Will Obama Solve His Guantánamo Problem by Returning It to Cuba?

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

During Monday’s flag-raising ceremony at the newly reopened Cuba embassy in Washington, D.C., Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez made a point to note to reporters that the reestablishment of diplomatic relations would not be complete for the communist dictatorship without the “return” of the entire Guantánamo Bay military base to Cuban sovereignty.

With the continued existence of a prison on the military base arguably the most major blight of President Obama’s record in the eyes of his liberal base, could handing it off to a rogue state be the President’s way to finally keep his promise to “close” Gitmo?

“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 Guantanamo, and respect for the sovereignty of Cuba,” Rodríguez told reporters. His relatively conciliatory statements otherwise contrasted significantly with what was published in the pages of Cuban state newspaper Granma, where a bevy of celebrity attendees to the ceremony referred to the flag-raising as a “victory for our people.”

The Cuban government’s obstinacy in demanding Guantánamo Bay back indicates at least some hope on the part of communist officials that there is a non-zero chance of breaking President Obama down enough to push this unilateral action. Castro has already demanded Obama remove all economic sanctions on Cuba specifically via executive order. On Guantánamo, Castro has called the land “illegally occupied” and claimed it “would not be ethical, just, nor acceptable to ask of Cuba anything in return” for control of Guantánamo.

The Cuban communist regime repeated this call in May: “To achieve the normalization of relations, it will also be indispensable that the illegally occupied territory at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base be returned.” The Cuban government also demanded “that the Cuban people be compensated for human and economic damage provoked by United States policies,” despite the fact that it is the Cuban government who stole American properties and assets to the tune of $1.8 billion during the Revolution.

Raúl Castro appears hopeful that he can convince President Obama of the lie that Guantánamo is “illegally occupied.” The history of that land tells another story. The United States pays around $4,085 a year in rent to keep the base; the Cuban government has refused since the Revolution to cash it and claimed America is “in default” of the lease because of it. It also claims the United States is in default because holding prisoners in the base violates the terms of the lease, despite the fact that the 1901 Cuban Constitution says America has “complete jurisdiction and control” over the base.

That the United States built a military base there in 1901 is key to dismantling the claim that indulging Raúl Castro’s land grab would somehow return that land to its rightful owner. When America took over the base, Cuba was not yet a country. Cuba was, in 1901, embroiled in a bitter war against Spain, a war it could have never won without the help of the United States. Shortly after war broke out in 1898, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt sent the USS Maine to Havana to help Cuban troops. It was blown up–“Remember the Maine”–prompting a war declaration and Roosevelt’s heading to Cuba himself to fight alongside creole Cuban mambises against the Spanish empire.

The island became the Republic of Cuba on May 20, 1902, when the leaders of the revolution against Spain formally declared independence.

The communist government has for decades obscured the fact that American aid against Spain was indispensable to its independence by erasing May 20 from history entirely, instead celebrating October 10, 1868— the day the war began– as “Independence Day.” There is no record of the Republic of Cuba existing on that day.

American Secretary of State John Kerry was quick to attempt to get the media to dismiss Rodríguez’s comment on Monday. “We understand that Cuba has strong feelings about it, and I can’t tell you what the future will bring, but for the moment that is not part of the discussion on our side,” he said. His remarks echo those of White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest in January when asked if there was a possibility of the United States ceding its territory in Guantánamo to Cuba. “No,” Earnest said flatly, adding, “The naval base is not something that we believe should be closed.”

President Obama’s tone on Guantánamo generally differs significantly from Earnest and Kerry, who may well be referring not to closing the prison on the base, but the entire base. As a presidential candidate, Obama repeatedly called for its closure and has also called its ongoing existence a top regret of his tenure. “I think I would have closed Guantánamo on the first day,” President Obama said in March when asked of things he would do differently early on in his presidency if he could. “The politics of it got tough and people got scared by the rhetoric around it, and once that set in then the path of least resistance was just leave it open even though it’s not who we are as a country,” he added.

President Obama made those remarks after promising once again in his January State of the Union speech to close Guantánamo.

Earnest’s and Kerry’s comments aside, President Obama’s desire to see the base’s detention center closed is remarkably unambiguous. The disconnect between the various wings of the White House have led to some speculation that the President is seeking congressional help in shutting it down. What that means for the future of the base’s non-detention functions–as “a logistical hub in support of disaster relief, migrant, contingency and counter-illicit trafficking operations by various U.S. federal agencies, including DoD,” according to U.S. Southern Command–remains unclear.

This week, Politico speculates that negotiations in the latest round of NDAA legislation drafting may be the key to shutting the detention center down. A version of the bill promoted by Sen. John McCain may allow Congress to debate closing the base. While this angle is interesting in that it turns Guantánamo into the object of more legislative wheeling and dealing, it ignores the fact that, by virtue of the Cuban government bringing it up at all, it is as much an object of foreign policy as it is of congressional appropriations.

Ending the lease on the base entirely would, of course, make the detention center go away. Whether President Obama can single-handedly end the American lease on Guantánamo Bay is a matter lawyers will contentiously debate. At least one attorney–Thomas Wilner, an expert on foreign policy–tells the Spanish-language CubaDebate that President Obama “does have the unilateral authority to do this,” though “it is highly unlikely that any head of state, Democrat or Republican, would end a deal like this without at least having the tacit approval of Congress.”

The White House is working overtime to distract reporters from noticing the incessant demands on the part of the communist regime to receive Guantánamo Bay as a gift for the trouble of addressing American diplomats at all, and nothing more. They have categorically dispensed with the possibility of yielding that land to Cuba, with American media, instead, focusing on congressional moves to have the base shut down. But the constitutional ability for the President to single-handedly give it away before his term ends–if not the ability to do it courteously–is at very least debatable, and the move, analogous to handing over the Panama Canal, would finally cement President Obama’s (apparently desired) legacy as a 21st-century Jimmy Carter.


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