Last month, I traveled to the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay (GTMO) to see the Joint Task Force’s detention facilities and to receive a briefing on detainee issues from the JTF commander. I am the second person in my family to have visited GTMO. My father deployed to the base as a young Marine Corps officer during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
GTMO is the oldest American base overseas and the only U.S. base in a communist country. It is strategically located on the southeast corner of Cuba near the entrance of the Windward Passage, the straight that separates Cuba from Hispaniola. GTMO is a mere 400 miles south of Miami. Through two world wars and the Cold War, GTMO has been a key to American control of sea lanes in the Caribbean that lead to the Panama Canal. In addition to its current role in the war on terror, the base allowed the United States to deal effectively with both the Cuban and Haitian refugee crises in the 1990s. GTMO continues to provide key support to the Coast Guard’s drug interdiction efforts in the region as it regularly hosts and supplies Coast Guard cutters and air crews during their patrols.
The initial base lease was entered into by Cuba and the United States in 1903 and was affirmed again in the Treaty of Relations ratified by Cuba and the United States in 1934. The U.S. pays Cuba $4,085 per year to lease the property and keeps the bay’s waterway dredged to allow commercial shipping to reach the Cuban commercial ports in the Ensenada de Joa. The lease can only be terminated with the agreement of both the United States and Cuba.
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On his first day of office, Jan. 22, 2009, President Barack Obama signed an executive order mandating the closure with one year of detention facilities for enemy combatants being held at GTMO. The order was issued notwithstanding the facts that most of the remaining detainees at GTMO are unrepentant terrorists and the conditions of their confinement are excellent, in full compliance with America’s international treaty obligations, which are monitored by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
With the deadline for closing GTMO less than four months away, Congress has not yet approved funding for the move and a new site for these dangerous detainees has not yet been selected. Nevertheless, it is widely believed that at least a substantial number of the detainees will be moved to the U.S. by the president’s deadline. Although time is short to plan and execute such a complicated logistics operation, our military will salute smartly and figure out a way to make it happen.
Having won the battle to close the detention facilities and to transfer the detainees to the United States, the left has now moved to its end game with respect to GTMO. It is demanding that our naval base be handed over to the Castro brothers’ regime. On Jan. 28, the Castros’ mouthpiece, Cuban Foreign Minister Perez Roque, told the Agence France-Presse that Cuba “expects that Obama's decision to close down the Guantánamo prison camp ‘is [to be] followed by the decision to close down the base and return that territory to the Cubans,’ a base that the United States ‘really does not need for its security and defense.’"
Following Cuba’s lead, liberal bloggers are clamoring that the base be abandoned. John Peeler in the LA Progressive claims our base is a “symbol of arrogant lawlessness” and is “a metaphor for Yankee imperialism,” which “has outraged Latin Americans for over a century.” Charles Lemos on the MDD blog argues that it is “time to unwind an empire the United States should have never acquired in the first place. Moreover, the lease of Guantánamo Bay is likely illegal under international law.”
Such cliché claims are simply not true. Chavez, Morales and Zelaya will not abandon their hatred of America if we appease the Castros by handing over our base. They will only be emboldened to demand that we further appease them as they continue to dismantle the rule of law in Venezuela and Bolivia and attempt to do so in Honduras. Nor is there any legitimate basis for claiming that the US base violates international law. America has scrupulously abided by its treaty with Cuba that was signed, on our part, by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As to charges about imperialism, the handful of Cubans currently on the base are those who worked there when Castro took over the island and, not surprisingly, do not want to go back, as well as those refugees that were able to dodge the bullets of Cuban frontier guards and swim to the base in a desperate attempt to gain their freedom.
As soon as the detainees make it to the continental U.S., watch the liberal blogosphere buzz with “people will like us more” if we leave and America is violating “international law” claims as the campaign to force the abandonment of GTMO heats up. Such charges are not true. But essentially the same assertions were not true with respect to the detainee issue either. They worked once, so the Castros and the left will use the same playbook again. For the security of the United States and for the benefit of the rest of the democracies in our hemisphere, let us hope that they do not.
Robert C. O’Brien is the managing partner of the Los Angeles office of Arent Fox LLP. He served as a US Representative to the U.N. General Assembly in 2005-2006.