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Don't Just Close Gitmo. Give It Back.

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By Julia E. Sweig
Sunday, May 3, 2009

President Obama has promised to shut down the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, seeking to erase a blot on America's global image. He has also reached out to Cuba, easing some travel and financial restrictions in an effort to recast Washington's approach to the island. These two initiatives have proceeded on separate tracks so far, but now is the time to bring them together. Hiding in plain sight, the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay is the ideal place for Obama to launch a far-reaching transformation of Washington's relationship with its communist neighbor.

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How? By preparing to give Guantanamo back to Cuba.

It's not as impossible as it sounds. The United States has scaled back, modified or even withdrawn its military presence elsewhere; think Okinawa, South Korea, Subic Bay in the Philippines or Vieques in Puerto Rico. Whatever Guantanamo's minor strategic value to the United States for processing refugees or as a counter-narcotics outpost, the costs of staying permanently -- with the stain of the prisons, the base's imperial legacy and the animosity of the host government -- outweigh the benefits.

The time to begin this transition is now. By transforming Guantanamo as part of a broader remaking of Washington's relationship with Cuba, the Obama administration can begin fixing what the president himself has decried as a "failed" policy. It can upend a U.S.-Cuba stalemate that has barely budged for 50 years and can put to the test Raul Castro's stated willingness to entertain meaningful changes.

I visited the 45-square-mile U.S. naval base at the southeastern tip of Cuba last month at the invitation of Adm. James Stavridis, head of U.S. Southern Command. I went less to see the prison cells or learn about detainee treatment (though I did both) than to explore a region that I'd never visited in a quarter-century of traveling to and writing about the island. I not only wanted to see what was actually happening there, but also to imagine how the base could evolve once the detention facility is shut down and the eyes of the world shift elsewhere.

During my trip, it hit me how much Guantanamo -- two-thirds of which is made up of the pristine waters of the bay that bears the same name -- is really a part of Cuba. Overlooking the western side of the bay sat a pair of well-kept 1940s-style houses, precise replicas of the kind of residences I had seen in Havana weeks earlier. I hadn't expected the natural environment to capture my attention the way it did. Manatees, which are disappearing elsewhere, breed in abundance; dolphins dart out of mangrove swamps and swim alongside the Navy's ferries and motorcrafts as they cross the bay.

Driving along the fence line and seeing the Cuban flags and watchtowers, I was struck by the relative peace and quiet that both sides maintain at the one spot where they deal with each other most. In a way, when flag officers and staff from both sides meet each month at the base's east gate, they continue a long history of pragmatic if ambivalent engagement that started well before Guantanamo became the nightmarish Gitmo.

After the United States intervened in the Spanish-American War in 1898, Washington forced Cuba to accept the creation of a naval coaling station at Guantanamo Bay in 1903 as a condition of independence. During several peak years of activity and construction in the 1940s, at least 9,000 Cuban civilians worked on the base, and small cities such as Caimanera and Boqueron catered to foreign soldiers with bars, brothels and the like. During the revolution, Cubans smuggled all sorts of supplies off the base to aid the rebel cause. Even after 1959, as the new Castro regime sharpened its attacks on symbols of American power, working on the base did not necessarily preclude being a good revolutionary. To this day, the United States provides pension benefits and health care to a handful of retired Cuban workers, some of whom still live on the base.

Since the Bay of Pigs invasion more than four decades ago, Havana has demanded the return of the base territory, but Washington has found little incentive to leave. The base is a financial freebie; the annual rent is only $4,000, although on grounds of pride and principle, Cuba has not cashed the check since 1959.

Yet the Cuban government has never taken steps, military or otherwise, to get the base back. "We are audacious and valiant," remarked Cuban President Osvaldo Dorticos in 1964, "but we are not stupid." Echoing such practicality, Raul Castro has referred to Guantanamo as a "neutral place" where dialogue with the Obama administration might one day unfold.

Since the 1990s, the monthly "fence-line" talks have ensured safety for the people who work in and around Guantanamo's air, land and maritime borders. Shortly after the United States began housing terrorism suspects at the base, Raul Castro even offered to send back any detainee who tried to escape into Cuban territory. But as allegations of torture emerged and Guantanamo's symbolism went global, Cuba joined the world in excoriating the United States.

Despite the glimmers of political will on both sides, a rapprochement between Washington and Havana will take time. Obama has called for the release of Cuba's political prisoners. Cuba has its eye on the dismantling of American commercial sanctions and the return of Cuban spies now serving lengthy sentences in U.S. jails. The Castro brothers are unlikely to frame any reforms as a concession to Washington, while the Obama administration will wait to see how the government of Raul Castro fulfills its commitment to "improve the material and spiritual lives of the Cuban people."


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