WASHINGTON — “Detainees,” “detention center,” “enemy combatants,” “Gitmo” — these words, these days, come tumbling out of our political lexicon as we consider the future of Guantanamo, a 45-square-mile U. S. Navy anachronism on the southeast corner of Cuba.

Indeed, one of Barack Obama’s first proclamations as president was to announce the closure of the Guantanamo detention center within a year.

Good for Obama — he was fulfilling a campaign pledge. But bad for Obama — he was thinking small, when he had (and still has) the opportunity to turn a dusty old page in Cuban-American relations and return Guantanamo to Cuba. That’s right — return the entire naval base to Cuba!

Remember Cuba? It’s that banana-shaped island 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Fifty years ago, Fidel Castro led a successful Marxist revolution against the autocratic corruption of Fulgencio Batista, and for a time he was the hero of the left until he became a Soviet puppet and Cuba a Soviet satellite. In 1962, the world hovered on the brink of nuclear war, when then-President John F. Kennedy challenged Moscow’s decision to install nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba.

Kennedy won that showdown. When the Soviet Union later collapsed in 1991, Cuba lost its ideological sponsor and its major supplier of oil, food and military hardware. Cuba entered what it called the “special period,” a time of political retrenchment and economic disintegration that has dramatically worsened in the current global crisis. Now, Cuba has become the orphaned basket case of the Caribbean, an isolated relic of the Cold War struggling to find a new identity under Raul Castro, who assumed dictatorial powers on Feb. 24, 2008, after his older brother, Fidel, became seriously ill.

When asked about returning Guantanamo, Washington officials are usually wide-eyed in wonder and surprise. Why reward Raul by returning Guantanamo to Cuba, they ask, when he remains a communist dictator and has flashed no serious sign of democratic reform? Why abandon a first-rate naval base, the oldest overseas base in America’s arsenal? Why now? Let him take the first steps toward Cuban-American reconciliation, I’m told; and then we can consider reciprocal actions on our timetable.

I appreciate their caution but believe now is the time for radical change in America’s Latin American policy. The U.S. has a new administration, led by a young, visionary president who has excited the world with his promise of an “open hand” foreign policy. If he were to look beyond the encrusted habits of the Cold War and think, for example, about returning Guantanamo to Cuba, he would be sending a refreshing signal to the people of Cuba and to all of Latin America that, indeed, change has come to American policy. And it would cost the U.S. nothing.

Guantanamo lost its strategic value decades ago. Now it is a costly example of naval antiquity, still good as a communications center and as an occasional transit point for migrants, but little else. It is a nostalgic throwback to the Cold War, when superpowers measured their clout in bases controlled and megatonnage accumulated.

Guantanamo is a U.S. naval base, because … it is a U.S. naval base; as it has been, wonder of wonders, since Feb. 23, 1903, when Cuba, defeated and humiliated during the Spanish-American War, yielded “complete jurisdiction and control” of Guantanamo to the United States for the annual cost of $2,000 in gold coins. It had no choice. This treaty provision was reconfirmed in 1934, but then the annual cost jumped to $4,085 in dollars, no longer in gold coins, to be sent in check form every year to the “Treasurer General of the Republic,” a position that no longer exists.

When Castro seized power in 1959, he accepted and cashed the first check he received from the U.S. but since then, legend has it, he has stuffed the subsequent annual checks into his desk drawer, refusing to cash them for fear of thereby acknowledging the legitimacy of America’s use of Guantanamo. Cuba exercises sovereignty over Guantanamo, but not control.

Since foreign and domestic policies often overlap in the United States, for Obama and the Democratic Party there may well be a political price for the return of Guantanamo — but probably much less than imagined. Many in the Cuban-American community in Florida might instinctively object and charge betrayal, but others are gradually shifting their political allegiance from Republican to Democratic while promoting an open policy of engagement with Cuba.

Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced that the U.S. should recognize that U.S. policy toward Cuba has not worked to bring democracy. In a report to be released this week, Lugar calls for a rethinking of U.S. policy toward Cuba and an easing of the tight restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba imposed by the Bush administration in 2003.  According to recent polls by Florida International University, 55 percent of the Cuban-American community now favors unrestricted travel, and the sale of medicine and food, to the island.

It takes no genius to recognize that Cuba is in desperate trouble. Though it remains a communist country, it is no longer a threat to the United States. Its ties to Moscow are frayed. Its economy is shattered. Cuba now imports 80 percent of its food. Its military is puny, and its propaganda machine, running on autopilot, spews forth cranky, old-fashioned gibberish, taken seriously, I imagine, only by octogenarian Marxists.

Raul Castro has launched a program of “reform,” but it appears to be successful only in generating demands for more reform. What had once been taken for granted in Cuba — unmistakable advances in education, health care and pensions — are now under a spreading cloud of doubt. I’m told the average state wage is $18 a month, clearly no longer adequate, if it ever was. And ration cards can provide no more than half the monthly food needs of a family.

Optimists exist, and they catch glimpses of a promising tomorrow. Oil, for instance: Cuba controls a corner of the Gulf of Mexico that has oil reserves estimated at 10 to 15 billion barrels, just waiting to be developed. Would it not be better for the U.S. to be moderately dependent on Cuba for its oil than on Saudi Arabia?

And, buried deep in the State Department, but ready for rapid excavation after the Bush years, are numerous policy briefs for a considerable expansion of Cuban-American relations, including joint operations against drugs and organized crime and a lifting of the embargo in all communications and travel. Cuba could quickly become a very attractive market.

Once the “enemy detainees” are shipped to the far corners of the globe and the “detention center” is abolished, Guantanamo loses much of its value. What was appealing in 1903 and crucial during the Cuban missile crisis becomes unnecessary in the Obama era. Returning it to Cuba would almost certainly inspire a fresh sense of excitement about America and about Obama’s leadership, similar to that aroused by Kennedy’s launching of the Alliance for Progress.

In Washington, where old habits and attitudes die slowly, I have heard Republicans say that the return of Guantanamo would be proof of Obama’s “weakness” in foreign affairs. Quite the contrary, it would be proof of his vision, his unique capacity to set a new path in the United States' relations with Latin-America.

When Obama was wondering whether to run for the presidency, his fellow Illinois Democrat, Sen. Richard Durbin, told him that there is a magical moment in every political career that, if seized at the right time, can open the door to the Oval Office. In foreign policy, too. Though, out of necessity, Obama is occupied at the moment with the American economic crisis, he knows that a president must be able to do big things, domestic and foreign, at the same time.

Look south, young president, opportunity beckons; and if you return Guantanamo to Cuba, you may also be able to save $4,085 a year in lease costs. These days, every penny counts.

Marvin Kalb is a James Clark Welling Presidential Fellow at The George Washington University and Edward R. Murrow Professor Emeritus at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

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