It's Time Uncle Sam Left Guantanamo to the Cubans

THE Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission is considering a list of bases proposed by the Pentagon to be closed or shrunk. The commission has the final say. By July 1, it must send its recommendations to President Clinton, who must approve or reject the whole list.

He cannot change it. If he approves, the president will then send the list to Congress, which will have the same take-it-or-leave-it option.

Congress devised this procedure a few years ago to avoid having to make painful decisions about individual bases. Expensive experience had shown that when the matter was left to Congress, the decision was almost invariably to forbid the Defense Department to close a base long after the base had outlived its usefulness. The reason, of course, was that even if a base contributed nothing to national defense, it generally contributed a good deal to the local economy.

The commission is not limited to bases in the United States. It has a splendid opportunity to advance American foreign policy by adding the Guantanamo, Cuba, Naval Base to its list. The US acquired the base in 1901, originally for use as a coaling station, as part of the settlement following the Spanish-American War.

We agreed to pay Cuba $2,000 in gold per year. When the US went off the gold standard in the 1930s, this was increased to $3,386 to reflect the devaluation of the dollar. A check for this amount is sent to Havana every New Year's Day, but under the Castro regime the Cubans have not cashed the checks. They argue that the base is a remnant of imperialism to which the US is not entitled and which should be abandoned.

The US has stayed in Guantanamo these 34 years under Castro for three reasons: (1) to show the Cubans we could; (2) on the theory that if we were going to give it up, we ought to use it as a bargaining chip to get some unspecified concession from the Cubans; and (3) some admirals like it as a training facility.

Meanwhile, the costs, budgetary and otherwise, of staying in Guantanamo have mounted. During the Johnson administration, the Cubans cut off the base's water supply. The US response was to install a plant to desalinate water from the Caribbean, an expensive way to get fresh water.

GUANTANAMO once provided well-paid employment for large numbers of Cubans who lived nearby. The Castro regime harassed these workers and finally made it impossible for them to get to their jobs. There is a double fence around the land perimeter of the base. US Marines patrol one side; Cuban militia, the other. The US solved the local labor problem by importing Jamaicans on a rotating basis for six-month periods. But the Jamaicans brought with them quantities of marijuana that they sold to American sailor s.

The base does have some advantages for training: Deep water is close offshore. There is not much commercial shipping or air traffic in the vicinity. There are no on-shore diversions for sailors such as are found in Jacksonville, Fla., or Norfolk, Va. But when all the costs are considered, Guantanamo is not cost-effective. The base has also lately served as a holding station for Haitians intercepted at sea by the Coast Guard, but that, hopefully, is temporary.

It would probably be a mistake to raise the question of withdrawal as a subject for negotiations with the Cubans. They might want to add other items, and the process could be prolonged and complicated.

We don't need to talk about it. We can let the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission add Guantanamo to its list. Then we could simply pick up our things and go. The Cubans would look over the fence some morning and the Marines would not be there.

The initial Cuban reaction would no doubt be one of bewilderment. That would be amusing all by itself. But after a time, the Cubans would get the message that, so far as the US is concerned, the cold war is over and it's time to put US-Cuban relations on a different basis.

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