Can You Handle the Truth? The Case for Returning Guantánamo Bay to Cuban Sovereignty

January 29, 2015

In A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson plays Colonel Nathan Jessup, a hard-charging Marine commander at Guantánamo Bay, a 45-square mile naval base on Cuba’s southeastern coast that American forces have occupied since the Spanish-American War. In one well-known scene, Colonel Jessup scornfully lectures Lt. Daniel Kaffee, portrayed by Tom Cruise, on the truth about the real world and its grave dangers, reminding him of the freedom his Marines protect by guarding the walls at Guantánamo. The U.S. Navy, institutionally, shares some of Colonel Jessup’s views. It locates the base “on the front lines for regional security in the Caribbean.” This overstates the Caribbean and Guantánamo’s strategic importance today. Indeed, from the perspective of the current world situation and our national-security requirements, the base, initially a coaling station, has become obsolete as well as a political liability. Given the Obama administration’s decision to begin normalizing U.S.-Cuban relations, the real truth is that the time has arrived to consider returning it to Cuban sovereignty.

Why did the United States originally occupy it? Primarily to preempt or counter conventional, extra-hemispheric threats. Strategic thinkers from John Quincy Adams to Alfred Thayer Mahan had recognized Cuba’s geographic importance, regarding it vital to American national security through the nineteenth century. It sat just off the Florida coast, occupying a position in the Caribbean that enabled whichever European empire controlled it — be it Britain, France, or Spain — to dominate or harass the sea lines linking the Mississippi and the Atlantic coast to European and Mediterranean ports and markets. The United States needed these sea lines to remain secure. Thus, Cuba eventually became part of an American system of colonies, naval bases, and coaling stations stretching from Guantánamo and the Panama Canal Zone to Chinese ports via Guam and the Philippines.

Europe’s expanding empires created the insecurity and sense of urgency that helped motivate American leaders, fearing possible exclusion or worse, to create this system. Europeans had been deploying warships to the Caribbean basin and the Gulf of Mexico to recover debts and exploit favorable opportunities since at least as early as the French declared Maximilian emperor of Mexico. This worsened during the Venezuelan debt crisis of 1904. British, German, and Italian ships blockaded the country, threatening to seize the customs house, demanding that the government repay them before its other creditors, who had not joined the blockade. The Venezuelan government, supported by the United States, appealed to The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration for relief, but the court granted the blockading powers the preferential treatment they were seeking. This encouraged further European intervention, propelling President Theodore Roosevelt’s corollary to the Monroe doctrine.

Cultural attitudes we now recognize as racist also influenced this. Roosevelt’s generation, along with its European counterparts, doubted most non-Western peoples and cultures could defend themselves effectively against the major powers of the day or govern themselves responsively. It remained their generation’s burden to civilize these people through colonial institutions and long-term tutelage, or so they told themselves. Thus, Americans colonized the Philippines and conditioned their withdrawal from Cuba on Cubans’ including the Platt Amendment in their new constitution. This stipulated that the United States would supervise Havana’s foreign policy, particularly its financial dealings with other governments, that Washington reserved the right to intervene in Cuban affairs whenever it deemed it necessary, and that the U.S. Navy would occupy Guantánamo.

Over two decades of preemptive American intervention and gunboat diplomacy followed. Both Guantánamo and the Canal Zone remained expressions of American power and credibility during these years. But the strategic problems that made them necessary disappeared long ago, and Latin Americans’ increasingly vocal anti-Americanism was posing a new, political problem. President Franklin Roosevelt recognized this when he announced the Good Neighbor Policy in the 1930s. True, Roosevelt reaffirmed the United States’ claim to Guantánamo, which supported antisubmarine patrols from the Caribbean to the eastern seaboard during World War II, and then became a fleet training center. But German wolf packs no longer roam the Atlantic, no serious conventional military threat has menaced the homeland since then, and indeed conventional hemispheric defense has ranked among our lowest defense priorities for the last several decades.

Not only has the global balance of power changed, but mainstream Americans have long since abandoned their earlier cultural attitudes toward Cubans, Panamanians, Filipinos, and indeed others in the developing world. Roosevelt signaled this in the Atlantic Charter, where he and Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared their commitment to, among other things, self-government for all in the postwar world — that is, an end to colonial empires. The United States duly recognized Philippine independence after the war and then negotiated continuing basing rights there with the national government. The United States also withdrew from Subic Bay, Clark Airfield, and our other positions there in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the Carter administration negotiated America’s returning the canal to Panamanian control in the 1970s. The Clinton administration relinquished sovereignty in 1999. Filipinos have maintained their independence, and the canal has remained a smoothly running link in transoceanic trade. In contrast, Guantánamo has become a fixed and obsolete position in search of a contemporary mission.

As historian Jonathan Hansen illustrates in a recent study of Guantánamo, the base has irritated the Castro regime since it seized power in 1959 and helped fuel the Yankee-imperialist diatribes that continue to trouble U.S.-Latin American relations. More significantly, it has become a political liability in a context far larger than inter-American affairs. The Carter administration and its successors began exploiting Guantánamo’s availability to solve political problems having nothing to do with hemispheric defense in the late-1970s. They argued that since the base fell inside Cuban borders, even if American officers managed it, the United States’ constitution did not apply there. Further, as a purely naval base with no other departments or agencies present, it became a place where the Pentagon could operate unilaterally through the U.S. Navy, bypassing bureaucratic Washington.

Thus, as Hansen further illustrates, both the Carter and Clinton administrations used Guantánamo to temporarily hold Haitian asylum seekers and other refugees captured at sea before returning them to their country without having to follow the administrative and legal procedures that due process would have required had they set foot on American territory, which these administrations insisted they had not done. The Bush administration expanded these arguments after 9/11, using Guantánamo to detain terrorists it called “enemy combatants” rather than prisoners of war or criminals under arrest who would otherwise have fallen under the Geneva Convention and/or the United States constitution’s protections. Their detention and the harsh treatment they received blackened America’s image and provoked outcries abroad, The Guardian‘s Andy Worthington’s Guantánamo Files representing but one example.

Returning Guantánamo then, to Cuban sovereignty as part of the ongoing U.S.-Cuban normalization process would liquidate an obsolete naval position, deny a useful trial exhibit to prosecutorial critics who characterize the United States as an empire of bases, and also make meaningful progress in changing our relationship with Havana. This matters deeply to the Castro regime, which has signaled this by cashing Washington’s checks for rent only once, and even then only by mistake. Our returning the base to the regime would not only alleviate these longstanding resentments, clearing the way for the kind of reconciliation both our nations need to begin a new chapter in the history of our relations, but putting it on the negotiating table would also give us powerful leverage when demanding that the regime fully compensate the American corporations and others whose property it seized in the revolution’s early years — something Colonel Jessup might even approve of. This, of course, leaves the issue of what exactly to do with the terrorist Khalid Sheik Mohammad and the other detainees who remain there unresolved. This represents an intractable issue the Obama administration or its successors would have to resolve before returning Guantánamo.


James Lockhart is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Arizona and adjunct professor at Embry-Riddle’s College of Security and Intelligence. He specializes in US-Latin American relations.


Are you currently in the U.S. military? Your friends at War on the Rocks have a quick two minute survey for you.