By Havard Bergo for Global Risk Insights
Those expecting a smooth progress in the efforts to renew US-Cuban relations received a sobering reminder this week that significant obstacles are standing in the way.
Addressing a summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the Cuban President Raul Castro announced three main conditions to achieving a serious diplomatic breakthrough: the lifting of the US embargo, compensation for “human and economic damage” inflicted upon the Cubans, and, finally, the return of the naval base at Guantanamo Bay.
White House officials responded by saying that the status of the base was not part of the current negotiations, adding that they had no intentions of closing the base anytime soon. Considering the context of Castro’s demand, as well as comparative historical cases, there is little reason to believe that Guantanamo is a defining obstacle for restoring diplomatic relations. It might however become problematic for the longer goal of normalizing relations.
Significant historical pretext
The pretext for the US presence on Guantanamo was the American intervention in the Cuban War of Independence, transforming it into the Spanish-American war.
The subsequent 1901 Platt Amendment provided provisions for the sale and lease of a naval station for coaling and refueling purposes. It also guaranteed Washington the right to intervene in internal Cuban affairs, setting the stage for frequent US interventions before 1959.
Harvard scholar Jonathan M. Hansen argues that the continued existence of the naval station has served as a key example for Latino grievance against American interventionism ever since. Guantanamo is however not the only regional case of the ambiguous territorial sovereignty known as “territorial lease.” The historical precedence also shows that it is possible to definitely resolve such an issue in the long term.
Panama Canal Zone
Following the construction of the Panama Canal, Washington leased the “Canal Zone,” a 5-mile wide strip of land on each side of the canal, from 1903 to 1979. Control of this zone was transferred to the US “in perpetuity” and the territory was considered a part of the US in all but name.
Under the terms of the agreement, the US still paid a yearly lease and Panama still retained titular sovereignty over the territory, even if Washington exercises all rights as “if it were the sovereign.”
Of significance for the current case, the US eventually abolished its “in perpetuity” control of the Zone on its own accord. The lease became a key source of tension in large part due to violent Panamanian protests against what they saw as widespread discrimination in their own country.
It was also an issue where the US found little support among their traditional regional allies, with the OAS (Organization of American States) formally investigating the matter on behalf of Panama.
Despite significant domestic criticism from the Republican party, President Carter eventually declared the lease void with the Torrijos–Carter Treaties, under which control of the Canal itself would be transferred to Panama by 2000. The legality of these agreements is still contested by conservative US activists.
Comparing Guantanamo and Panama
The Panama Canal was considered a valuable strategic asset – both in economic and military terms – at the time when the US relinquished its control over it. Tens of thousands of American citizens lived in the Zone and the Canal itself is of immense importance for the US economy and trade.
By comparison, the naval base at Guantanamo is arguably of much less military importance, of no economic importance and is report to be enormously expensive to operate.
Military officials have emphasizes its value as an off-shore detention facility outside of US jurisdiction. Considering Obama’s 2009 promise to close the infamous Guantanamo prison, as well as the negative media coverage it has gathered for his administration, it is unlikely that this will be the deciding factor for a final decision.
Lawrence Korb, a senior adviser with the Center for Defense Information and a former senior Defense official, argued that the status of the lease will likely be up for negotiations if diplomatic relations are established, saying that the “base is not that critical now, given what’s happening in the world, and Gitmo has caused real difficulties for our global reputation.”
The US has little regional support for neither the detention facility nor the disputed lease itself, further increasing the diplomatic costs of maintaining a base in Cuba.
Raul Castro’s comment on the base should largely be seen as domestic politics rather than genuine diplomatic demands. Cuba needs a diplomatic rapprochement and a lifting of the embargo, far more than the US.
The dysfunctional Cuban economy is threatened by the serious economic malaise in Venezuela – its main benefactor – meaning that opening trade relations with the US is more critical than it has been in decades.
Once diplomatic relations have been established, it will be increasingly difficult for the US to refuse negotiations over the naval base itself.