Just as the United States and Cuba open diplomatic relations, the Obama administration has simultaneously unveiled a plan to shut down Guantánamo. President Obama’s plan to close Guantánamo does not entail shutting down the entire base or rejecting the policies of indefinite detention and military commissions. While marketed as “change,” the United States’ plan to shut down the Guantánamo prison – and even its new diplomatic rapprochement with Cuba – are a continuation of US hegemony in the region.
In July, the Obama administration announced its plan for closing the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. At the Aspen Security Forum, Lisa Monaco, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, said that of the current 116 detainees, some will be transferred to a prison somewhere in the United States. The 52 who are eligible for transfer will be released to other countries. Those considered too difficult to prosecute but “too dangerous to release” will be subject to periodic review boards to determine whether they are fit for release.
The argument behind “too dangerous to release” is that those detainees are supposedly likely to join groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups in order to attack the United States. However, according to the New America Foundation, in 2013, only 2.8 percent of detainees released were confirmed to have engaged in “militant activities against U.S. targets” after their release. The ones determined not fit for release will be detained in US military or supermax prisons and prosecuted in military commissions or federal courts.
Anywhere between three dozen to more than 50 people will remain indefinitely detained without charge or trial.
Of the remaining Guantánamo detainees, only one has been convicted of a war crime, while six are currently being tried by military commissions. The rest of the detainees – both those approved and not approved for release – have not been charged or tried for anything. This means that anywhere between three dozen to more than 50 people will remain indefinitely detained without charge or trial but, instead of being held in Guantánamo, will be kept in a similar facility inside the United States. Currently, the Obama administration is looking for a facility to detain those indefinite detainees.
The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which was passed days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, gives the president broad powers to use force against those responsible for 9/11, particularly al-Qaeda. However, in practice it has done much more than that: It has provided a legal foundation for the United States to wage a perpetual war against an amorphous threat – “terror.” It also serves as the go-to legal rationale for holding people indefinitely in Guantánamo – by classifying them as de facto prisoners of war in an endless war.
Pentagon spokeswoman Henrietta Levin told Truthout, “The 2001 AUMF, as informed by the laws of war, continues to provide the president with the legal authorities to hold detainees.” In June 2013, Guantánamo chief prosecutor US Army Brig. Gen. Mark Martins told reporters at a press conference in Guantánamo that the indefinite detainees will be detained “until the end of hostilities” against al-Qaeda, the Taliban and “associated forces” (co-belligerents of al-Qaeda). Both indefinite detention and perpetual war violate international law.
Civil liberties and human rights groups have long opposed Obama’s plan to move the Guantánamo system of indefinite detention and military commissions to US soil. American Civil Liberties Union senior legislative counsel Chris Anders wrote in Common Dreams, “The ACLU said back in 2009 that shipping indefinite detention north was the wrong way to close Guantánamo, and it still is the wrong way to close Guantánamo. Bad ideas don’t get better by just sitting on the shelf. It’s time to close Guantánamo the right way, by charging in federal court any detainee who can be charged and ending indefinite detention for everyone else. If a prosecutor can’t put together a case against someone who has been sitting in prison for as long as 13 years, there is no reason that person should continue to sit in prison, whether in Guantánamo or someplace else.”
Guantánamo and US-Cuban Relations
The United States and Cuba have reopened their embassies and improved trade, travel and communications. After reopening Cuba’s embassy in Washington, DC, Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez announced that the United States must hand Guantánamo Bay back to Cuba. “The historic events we are living today will only make sense with the removal of the economic, commercial and financial blockade, which causes so much deprivation and damage to our people, the return of occupied territory in Guantánamo, and respect for the sovereignty of Cuba,” he said.
The United States has steadfastly rejected demands to hand back its naval base at Guantánamo Bay. Last January, the White House said, “The President does believe that the prison at Guantánamo Bay should be closed down,” however, “the naval base is not something that we wish to be closed.” The United States has maintained that position even after it agreed to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba. In July, when asked at a press conference about the possibility of the US giving up its naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the US has “no anticipation and no plan with respect to the Guantánamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba.”
According to The Telegraph, “The embargo is still in place, however, meaning that American ‘tourists’ cannot visit – although they can go for a host of other reasons – and America cannot, by large, do business with Cuba. And, of course, Guantánamo remains under US rule.”
“I went to school in Guantánamo and learned all about it – how the Americans took it, and how we fought so long to get it back.”
The US base at Guantánamo arouses strong feelings among Cubans, many of whom oppose it. The Telegraph published a profile in July on Cubans’ feelings about Guantánamo. One woman, a cook and mother of three, named Leticia, told The Telegraph that Guantánamo “is ours.” She explained, “I went to school in Guantánamo and learned all about it – how the Americans took it, and how we fought so long to get it back.” She said the restoration of the United States’ and Cuba’s diplomatic relationship should rest on the fate of Guantánamo. “I feel quite strongly about this. How can we be friends with a country that still squats on our land?”
