Georgie Anne Geyer
Saturday, November 22, 2008
With all the attention being paid to other supposedly "more important"
parts of the world, few have noticed a specially revealing anniversary
will come upon us in the same month as the Inauguration of the new
American president. Talk about irony — an old problem that has bedeviled
America for more than a century versus the new hopes.
I speak of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. As incredible
as it seems, Fidel Castro and his 20th-century classic band of
revolutionaries of the Third World marched across Cuba, defeating and
depleting everything in their way, the first week of January 1959. It
seemed at the time like just another Caribbean "mulato revolucion." How
mistaken that idea was!
Today, even as the legendary Fidel lies dying, his flawed and
destructive revolution remains a perverse model of modern radical change
to many parts of the world. And if we would look more carefully, we
would see the lasting effects it has had on us.
One of the first things a new President Obama will do, as fast as
humanly possible, his close associates are saying, is get rid of
"Gitmo," the strange, paralegal military base at Guantanamo on the
eastern slopes of Cuba. There, about 250 "terrorists," mostly picked up
randomly across the Middle East after Sept. 11, 2001, still await some
humane and legal resolution of their status.
The White House— and even Vice President Cheney's office, which has
shown such an abnormal delight in the intricacies of torture and in
forming institutions not tied to American legal norms — has slipped
recently. It occasionally acknowledges that replaying the Inquisition
isn't all the fun it was made out to be. But it can always blame it on
nosy journalists who have, in fact, persisted in saying that building
American interrogation and torture chambers, a la Saddam Hussein on
American soil, is not what America is all about.
Ah, but that's where we face some of the endless complexities of the
story. Gitmo is not on American soil. It is one of the few places in the
world where there is no real recognizable jurisdiction. Guantanamo was
once leased to the United States, but after the Castro regime emerged 50
years ago, the lease was allowed to drift and more or less expire.
One of the best analysts in Washington recently suggested Guantanamo's
peculiar and unattractive status resembles most closely that of
purgatory. One might also note that, whereas the Statue of Liberty used
to be the splendid symbol of America, since Sept. 11 the symbol has been
the no-man's-land of Gitmo.
But to date, no decision has been made about how to try the detainees
and where, and there is no process in place to make that decision
pending President Obama's national security and legal teams taking
power. The Obama team is already talking about releasing some detainees
and charging some in American courts, where they would receive the
constitutional rights that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have so
enthusiastically denied them. But plans could also require creation of a
new legal system to handle the classified information inherent in the
most sensitive cases.
This is where the Gitmo situation becomes truly complex, because
creating a new court system after eight years of the Bush
administration's attempts to create new systems across the board (Gitmo
detentions, the Department of Homeland Security, new interrogation
rules, etc.) — and at a time when our major financial systems are
breaking down all around us - is a dangerous business indeed.
Little of this would have happened, at least in our own backyard,
without our "special" relationship with Cuba — not only those 50 years
of Castro but intervention after intervention in Cuban affairs since the
United States under William McKinley intervened in the Spanish-American
war in 1898, thus putting the United States into a strange and
destructive relationship of independence/dependence with the small but
Over these years, we created of Cuba, our "neighbor" only 90 miles away,
a kind of netherworld, symbolic of both our best and our worst
instincts, where the rules and regulations and jurisdictions of a
legalized world did not apply. In short, our interventions in Cuba made
a kind of vandal out of us because an irregular relationship like this
almost always ends up making you into something you would rather not be.
So now, as we approach both our promising new presidency and Mr.
Castro's 50th anniversary, is it perhaps not time to look anew at this
close relationship that has degraded both countries?
His advisers have said the president-elect sees the United States not,
at this turning point, as the traditional "savior" of the Americas, but
as a "constructive partner." There is little question that the long era
of uneven U.S. hegemony over the hemisphere, that began in the 1830s, is
An Obama administration is likely to roll back sanctions put in place by
George W. Bush in 2004 and 2005, restricting family visits and
remittances, exactly why, no one can quite figure out (especially since
allowing both tends to weaken the Castro regime).
As we leave Gitmo, as we apparently will, let us hope we can also leave
behind those 50 years and more of traumatized Cuban and American
history. Surely at some point, perhaps even under the present president,
Raul Castro, Cuba will change. We should be ready to grasp that change.
If a President Barack Obama can create sensible and respectful relations
with Cuba, such an act would be of great importance. Cuba may be a small
island, but from the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 and the
nuclear standoff of 1962 to years of Castro-backed leftism across the
Americas, it has caused us an abnormal amount of pain.
A change in Cuban policy by the new administration would signal a huge
change in American attitudes toward the entire world.
Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist.