President Obama makes his first trip to Latin America this week, arriving in Trinidad and Tobago Friday for the Fifth Summit of the Americas. But notably absent from both attendance and the official agenda will be Cuba.
According to Jeffrey Davidow, President Obama's adviser for the Summit of the Americas meeting, "It would be unfortunate to lose the opportunity for this hemisphere, at the beginning of the Obama administration, to set down some guidelines and make some progress jointly by getting distracted by the Cuban issue. Cuba is not an issue for discussion at the Summit if one reads the Summit declaration and the documents on all the past year of negotiation." However, recent decisions by Costa Rica and El Salvador to restore relations with Cuba leave the United States as the only country in the hemisphere that does not officially recognize the government of the Caribbean island. And while the president announced Monday that he will lift travel and gift restrictions for Cuban-Americans, the Obama administration appears hesitant to publicly discuss any additional Cuba policy changes it plans to seek in the months that follow–measures that might one day lead to a full normalization of relations.
The sincerity with which President Obama claims to desire a new relationship with Cuba, and Latin America more broadly, cannot be questioned. But as recent disagreements between pro- and anti-embargo senators and Congressmen have demonstrated, the forces in Congress still resistant to Cuba policy changes remain influential. And thus new coalitions, ideas and proposals for diplomatically engaging Cuba must be considered. In some cases, this may require confronting the United States' own imperial history on the island and re-examining the policy proposals of others who have sought a Cuban rapprochement in the past.
We propose one such roadmap here–one which begins at Guantánamo Bay, the heart of the US presence in Cuba for over a century.
Long before Guantánamo Bay became globally synonymous with torture, superpower hubris and the "war on terror," it was better known as a point of bilateral controversy between the United States and Cuba. Approximately 28,817 acres of Cuban land and water around Guantánamo Bay first came under American control when US marines arrived ashore in June of 1898, during the naval battles of the Spanish American War. The United States' provocative claim to the fine port at Guantánamo was later codified through the 1901 Platt Amendment and a 1903 Lease Agreement. In 1934, the United States cancelled the Platt Amendment but retained its rights to Guantánamo. When the cold war penetrated Latin America through Cuba, some within the US government began to question the utility of an American military presence in a country allied with the Soviet Union. New ideas were sought to makeover the US presence at Guantánamo. In a May 23, 1961, memo that Marcus Raskin (co-author of this piece) and member of President John F. Kennedy's National Security Council staff at the time, wrote:
"We might endeavor to turn the Naval Base into a series of hospitals and technical institutions…. The conversion of this Naval Base to a positive good would enhance the chances for better relations between Cuba and the United States."