Some feel differently. A former Cuban military intelligence officer named Mr. Lopez (not his real name) used to feel strongly about the Cuban revolutionary cause and returning Guantánamo to Cuban control. Now his views have changed. He told The Telegraph, “There are more important things than who controls Guantánamo – more immediate issues.” As an intelligence officer in Cuba’s military, he strongly believed in getting Guantánamo back from the United States but now he feels “Guantánamo can wait” and Cuba needs to focus on getting its economy on track. Lopez also said the prospects of Cuba getting Guantánamo back are far off. “We’re not going to get Guantánamo back any time soon,” he told The Telegraph. “Forget it. Even Raúl Castro accepts that, in his heart of hearts. The Americans won’t give in.”
So even as the United States ends its decades-long policy of “I’m not talking to you” in relation to Cuba, the fact that it is not giving up its base at Guantánamo Bay signals a continuation of US imperialism in Cuba, simply under a different form.
US Imperial History in Guantánamo
US imperial history in Guantánamo extends back to before the country was founded. In 1740, American colonists decided to wage war against Spain to disrupt its monopoly on trade in the Caribbean, which “throttled colonial commerce and industry,” writes Harvard University professor Jonathan M. Hansen in his book Guantánamo: An American History. British Admiral Edward Vernon of the Royal Navy knew the Caribbean very well, particularly Cuba’s importance to the regional economy. In the age of sail, controlling the Caribbean was crucial to expanding and developing the American colonies. The Windward Passage at Guantánamo Bay offered a convenient passage through the Caribbean to the Gulf of Mexico. At the time, Spain controlled the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. According to Hansen, “Cuba, Vernon well knew, was the gravitational center around which this system churned. The country that controlled Cuba would command the trade and traffic not only of the Atlantic seaboard and North American continent, but of the Western Hemisphere itself.”
Vernon recruited landowner Lawrence Washington, the older half-brother of the United States’ first president, George Washington, to join his effort to take over Cuba. His plan was to take over the Spanish settlement at Santiago de Cuba. However, landing at Santiago harbor would have been suicidal, because of “the harbor’s tortuous, precipitous entrance, which made it easy to protect,” writes Hansen. Therefore, Vernon and Washington developed a plan to take over Santiago from behind on land via Guantánamo Bay.
The invasion failed, however. On the night of August 4-5, 1741, 3,000 British and North American colonial troops and 1,000 Jamaican slaves landed at Guantánamo Bay. Even though they faced no opposition and were not far from their objective, hundreds of troops were plagued by disease and fatigue. Some of them fell ill at Port Royal in Jamaica before embarking on the journey to Cuba. Growing disease, sporadic raids by Spanish guerrillas, fears of ambush and doubts about the mission by the army general undermined the operation. By December, British troops left Cuba. However, the American dream of taking over Cuba did not die there.
Former US President Thomas Jefferson envisioned Cuba as part of the US empire. In October 1823, Jefferson wrote to James Monroe, “I candidly confess that I have ever looked on Cuba as the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of states. The control which, with Florida point, this island would give us over the Gulf of Mexico, and the countries, and the isthmus, bordering on it, as well as all whose waters that flow into it, would fill up the measure of our political well-being.”
The US naval base at Guantánamo Bay is physically secluded from the rest of Cuba via disconnected roads, fences and mountains.
The successful slave revolt in Haiti that kicked out France sparked fears of similar rebellions occurring in other slave colonies, particularly in the United States. Haiti was a valuable colony that provided Europe with “60 percent of its coffee and 40 percent of its sugar,” writes Hansen. The loss of Haiti made Cuba more important. According to Hansen, with the demise of slavery in Haiti, “Cuba emerged as the world’s leading sugar producer and the most valuable market for African slaves – driven to a large extent by US investment.”
Toward the end of his life in the 1820s, Jefferson decided to put his vision for an annexed Cuba on the back burner in order to avoid war with Britain. But that did not stop other American elites from taking interest in Cuba.
By the second half of the 1800s, the Guantánamo Basin had a growing market in “not only coffee and sugar, but in cotton, cocoa, and indigo besides,” according to Hansen. “By 1852 the region’s sugar exports began to grow, doubling by 1858. By 1862, Santiago and Guantánamo together produced 15 percent of Cuban sugar, roughly double what they contributed in 1827,” Hansen points out. Guantánamo’s growing “agricultural productivity raised eyebrows in the United States, where Francis Badell, the US consular agent in Santiago, noted the fact in his annual report.” In 1858, Guantánamo Bay got a port at Caimanera.
