Of normalization, here's what President Castro said at the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States Summit last week:
The reestablishment of diplomatic relations is the beginning of a process which can progress toward normalization of bilateral relations, but this will not be possible as long as the blockade exists, or as long as the territory illegally occupied by the Guantánamo Naval Base is not returned, or radio and television broadcasts which violate international norms continue, or just compensation is not provided our people for the human and economic damage they have suffered.
Now some of that may just be smart negotiator talk: Ask for more than you know you can get because asking only for what you think can get usually means you will get less than you could have. But none of what he said in that paragraph is in the slightest bit outrageous anymore than is the U.S. asking Cuban officials to free the island's political prisoners and improve its record on freedom of speech and human rights.
This is especially so when it comes to the Guantánamo Naval Base, which sits on land first taken from Cuba during the Spanish-American-Cuban War of 1898. That imperial occupation was affirmed in a coerced agreement containing lies about how this was being done for the sake of the independence and freedom of the Cuban people.
By early in the 19th century, many prominent Americans viewed the Caribbean Sea as being Washington's to control, what would later be called an "American lake." In April 1823, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams talked about the "ripe fruit theory." He wrote:
There are laws of political as well as physical gravitation; and if an apple severed by its native tree cannot choose but fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its own unnatural connection with Spain, and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only towards the North American Union which by the same law of nature, cannot cast her off its bosom.
Geopolitics cast as laws of nature have long served as a twisted justification for spilling blood and conquering territory.
Just a few months after Adams' comments, President Monroe in his seventh annual address on the State of the Union laid the groundwork for his famous doctrine to keep the imperial powers of the day from further colonization or intervention in the "New World." Which didn't mean no U.S. intervention, of course. But this early rationalization of imperial behavior by America wasn't fully codified until President Theodore Roosevelt issued his "corollary" to the Monroe Doctrine in his own State of the Union address 81 years later.
Essentially, the corollary rationalized U.S. intervention anywhere in the hemisphere whenever Americans felt like it. It was merely an official reiteration of what was already U.S. policy.
The year before Roosevelt's speech, in 1903, the U.S. had signed and ratified the Treaty of Relations with Cuba. The Cubans signed the document because they literally had no choice if they didn't want American troops forever on their land. Included in the treaty was the Platt Amendment, a humiliating imposition that made a mockery of the Cuban independence and sovereignty that it supposedly was drafted to protect.
Since 1898, when the U.S. intervened in the three-decade-long Cuban revolt against Spain—catalyzed by the sinking of the USS Maine and the yellow journalism that blamed the incident on the Spanish—thousands of American troops had occupied the island. Spain was quickly out of the war and the Cubans sought to establish a revolutionary government. Alarmed, President McKinley decided to maintain the occupation until certain conditions were met. Getting the troops to go home required the reluctant Cubans to give up some sovereignty. This surrender was codified in the Platt Amendment, first passed in 1901 as part of the annual congressional appropriation for the U.S. Army and ratified as part of the Treaty of Relations two years later.
Platt provided seven stipulations for ending the occupation. Among them was the right of the U.S. to control Cuban foreign policy and commercial relations, the right to intervene if Cuba governance moved in directions Washington objected to, and the right to lease coal stations for fueling U.S. Navy ships.
Originally, it was decided to set up four stations. Ultimately, only one at Guantánamo Bay was leased, with Cuba being paid $2,000 in gold coins annually for 46.8 square miles over which the U.S. "shall exercise complete jurisdiction and control."
At first, the Cuban assembly had voted firmly against incorporating the Platt language into their constitution. This was done with good reason since this grabbing of a piece of Cuba's national territory, disguised as the granting of a lease in perpetuity, was a monstrous assault on their nation's sovereignty. But subsequently, with suspiciously fewer members present in the assembly to cast votes, the incorporation of the Platt language was approved under duress.
In 1934, as part of the second President Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy with Latin America, the Platt Amendment was mostly rescinded, and Cuba in 1940 wrote a new constitution without including the Platt language. However, the coerced leasing of Guantánamo remained in force. Just as it does today.
Since those days, as we are all too well aware, the base has added a brutal military prison for suspected members of al Qaida and others U.S. authorities judge to be terrorists. The consiglieres of the Bush administration argued tendentiously before the prison was set up that since Guantánamo is merely leased from Cuba, it doesn't fall under U.S. law even though the U.S. runs every inch of the place. In other words, a supposedly jurisdictionless land where neither the U.S. Constitution nor Geneva Conventions would hold sway.
The annual Guantánamo leasing fee of $2,000 for was upped to $4,085 a year in 1938, where it remains today even though adjusting for inflation would make the comparable 2015 payment a still dirt-cheap $33,580. With one exception after Fidel Castro's revolutionaries took over in 1959, the checks the U.S. government has sent every year have wound up in Fidel's drawer, as he pointed out to a television interviewer years ago.
There will be those who argue that U.S. seizure and occupation of Guantánamo Bay is just the way of the world, that everybody does it, that Cubans should get over it and political realists should accept it.
On the contrary, realists ought to do all they can to make amends for the many stains on America's legacy if we wish to set a positive example rather than merely pretending we are exceptional. The Castro brothers are not saints by any means. But these octogenarians will soon be history. And returning Guantánamo Bay will not be returning it to them but to the Cuban people.