Wednesday, May 13, 2009

How We Got There

The Gitmo Gulag
There’s a high school not far from me in the old silverware city of Meriden, Connecticut, named for a powerful U.S. senator who is far more famous (infamous, really) in Cuba than in his home state. His name is Orville Platt and he served from 1879 to 1905. He was a classic reactionary, anti-labor and pro-imperialist. Cubans learn about him in school because he sponsored the Platt Amendment, which subjugated their country and robbed them of one of the best natural harbors in the Caribbean.
The 1901 Platt Amendment settled the Cuban part of the Spanish-American War in which we gobbled up Spain’s fading empire and added Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam to our rising one. For various economic reasons, we decided not to rule Cuba as a pure colony like the others. Rather, we granted the Cubans nominal independence. But Platt made certain that they had to get Washington’s okay for anything more important than street sweeping and dog catching.
Article VII of the amendment declared that “Cuba will sell or lease to the U.S. lands necessary for coaling or naval stations, and for no other purpose” The U.S. offered payment of $2,000 a year in gold. Outraged and humiliated, the Cuban congress repeatedly rejected what amounted to their serfage to a nation claiming to have liberated them. But their ballots were no match for the bullets of the U.S. occupation troops. They eventually gave in to an offer they couldn’t refuse.
In 1934, the liberal Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the Good Neighbor Policy. Henceforth we would at least pretend to treat the nations of Latin America as sovereign rather than subservient. FDR's gesture to Havana was to eliminate the provisions of Platt allowing the U.S. to interfere in Cuba’s internal affairs and to raise rent payments for Gitmo to $4,000 a year..
When he came to power in 1959, Fidel Castro quickly demanded the return of Guantanamo. The U.S. refused, citing the provision in the Platt Amendment that both parties must agree to any change in its status. In other words, Guantanamo was subject to U.S. writ regardless of the will and laws of its host country. What truer example of imperialist reality could you get?
Without the military strength to take back the base the same way the U.S. seized it, Castro settled for stopping Cubans from working there and refusing to cash the rent checks. The issue hung fire for the next half century.
In the meanwhile, the U.S. treated Platt as toilet paper. It blatantly violated the “no other purpose” provision. Gitmo was transformed into a combination naval base, air field, beach resort, shopping center, spy den and prison camp. It served as an HQ for Washington’s 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and a hangout for CIA types looking to kill Castro and overthrow the revolution. It housed thousands of Cuban refugees. And then, with the Iraq war, it become the world’s most notorious gulag. That word is defined by Amnesty International as a place where those who enter have no rights and can simply disappear.
The Bushies believed themselves clever for using Cuban territory to get away with violating U.S. laws to fight terrorism. But the world viewed it another way. They saw a ruthless empire using stolen territory to torture and kill those who resisted its domination. The few images released from Gitmo, mostly of broken creatures being dragged from cage to cage by hulking warders, only made things worse.
An image-conscious Obama administration came into office promising to “shut down” Guantanamo. It’s assumed this means closing the gulag and scattering its human dregs amongst our allies. Lately, Washington has been waffling on even this initiative.
As far as I know, no one of influence on this side of the Florida Straits has suggested that we really “shut down” Gitmo, lock, stock and barrel, and return it to its rightful owners. Those of you who recall the yahoo outrage at Jimmy Carter’s transfer of the Panama Canal to Panama (“We stole it fair and square,” they yelled) can anticipate ten times the accusations of treason should Obama even consider such a course.
So, if the Obamists do prove serious, Gitmo will at least stop being a symbol of nightmarish torture and revert to being example of daylight robbery.