The Ten Years’ War in Cuba (1868-1878) – which was its first war of independence – effectively ended the slave trade; Cuba abolished slavery in 1886. However, the war also severely damaged Cuba’s “industry and commerce,” according to Hansen. The ones who first recovered in the war’s aftermath “were individuals and businesses with surplus capital to invest,” which in 1880s Cuba “meant above all American businessmen, who took advantage of the depressed Cuban economy to consolidate and recapitalize once-small sugar, coffee, tobacco, cocoa, and indigo plantations.” According to Hansen, “By 1896, American investment in Cuban sugar and mining exceeded $50 million. Ripe for American investment, Cuba was also a good market for the United States, whose exports to Cuba exceeded $105 million by 1894.”
Around this time, as the United States had already expanded to the Pacific Ocean, calls for imperial expansion grew. Before he became president, William McKinley said, “We want a foreign market for our surplus products.” Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge wrote, “In the interests of our commerce … we should build the Nicaragua canal, and for the protection of that canal and for the sake of our commercial supremacy in the Pacific we should control the Hawaiian islands and maintain our influence in Samoa … and when the Nicaraguan canal is built, the island of Cuba … will become a necessity.”
Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan was a 19th-century naval officer who became a chief propagandist for US imperialism. He believed, like many, that the United States “had a right to appropriate distant territory for strategic interests, [and] US commercial expansion would benefit the entire world,” according to Hansen. However, while Americans did emphasize war to promote its interests, Mahan “took conflict for granted” and insisted the US should be prepared for it. Mahan argued that communication was a vital element in military and naval strategy and “control of the seas” was important for US military and economic power. He also felt the United States did not control enough of the Caribbean, which he described as “one of the greatest nerve centers of the whole body of European civilization.”
As the Cubans revolted against Spain, again, the United States sought to steer the uprising in its favor. The Spanish empire was certainly a rival to US interests in the Caribbean. However, an independent Cuba, particularly with a substantial Black population located near Haiti, on the doorstep of the United States was not something US elites wanted, either.
On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine, a US Navy ship, exploded and sank in the Havana harbor, killing over 260 men. Even though the cause for the explosion was not determined, calls for war against Spain amplified within the media and business elite. After Spain refused President McKinley’s ultimatum to withdraw from Cuba, the US declared war against Spain on April 25, 1898, thus, beginning the Spanish-American War.
In June 1898, the US Navy, along with hundreds of US Marines and Cuban guerrillas, landed at Guantánamo Bay and defeated the Spanish forces in the area. On June 14, the United States successfully captured Guantánamo Bay and possessed it as a coaling station.
The Treaty of Paris, signed on December 10, 1898, ended the Spanish-American War and the Spanish empire was crushed. The United States annexed Spain’s former colonies in the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico. Cuba was not directly annexed but it was brought into the United States’ sphere of influence by other means.
After the war, US business interests gobbled up resources and industry in Cuba. As Howard Zinn wrote in A People’s History of the United States:
Americans began taking over railroad, mine, and sugar properties when the war ended. In a few years, $30 million of American capital was invested. United Fruit moved onto the Cuban sugar industry. It bought 1,900,000 acres of land for about twenty cents an acre. The American Tobacco Company arrived. By the end of the occupation, in 1901, Foner estimates that at least 80 percent of the export of Cuba’s minerals were in American hands, mostly Bethlehem Steel.
The Platt Amendment, passed by Congress in February 1901, gave the United States “the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty” and called on the Cuban government to “sell or lease to the United States lands necessary for coaling or naval stations.” Cuba incorporated the Platt Amendment into its constitution on June 12, 1901. In 1903, Cuba leased lands to the United States for “coaling and naval stations,” including one at Guantánamo Bay. These agreements, however, were one sided. According to University of Leeds professor Manuel Barcia, the lease – signed by the US government and Cuba’s first president Tomás Estrada Palma – along with the Platt Amendment, “was nothing more than a one-sided pact enforced upon a weak new nation coming out of a devastating war; an early twentieth-century imperialist move embodying the up and coming ideals of US expansion in the Americas.”
In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed another treaty ratifying the status of the US base at Guantánamo Bay. Article 3 of the 1934 treaty includes this sneaky passage: “So long as the United States of America shall not abandon the said naval station of Guantánamo or the two Governments shall not agree to a modification of its present limits, the station shall continue to have the territorial area that it now has, with the limits that it has on the date of the signature of the present Treaty.” This means that essentially, as long as the two governments do not agree to change the terms of the treaty or the United States does not abandon the Guantánamo base, the base remains.
After the 1959 Cuban Revolution ousted US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, the Castro-led government demanded that the United States leave Guantánamo and hand the land back to Cuba. The United States refused, kept the base, and forbade its troops and other personnel from entering the rest of Cuban territory. The US naval base at Guantánamo Bay is physically secluded from the rest of Cuba via disconnected roads, fences and mountains.
