"With the Death of El Comandante, the future of Cuba and America’s Guantanamo Bay Base remains to be seen"
The ashes of Cuba’s maximum leader for decades, Fidel Castro, now rest in a huge granite boulder in the southeastern port city of Santiago de Cuba. But his death has only further accelerated the thoughts and questions about the future of that long isolated island nation.
President Obama gets credit for starting the process of a new American opening to Cuba, but the election of Donald Trump has thrown a wild card into the situation. As a private businessman, Trump sent staff to secretly explore doing business in Cuba in apparent violation of the longstanding U.S. economic embargo of the island. President-elect Trump, though clearly reluctant to abandon his personal business interests, has threatened to undo Obama’s efforts to “normalize” the U.S.-Cuban relations, absent various concessions that he hasn’t specified in much detail, leaving his plans opaque at present.
As his place of burial indicates, Fidel Castro’s origins were in southeast Cuba. Within miles of Santiago de Cuba is the American Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, which contains the always controversial if nearly empty prisoner of war prison. The base is within sight of the rugged Sierra Maestra mountain range, where Castro and his small band of rebels holed up in 1957 to prepare for their eventual 1959 triumph over the U.S.-funded dictator Fulgencio Batista.
During the past half century plus since the Cuban revolution, most Americans spending time on the island have done so at the Guantanamo Bay, leased by the U.S. since the early 20th Century. This ongoing foreign presence, continuing for decades after the revolution, infuriated Castro throughout his life. He once described it as “a dagger plunged into the Cuban soil.”
But there is a lot of history behind that dagger. The U.S. signed a treaty with Cuba in 1903, later reaffirmed in 1934, to use the land and bay as a coaling station. The $2,000 lease payment in gold—amounting to $4,085 in 2016—was and is paid by check annually to the Cuban government, though Castro refused to cash the checks. Due to changing technology, coal propelled ships became history, but the U.S. interpretation of the treaty supports its continued presence. By its terms, this treaty will only end by mutual agreement of the U.S. and Cuban governments.
Speculation about the future of the Guantanamo Bay base has been a staple item since long before the establishment of the prison and its ‘war on terror’ detainees. At 45 square miles of land area, it’s a relatively small place, but it’s got a remarkable, if under-utilized harbor and outside of military uses, there’s been little opportunity for development of its largely untapped resources. During my tenure there as a Navy civilian (2007-08), many Sailors who had previously been stationed on Guam thought of GTMO as a potential worldwide tourist destination and they had heard rumors of as yet untouched mineral and metal deposits in the surrounding hills.
If and when the tourists arrive, they’ll encounter some serious history. In 1898 American Marines occupied the hill facing the ferry landing which new arrivals now see, during the early stages of the Spanish-American War. Centuries earlier, history and a prominent plaque says, Christopher Columbus landed a few hundred feet away. And in 1964 Castro cut off water to the base prompting the construction of a pioneering desalination plant a few hundred yards up the road that serves the base to this day.
The Cold War and other portions of that history are not forgotten and some are not history at all. The more than 17-mile fence line — with its Marine guarded towers that mark the perimeter with Cuba— remains. Most of the immediate fear of Cuban troops storming the base dispersed with the Cold War, but tank tracks gouged out on the surrounding hills during exercises 60 years ago as well as the present day Marines patrolling the fence in Humvees recall that period.
An eventual end to the GTMO lease and a turnover of the base to the Cuban government has always been part of the discussion of normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations, but only the passage of time will tell what will transpire between the Cuba of Raul Castro and his eventual successor and the America of President-elect Donald Trump. (Bruce Lloyd is a veteran journalist, who has been a longtime resident of Guam and Saipan.
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