President Barack Obama has a simple way to solve his Guantánamo dilemma. Five years after the president promised to close the detention center for alleged terrorists the prison remains open and continues to leave a stain on the honor and integrity of the United States and its proclaimed commitment to universal human rights.
With a brief and unambiguous message to Cuba's President Raúl Castro, President Obama could offer to return Guantánamo naval base to Cuba on the condition that Cuba accept all of the prisoners. In one act the United States would rid itself of a loathsome prison and prisoners it has been unable to send anywhere else, open the way to repairing a sixty-year old dysfunctional relationship with Cuba, and repatriate territory that all Latin Americans -- not just Cubans -- have long viewed with resentment as a symbol of U.S. imperial behavior in the hemisphere. It would be the single most significant action that could break through the barriers of distrust and misunderstanding both countries have erected.
Most Americans don't know the history of Guantánamo. Under the terms of the 1902 Platt Amendment -- a relic of the Spanish-American war that allowed us to control Cuba's affairs -- the United States forced Cuba to give it a 99-year lease for the 47 square-mile territory on which it built the Guantánamo base. In 1934 President Franklin Roosevelt abrogated the Platt Amendment as a good neighbor gesture, but pressured Cuba to sign a new Guantánamo lease, this time with no end date. Following the 1991 Haitian coup, the United States rediscovered Guantánamo's utility, as a refugee camp for escaping Haitians unwanted in the United States. After the 9/11 attacks the military converted the camp to a high security prison.
To be sure, several matters would need to be negotiated in order to implement this "simple" solution. Apart from the disposition of the base facilities, the two countries would need to agree on the latitude Cuba would have with regard to the prisoners. For example, the United States might seek assurances that Cuba would prevent the travel of released prisoners to the United States or a U.S. territory.
But once positive energy vibrates through U.S.-Cuba diplomacy, many of the disagreements between the two countries would emerge as soluble, as solutions build on one another to engender confidence. It is likely that even before the details of returning the naval base to Cuba were settled, the two countries might be able to overcome the most vexing, immediate source of irritation between them.
The United States holds in federal prisons four Cuban agents convicted of espionage, and Cuba holds an employee of a U.S. Agency for International Development subcontractor convicted of "acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state." Just as we have swapped prisoners with Russia and other adversaries, there is nothing stopping us from exchanging Mr. Gross for the four and allowing them all to return to their homes.
Similarly, Cuba has successfully negotiated agreements over expropriated property with every country except the United States. The typical debt-for-equity formula Cuba has used could resolve this fifty-year old issue to the benefit of U.S. citizens and corporations, and might even open the way to new U.S. investment in Cuba.
Or consider that the United States and Cuba already have achieved impressive levels of cooperation in areas of mutual concern - such as drug interdiction and natural disaster preparation - which would be even more effective if the engagements could be deepened, institutionalized, and undertaken without fear of domestic repercussions.
The U.S.-Cuba relationship has baffled ten previous U.S. presidents. It is source of tension between the United States and nearly all of the countries in Latin America. There is no objective reason for it to continue this way, along a hostile road. Solving the Cuba problem is one certain way that President Obama could keep his promises in 2009 to forge a new relationship with Latin America based on mutual respect and have a positive foreign policy legacy. Cuba has indicated a sincere desire to enter into discussions with the United States on all bilateral issues of concern between the two countries, but until now the United States has responded with a self-defeating aloofness.
As dozens of Guantánamo detainees continue their hunger strike, and a ruling about force-feeding them remains in limbo between different federal courts, the moment is ripe for President Obama to act with courage and decisiveness. Guantánamo gives him the opportunity of turning a lemon into lemonade.
Saul Landau is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, and producer/director of "Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up." Philip Brenner is a professor of international relations at American University and co-editor of A Contemporary Cuba Reader.