Once the war on terror commenced after 9/11, the United States decided to send people it captured for suspected terrorism ties to a prison in Guantánamo Bay to keep them hidden from public view and consciousness. The first detention facility used to house the first group of detainees, from January to April 2002, was Camp X-Ray – a virtual concentration camp, in which prisoners were kept in cages nearly 24/7 in the hot, humid Cuban weather. Before it was used to house war on terror detainees, Camp X-Ray was used to detain Haitian migrants. After 2002, the Guantánamo detainees were transferred to the current facilities, which resemble prisons in the United States. A 2006 Seton Hall study found that 86 percent of Guantánamo detainees were captured by the Pakistani government or tribal allies and handed over to the United States. Only 5 percent were captured by US forces. Currently, only three of the 116 remaining detainees were apprehended by US forces, according to a review of military documents by the Guardian. Only a tiny handful of detainees were ever charged or tried for anything. The vast majority were held for little to no reason.
War on Drugs in Cuba
Torturing and detaining people indefinitely without charge or trial is not the only activity that occurs in Guantánamo. The US base is also used to support counternarcotic operations throughout the Caribbean. In fact, when it comes to fighting the war on drugs, the United States and Cuba are on the same side.
Cuba has draconian anti-drug laws – since the Castro government long considered narcotics to be counterrevolutionary – and regularly interdicts drug operations, sometimes with US cooperation. Drug traffickers typically avoid going near Cuba. While many Latin American countries question the benefits of the war on drugs, “Cuba has emerged as one of Washington’s most reliable allies in unwavering opposition to the decriminalization of narcotics,” according to The Washington Post. Mike Vigil, a former special agent and director of international operations at the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), told The Washington Post that the drug trade is “starting to move back into the Caribbean, and I think that is a call to arms. We need to work with the Cubans in a far greater capacity.”
“Cuba has emerged as one of Washington’s most reliable allies in unwavering opposition to the decriminalization of narcotics.”
A 2015 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, issued by the US State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, lauded Cuba’s anti-drug efforts. “Despite its location between the largest exporters of illegal drugs in the hemisphere,” the report said, “Cuba is not a major consumer, producer, or transit point of illicit narcotics. Cuba’s domestic production and consumption remain low due to active policing, strict sentencing, and nationwide prevention and educational programs.” The report stated that the country’s “intensive security presence and interdiction efforts have kept supply down and prevented traffickers from establishing a foothold.”
According to the report, in 2013, Cuba interdicted “1.5 metric tons of illegal narcotics, 98 percent of which washed-up on Cuba’s shores,” disrupted “43 smaller operations at airports, seizing a total of 30.45 kilograms (kg) of narcotics,” and Cuban authorities “sanctioned 628 individuals on drug-related charges, 273 of whom received sentences ranging from six to 10 years.”
The US Interests Section in Cuba has a US Coast Guard drug interdiction specialist “to coordinate with Cuban law enforcement” but no DEA officers on the ground. According to the report, the US Coast Guard and Cuban authorities “share tactical information related to vessels transiting Cuban territorial waters suspected of trafficking and coordinate responses.” In April 2014, for example, US Coast Guard and Cuban authorities seized 385 kilograms of marijuana and arrested three smugglers.
Despite the national sovereignty concerns of many Cubans, some US analysts openly call for keeping the Guantánamo base open for this very reason. US Navy Capt. Robert Hein and US Coast Guard Commander Jason Tama, both executive fellows of the Brookings Institution, wrote in an op-ed, “Regardless of the fate of the detention facility, keeping U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay open is the right decision for the United States and the region in the near term. As the only U.S. forward-operating base in the Caribbean and the gateway to the Gulf of Mexico, Naval Station Guantánamo Bay is uniquely positioned to protect U.S. interests and preserve regional stability.” Even though Cuba is hardly a threat to the United States, US “interests” in the region include controlling mass migration and counternarcotic operations. “Should relations with Cuba continue to thaw, the U.S. presence at Guantánamo Bay could provide a collaborative foundation for limited bi-lateral cooperation” and “military-to-military cooperation,” Hein and Tama argue.
Along with Guantánamo, the United States has othermilitary installations in the Caribbean and Latin America, including in El Salvador, Honduras and Curaçao, which are also used to support the war on drugs.
Even though the Obama administration plans to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, it will still maintain the practice of indefinite detention. It will just be moved to somewhere else on US soil. While the United States is opening diplomatic relations with Cuba, it still plans to keep its naval base at Guantánamo Bay, which is a point of operations for the United States’ war on drugs and greater power projection in the region. When it comes to “change” in US relations with Cuba, the devil is really in the details.