Reach Out to Cuba to Heal Guantnamo’s Wounds

President Obama makes his first trip to Latin America this week, arriving in Trinidad and Tobago Friday for the Fifth Summit of the Americas. But notably absent from both attendance and the official agenda will be Cuba.

According to Jeffrey Davidow, President Obama’s adviser for the Summit of the Americas meeting, “It would be unfortunate to lose the opportunity for this hemisphere, at the beginning of the Obama administration, to set down some guidelines and make some progress jointly by getting distracted by the Cuban issue. Cuba is not an issue for discussion at the Summit if one reads the Summit declaration and the documents on all the past year of negotiation.” However, recent decisions by Costa Rica and El Salvador to restore relations with Cuba leave the United States as the only country in the hemisphere that does not officially recognize the government of the Caribbean island. And while the president announced Monday that he will lift travel and gift restrictions for Cuban-Americans, the Obama administration appears hesitant to publicly discuss any additional Cuba policy changes it plans to seek in the months that follow–measures that might one day lead to a full normalization of relations.

The sincerity with which President Obama claims to desire a new relationship with Cuba, and Latin America more broadly, cannot be questioned. But as recent disagreements between pro- and anti-embargo senators and Congressmen have demonstrated, the forces in Congress still resistant to Cuba policy changes remain influential. And thus new coalitions, ideas and proposals for diplomatically engaging Cuba must be considered. In some cases, this may require confronting the United States’ own imperial history on the island and re-examining the policy proposals of others who have sought a Cuban rapprochement in the past.

We propose one such roadmap here — one which begins at Guantánamo Bay, the heart of the US presence in Cuba for over a century.

Long before Guantánamo Bay became globally synonymous with torture, superpower hubris and the “war on terror,” it was better known as a point of bilateral controversy between the United States and Cuba. Approximately 28,817 acres of Cuban land and water around Guantánamo Bay first came under American control when US marines arrived ashore in June of 1898, during the naval battles of the Spanish American War. The United States’ provocative claim to the fine port at Guantánamo was later codified through the 1901 Platt Amendment and a 1903 Lease Agreement. In 1934, the United States cancelled the Platt Amendment but retained its rights to Guantánamo. When the cold war penetrated Latin America through Cuba, some within the US government began to question the utility of an American military presence in a country allied with the Soviet Union. New ideas were sought to makeover the US presence at Guantánamo. In a May 23, 1961, memo that Marcus Raskin (co-author of this piece) and member of President John F. Kennedy’s National Security Council staff at the time, wrote:

“We might endeavor to turn the Naval Base into a series of hospitals and technical institutions…The conversion of this Naval Base to a positive good would enhance the chances for better relations between Cuba and the United States.”

Some, like William V. Shannon, a New York Post journalist and later the US ambassador to Ireland, promoted the NSC idea in his biweekly column. “We would score a major political coup if, on our own initiative and without any wrangling with Castro, we suddenly announced that Guantánamo would become a center for medical research and treatment,” wrote Shannon in July 1961. He added that “Guantánamo could well become a special symbol to our Latin American neighbors of their partnership with us in the struggle against disease.”

The idea, however, received little traction in the Kennedy White House.

But now, a half-century later, as the most recent additions to the Guantánamo Bay complex are slowly closed down and as the US searches for new ways to re-engage with Cuba, the idea of a US-Cuba health partnership at Guantánamo may be more realistic than ever. It would have the added benefit of serving as a diplomatic bridge toward official talks with the Castro government.

While Cuba has fallen short in protecting many basic human rights, it has achieved remarkable success in the areas of healthcare and medical research. The World Health Organization shows that the island has an average life expectancy and an infant mortality rate that are on par with the United States. The Latin American School of Medicine in Havana now trains medical students from around Latin America, at no cost, to provide healthcare to underserved populations in their home countries. And Cuba has even become a place of scientific innovation. As a recent report issued by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member, Richard Lugar (R-IN), rightly notes, “Cuba has made important strides in biotechnology, including the production of meningitis and hepatitis B vaccines, and U.S. scientists have called for enhanced research cooperation with their Cuban counterparts.”

Nevertheless, the United States and Cuba lack a permanent arrangement for scientific cooperation, leaving many public health challenges in the Americas unmet. As confirmed in new research by Dr. Peter Hotez, president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute at George Washington University and a tropical disease specialist, the disease burden of so-called neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) in Latin America and the Caribbean exceeds that of better-known conditions such as HIV/AIDS. At the same time, the development of new vaccines for NTDs is a much more likely near-term possibility. This led Dr. Hotez to propose a “re-invention” of Guantánamo in a 2008 article published in the PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases journal. According to Hotez:

“By establishing a center of excellence on the diseases of the poor, at Guantanamo, the United States Government would directly address poverty and health disparities in the worst-off nations in Central and South America and the Caribbean. Such a center could conduct translational research to develop new drugs and vaccines for neglected diseases, possibly in collaboration with research institutes and public sector pharmaceutical manufacturers in some of Latin America’s so-called innovative developing countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, and Mexico…It would serve as a vital resource for training physicians, scientists, and public health experts…A new U.S. commitment to public health in the Western hemisphere and a new cooperation with those in the region, like Cuba, who are also committed to such an endeavor, would begin to confront these lingering challenges.”

As Latin America as a region arrives center-stage on the United States’ agenda this week, the Obama administration should not miss the opportunity to include Cuba in the new relationship of respect and mutual interest that it seeks to forge with Latin America. In Cuba, as the notorious US detention camps at Guantánamo Bay are taken down, President Obama may even find useful building blocks for constructing just the sort of cooperative relationship he desires.

Working with Cuban doctors and scientists to transform Guantánamo Bay from a blight on our national character to a healthcare center for the neglected diseases of the Americas would be a partnership whose results are felt throughout the hemisphere for generations.

Marcus Raskin is the co-founder of the Institute for Policy Studies, where he directs the Paths for the 21st Century project. Joshua Frens-String is a Washington, DC-based writer and a recent US Fulbright scholar to Latin America.