After a burning investigation, Doctor Jonathan Hansen, professor of the American university of Harvard wrote his work Guantanamo: An American History, published by Hill and Wang in 2011. Dr. Hansen talked about that work with several academics, historians and journalists in Havana. That meeting urged us to participate in some of his speeches and he answered with promptness via E-mail to some of our questions.
1) When and why did Guantanamo Bay become a target for the United States (U.S.) with the objective to have it? What does the possession of this peace of Cuban territory mean for the U.S.?
US interest in Guantanamo Bay dates back to before the United States was even a country, to 1741, when colonial “Americans”, as the British called them, first arrived at the bay as members of a British expeditionary force targeting Spain’s new world colonies of the New World. US desire to occupy Guantanamo as a coaling station (or naval base) is a product of the nation’s late nineteenth century commercial expansion. With the so-called Spanish-American War drawing to a close in 1898, US officials began to debate which offshore coaling stations the United States ought to acquire, as a coaling station or naval base, because they also wanted to establish other bases at Guam, Manila, Hawaii, and Samoa; to guarantee the U.S. access to the increasingly lucrative Asian resources and markets. Besides they wanted to control Pacific Ocean access to the much-anticipated Panama Canal, the US contemplated occupying Port Culebra in Costa Rica and La Union in El Salvador, San Juan, in Puerto Rico, and the Cuban Guantanamo Bay. Ultimately, Guantanamo, very lightly settled when the US navy arrived in June 1898, became the preferred place.
2) Why, after more than a century, the U.S. is still clung to keep Guantanamo Naval Base, if the purposes it claimed to have it have disappeared? Which is the importance to keep it, despite representing a burden for the national budget?
Over the years the Guantanamo naval base has proved readily adaptable to uses never contemplated by those who endorsed its original occupation. Throughout much of the 20th century, the base was used as a fleet training center, a site of both shipboard exercises and on shore target practice. In World War II it was an essential link in the Allied convoy system that shepherded commercial shipping through the Panama Canal and Caribbean Sea, up the eastern seaboard of the United States and across the Northern Atlantic. In the 1990s, the base was used to detain Cuban and Haitian migrants beyond the prying eyes of the US media and the reach of US Constitutional protection. Cuba’s formal sovereignty at the base along with the break in US-Cuban relations allowed US officials there to make up and apply the law pretty much as they pleased. Which is precisely what made Guantanamo an appealing place to hold a detention facility in the aftermath of 9/11: US Constitutional protections were not thought to apply there. Subsequent US Supreme Court decisions have pushed back against that.
3) How do the Americans see the existence of Guantanamo Naval Base and what does it represent for them? Do the Americans know the illegal conditions and abuse of authority used by their leaders to get the leasing agreement that permitted the occupation of that part of the Cuban territory?
Until the aftermath of 9/11 most Americans were unaware that the US occupied Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. When public alarm over what happened at the Guantanamo detention camp mounted in spring 2004, very few Americans demanded to know why we occupied Guantanamo in the first place.
Why? Some combination of ignorance and distraction has enabled this enduring legacy of US imperialism to go largely unnoticed and unchallenged. Most Americans learn about the “Spanish-American War” in high school, but few know its relation to the Cuban War of Independence and the subsequent Platt Amendment, but which the US came to occupy Guantanamo.
4) In your lecture addressed in the Workshop 110 Anniversary of Guantanamo Naval Base, You said that George W. Bush, in his alleged battle against terrorism made a strategic mistake, when he set up a prison in Guantanamo Naval Base. Why?
Perhaps I should have said a tactical mistake. To begin with, Guantanamo is not an easy, efficient, cost-effective place to establish and run a detention camp. All materials there, all equipment, all staff, every last thing, needs to be imported.
The main detention facility is separated from the airfield where detainees and US military officials arrive and depart by the bay itself, making transportation awkward and inefficient, if not dangerous. By selecting Guantanamo as the site of its post-9/11 detention facility, the Bush administration assumed it could continue to exploit Guantanamo’s ambiguous legal status to hold detainees beyond the reach of US Constitutional protections; the US Supreme Court rejected much of that argument.
The Bush administration insisted that justice could best be served by trying the detainees in a military commission process located at Guantanamo Bay. That commission system has yet to bring to trial at Guantanamo, much less convict, a single one of the 9/11 perpetrators, and so on, and on.
5) What had stopped the administrations of the U.S. in the closing of that prison?
The answer to this question is complicated. Today the Guantanamo prison camp enjoys more public and political support today than at any time in its nearly ten-year history. In poll after poll taken since President Obama took office, Americans have overwhelmingly rejected the idea of closing the prison and transferring its population stateside. In December 2010, a Democratic Congress dealt a near-fatal blow to the administration’s effort to close the prison by prohibiting the President from transferring detainees to the United States, from buying or constructing a prison on U.S. soil for the Guantanamo detainees, and repatriating detainees without the signature of the Secretary of Defense—provisions enacted without parliamentary debate and virtually without public notice.
