President Barack Obama has earned justified praise all over the world for announcing that he will close the United States prison at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba within a year. This military colony has incarcerated hundreds of people seized in the U.S. – Afghan war of 2001-02 and the Iraq war that began in 2003. Because Guantánamo is outside the United States, the U.S. has argued that these so-called “unlawful combatants” are not subject to the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners. They have not been tried and some have been tortured.
Cuban leader Fidel Castro praised Obama after his election as “honest” and “noble” but on January 29 he demanded that Obama return Guantánamo to Cuba “without conditions”. Castro said, “Maintaining a military base in Cuba against the will of the people violates the most elemental principles of international law….. Not respecting Cuba’s will is an arrogant act and an abuse of immense power against a little country.”
The United States does maintain an important naval station at Guantánamo Bay covering 28,000 acres. The site was leased to the U.S. in 1903 by a treaty that was renewed in 1934. Since 1960, the Castro government has refused to accept the token annual rent of $5,000 from the U.S. and has repeatedly pressured for the return of the base.
The U.S. helped the people of Cuba liberate themselves from the Spanish overlords in 1898. While they had the power to do so, the U.S. did not directly annex Cuba only because of its pretensions to being an anti-imperialist nation, an important political issue at that time. However, Cuba was forced to grant the U.S. special privileges to intervene in Cuban affairs at any time which we did in 1906, 1912, 1917, and 1920 by landing our Marines. The revolution led by Castro ended that arrangement.
The U.S. has more than 700 military bases in 130 countries, arrangements entered into willingly by the nations concerned. When a country asks us to leave, that request is within their right under international law. To ignore such a demand would call into question U.S. motives and raise the spectre that the bases were forced upon “little countries” by military or economic pressures. The only superpower has a basic interest in maintaining international law and could enhance its position as world hegemon by giving up Guantánamo Bay as the host country requests.
Because no superpower, ancient or modern, has ever surrendered its military and economic preeminence voluntarily, it would be unrealistic to ask the U.S. to do so. But there are ways of leading, even dominating, that lessen the resentment of those led. One method is the use of “soft power” to promote education, health care, infrastructure, etc instead of spending money and manpower on military bases that flaunt superpower occupation and offend local nationalist sentiment.
This post originally appeared on Relentless Liberal on Sunday, February 8, 2009.