The Big Stumbling Block in US-Cuba Relations - and How It Might Be Fixed

By LaFranchi, Howard | The Christian Science Monitor, July 22, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Big Stumbling Block in US-Cuba Relations - and How It Might Be Fixed


LaFranchi, Howard, The Christian Science Monitor


Even as the United States and Cuba shook hands over reestablished diplomatic relations Monday, the United States naval base at Guantanamo 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 Guantanamo 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 Guantanamo 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 Guantanamo taking at least that long."

The US took control of both the Panama Canal Zone and Guantanamo 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 Guantanamo 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. …

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