Congressional legislation passed the last two Decembers continues to impede the president from closing the prison.
Which makes one wonder: How in the world has this come to pass? Much of the responsibility belongs to the Bush-administration, as the previous discussion suggests.
Some of the responsibility rests with Congress. In this conservatives are determined to maintain and exploit the fear that allowed the American public to turn a blind eye on Bush administration war crimes, they have managed to convince hitherto rational individuals like New York City’s mayor that trying accused terrorists in federal court would be too dangerous, too costly, and too lenient, notwithstanding the record of successful federal terrorism prosecutions and the fact that sentences in such cases have tended to be far more severe than those meted out by military commissions. In the case exemplifying the supposed inability of the federal court system to handle terrorist crimes, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the alleged planner of the 1998 east Africa embassy attacks, was given a life sentence, while Salim Hamdam, tried at the last military commission before President Obama shut the system down, was given five months in addition to time already served (the charges on which the two were convicted were the same: material support, or conspiracy). The longest sentence handed down at Guantanamo is nine months, to Australian David Hicks.
As cowed now as they were in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, congressional Democrats are only too happy to play along.
As I just observed, it was a Democratically-led Congress that first denied the Obama administration funding to transfer Guantanamo detainees to the United States to stand trial in December 2010. But surely much of the responsibility rests with Mr. Obama himself, who in August 2007, candidate Obama told the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars that as president he would jettison the Guantanamo commissions. As a venue for trying terrorists, the candidate observed, Guantanamo was a perfect failure. Mr. Obama vowed to “close Guantanamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions,” thus demonstrating to the entire world that “the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.”
Of course, election campaigns are aspirational; the challenges confronting presidents are practical. Still, Mr. Obama insists that a series of reforms carried out after he took office have put the Guantanamo commissions on a par with federal courts and military courts marshal in terms of constitutional safeguards.
Logic alone refutes him. If the standards are equal, why do we need both? Moreover, military tribunals have historically been objects of last resort rather than of political convenience. The al-Nashiri case exudes the whiff of an administration cherry picking the venue most likely to produce its favored outcome, hardly evidence of a judicial system depoliticized. Furthermore, by allowing for appellate review while at the same time admitting hearsay evidence and ignoring the sixth amendment safeguard of confrontation, among other defects, the revamped commissions virtually guarantee that guilty verdicts will be mired in protracted appeal. In short, candidate Obama got it right: the Guantanamo commissions are unjust and unnecessary; they are not the path to the swift justice Americans seek. Mr. Obama bears responsibility for the position in which he now finds himself in another sense. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” the philosopher George Santayana remarked. History does not repeat itself, but there is ample evidence of it haunting those who ignore it. Why has Mr. Obama failed to deliver on his promise to close the Guantanamo prison? The president cannot move forward on Guantanamo, I would suggest, because he has been unwilling to look back. Why has the Guantanamo prison retain more public and political support today than at any time in its near decade-long history? Surely one reason for this is the fact that there has been no rigorous public accounting of the crimes committed there. And no account of how those crimes fit into more distant history. Post 9/11 Guantanamo is not the historical anomaly we like to believe it is. In selecting Guantanamo as the place for a prison to hold detainees beyond the reach of U.S. constitutional protections, the Bush administration chose a site that had been used that way before—in the 1990s under presidents Bush and Clinton, when as many as 85,000 Haitian and Cuban refugees were detained behind barbed wire at Guantanamo Bay, in two separate episodes, some for up to nearly two years. That policy, in turn, dates back to the late 1970s, when US immigration officials first considered using Guantanamo as a holding facility for Haitian boat people unwanted in Florida on the same grounds: with no due process at the bay, the United States could process the refugees out of sight of prying journalists and human rights lawyers. And so the record goes.
An American public armed with the facts about recent and more distant U.S. activity at Guantanamo would seem less likely to remain complacent about it. An informed, galvanized public is the sine qua non for shuttering both the prison and the military commissions, and thereby saving Mr. Obama from compounding Guantanamo’s and America’s notoriety.
6) In Havana you reported to EFE Agency that just a few historians, academics and diplomats claimed for the returning back to Cuba, the misappropriated territory for 110 years. How could it be possible to generalize that attitude?
This is the one hundred thousand dollar question, as we like to say in the States. I don’t know the answer. In an improved US-Cuba diplomatic climate, one could imagine that the subject of returning Guantanamo to Cuba might come up. On the other hand, returning Guantanamo to Cuba now (or soon) could improve the diplomatic climate. Former US Interests Section Chief Michael Parmly has recently argued that the US could return Guantanamo to Cuba and still maintain the detention camp (assuming improved diplomatic relations). I think both need to be closed, and that by forcing the issue on the base Obama could simultaneously force the issue on the detention facility.