juan
Gualberto Gomez, a leading delegate to the Cuban
Constitutional Convention, said the amendment would render
Cubans "a vassal people." Foreshadowing the Cuban Missile
Crisis, he presciently warned that foreign bases on Cuban
soil would only draw Cuba "into conflict not of our own
making and in which we have no stake."

But it was an offer Cuba could not refuse, as Wood
informed the delegates. The alternative to the amendment
was continued occupation. The Cubans got the message.
"There is, of course, little or no real independence left
Cuba under the Platt Amendment," Wood remarked to
McKinley's successor, Theodore Roosevelt, in October 1901,
soon after the Platt Amendment was incorporated into the
Cuban Constitution. "The more sensible Cubans realize this
and feel that the only consistent thing now is to seek

But with Platt in place, who needed annexation? Over the
next two decades, the United States repeatedly dispatched
Marines based at Guantanamo to protect its interests in
Cuba and block land redistribution. Between 1900 and 1920,
some 44,000 Americans flocked to Cuba, boosting capital
investment on the island to just over $1 billion from
roughly $80 million and prompting one journalist to remark
that "little by little, the whole island is passing into
the hands of American citizens."

How did this look from Cuba's perspective? Well, imagine
that at the end of the American Revolution the French had
decided to remain here. Imagine that the French had
refused to allow Washington and his army to attend the
armistice at Yorktown. Imagine that they had denied the
Continental Congress a seat at the Treaty of Paris,
prohibited expropriation of Tory property, occupied New
York Harbor, dispatched troops to quash Shays' and other
rebellions and then immigrated to the colonies in droves,
snatching up the most valuable land.

Such is the context in which the United States came to
occupy Guantanamo. It is a history excluded from American
textbooks and neglected in the debates over terrorism,
international law and the reach of executive power. But it
is a history known in Cuba (where it motivated the 1959
revolution) and throughout Latin America. It explains why
Guantanamo remains a glaring symbol of hypocrisy around
the world. We need not even speak of the last decade.

If President Obama were to acknowledge this history and
initiate the process of returning Guantanamo to Cuba, he
could begin to put the mistakes of the last 10 years
behind us, not to mention fulfill a campaign pledge.
(Given Congressional intransigence, there might be no
better way to close the detention camp than to turn over
the rest of the naval base along with it.) It would
rectify an age-old grievance and lay the groundwork for
new relations with Cuba and other countries in the Western
Hemisphere and around the globe. Finally, it would send an
unmistakable message that integrity, self-scrutiny and
candor are not evidence of weakness, but indispensable
attributes of leadership in an ever changing world. Surely
there would be no fitter way to observe today's grim
anniversary than to stand up for the principles Guantanamo
has undermined for over a century.

Jonathan M. Hansen, a lecturer in social studies at
Harvard, is the author of "Guantanamo: An American


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