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The big stumbling block in US-Cuba relations – and how it might be fixed

The improving US-Cuba relationship is still fraught with challenges. One of the toughest is control of Guantánamo Bay. But another US-Latin American power play from the past could offer lessons.

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    Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez (r.) faces the Cuban flag after raising it over his country's new embassy in Washington on Monday.
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Even as the United States and Cuba shook hands over reestablished diplomatic relations Monday, the United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay stands out as an intractable issue in the renewed relationship well into the future.

But resolution four decades ago of another contentious issue involving an American installation in the Americas – the Panama Canal – suggests that things will almost certainly have to change. At some point, the military base that many see as the last vestige of a bygone era of American imperialism in the Americas will be returned to Cuban sovereignty, most experts in US relations with the hemisphere say.

“If anything, the Panama Canal was a much bigger deal than Guantánamo really is, but after a lot of passionate debate and a tremendous fight in Congress, we transferred the canal back to the Panamanians,” says Peter Hakim, a former president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington and one of the group’s experts in US-Latin American relations.

“With Cuba, normalization is the big story and Guantánamo is just part of it,” adds Mr. Hakim. The military base’s return to Cuban sovereignty “will eventually be part of this ongoing process, although it will probably be the final step.”

With the Panama Canal operating smoothly in Panamanian hands – and indeed about to be transformed by a multibillion-dollar enlargement project set to reach completion next year – it might seem hard to imagine that in the mid-1970s the issue of turning the US-built canal over to Panama tore Congress apart.

Yet as much of a nonissue as the Panama Canal transfer may be today, some regional experts say it’s important to remember that the handover didn’t happen in a day.

“Don’t forget it was a 15-to-20-year process before the full turnover took place – and that’s not counting the years of debate that preceded the final decision,” says Eduardo Gamarra, a professor of international relations at Florida International University in Miami and an expert in US-Latin America relations.

“Especially given the political landscape in the [US] today,” Dr. Gamarra adds, “I could see resolution of Guantánamo taking at least that long.”  

The US took control of both the Panama Canal Zone and Guantánamo Bay in Cuba in 1903, as the young but muscle-flexing global power extended its mantle over its southern neighbors. The US built a canal across the Isthmus of Panama to give shipping a shorter route between the Atlantic and Pacific, and the Guantanamo naval base was built as a coaling station for a fledgling US navy.

The US imposed a lease agreement for Guantánamo on a nascent Cuban government following the Spanish-American War. To this day the US sends an annual rent check to Cuba – a check the island’s communist government refuses to cash, because it views the base as an illegal occupation of its territory.

By the 1970s, US control of the Panama Canal became a chief rallying cry of Latin America’s expanding anti-American movement.

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger advised President Ford in 1975 that the status quo on the canal would feed the region’s anti-imperialist sentiments, and that failure to reach an accord with Panama on the canal would lead to “riots all over Latin America.”

In response, advocates of keeping the canal under the Stars and Stripes argued the US had signed an accord with the new nation of Panama granting the US permanent control over the canal zone, and there was no reason to renounce that agreement.

“What you heard from treaty opponents at the time was, ‘We built it, we paid for it, it’s ours!’” says Hakim. Some conservative opponents of a transfer cited a rising leftist tide in the region and said they feared the canal would fall into communist hands.

But, in the end, a bipartisan groundswell of officials and members of Congress sided with returning the canal to Panama, with even actor John Wayne – known for backing conservative causes – lobbying for the canal’s transfer to Panama.

Despite strong opposition to what opponents dubbed a "giveaway," an even stronger desire to remove the vestige of a colonial past won over Democrats and Republicans alike. In addition, the administration of President Jimmy Carter added a "neutrality treaty" to reassure skeptics that the canal would never fall into the hostile hands of a communist regime.  

The Panama Canal treaties were finally signed by the US and Panama in 1977 – and were ratified by the US Senate in 1978 by one vote over the two-thirds majority required. Final transfer of the canal to Panama occurred in 1999.

Resolution of the canal’s status had no impact on the US base at Guantánamo, because the US and Cuba had severed relations, allowing the oldest US military installation on foreign territory to carry on. 

Now with the renewal of relations, there is at least a bilateral dialogue for the Guantánamo issue to be addressed, even if not right away. At a State Department press conference Monday, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez made it clear that Guantánamo will remain a top grievance with the US, while Secretary of State John Kerry waved the issue aside, insisting that for the US, it is off the table.

Yet even if history – and, in particular, the case of the Panama Canal – argue that change can come to long-observed policies, regional experts largely concur that Guantánamo's status won’t change quickly.

For one thing, the intense polarization of Congress today makes the divisions that fueled the Panama Canal debate seem mild in comparison, some say. “With Congress as it is today, nothing is going to go forward on Cuba, certainly not Guantánamo,” says FIU’s Gamarra.

“Congress is much more unyielding than at the time of the canal debate,” says Hakim. “That’s going to slow things down.” 

Another complicating issue is the fate of the US detention facility at Guantánamo, where the US holds international terrorism suspects. President Obama signed an executive order on Day 2 of his administration, directing the facility to be closed within the year. But the bipartisan consensus for such a move soon eroded after uproars over where detainees should be moved and how they should be tried. The GOP takeover of the Senate in 2015 and ongoing Pentagon resistance to closure have further dimmed prospects that Mr. Obama can achieve that goal.  

The US military also uses the base to conduct counternarcotics operations in the Caribbean and to keep an eye out for human-trafficking activities, while military officials say the base serves as a key component of US disaster relief activities in the Caribbean basin.

The White House has also played a role in complicating the case for Guantánamo’s eventual return to Cuban sovereignty by arguing that a change in Guantanamo’s status is not envisioned in Obama’s opening to Cuba. In January, shortly after Obama announced his intention to normalize relations, National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan stated that “we consider [Guantánamo] important to US national security.”

As if all the reasons on the US side weren’t enough, both Gamarra and Hakim say they see very little indication that the Cuban government will be willing to make the kinds of changes in political organization and economics that would reassure the US and prompt a groundswell of support for Guantánamo’s return to Cuban sovereignty.

Some movement by the Cuban government to loosen controls on freedom of expression, end the harassment of political dissidents, and expand opportunities for Cubans to participate in the economy could start to reassure the US that Cuba is evolving. But they add that, so far, Cuba is showing few signs of making such an effort.

“Clearly the US has gone the extra mile at the outset in proceeding with normalization, but further big steps like returning Guantánamo will hinge on the Cubans making some political and economic openings,” says Hakim.

“That’s the only way to build up the kinds of majorities you’d need in Congress to move that forward,” he adds. “But the Cubans have proven for decades that they are very slow to make those kinds changes, and I don’t see that fundamentally changing now.”  

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