House Thumbs Its Nose at Obama’s Visit to Cuba | Courthouse News Service
Thursday, November 30, 2023
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House Thumbs Its Nose at Obama’s Visit to Cuba

(CN) - Ignoring protests against prolonging U.S. "colonialism," the House Foreign Affairs Committee marked up a largely symbolic bill Wednesday that would supposedly prevent the return of Guantanamo Bay to Cuba.

Originally seized during the Spanish-American War, Cuba's southern tip has functioned as a U.S. naval base since 1898.

Though Obama has made waves toward closing the base's prison camps in his last year of office, the Department of State denies any interest in returning the land to the Cuban government.

"We understand that Cuba has strong feelings about it, and I can't tell you what the future will bring, but for the moment that is not part of the discussion on our side," Secretary John Kerry told The Hill in July.

More than a century of lease payments for the base has cost the United States a little more than $4,000 a year under the terms of the Treaty of Paris. Since the rise of Fidel Castro to power after the revolution, however, all but one of those checks have gone uncashed by the Cuban government.

With days to go before Obama's historic trip to Cuba, the Republican-led House committee maneuvered Wednesday to hamstring any discussion the president might have the matter next week.

The United States Naval Station Guantanamo Bay Preservation Act sailed past the committee without amendment on Wednesday morning.

Banning the "modification, abrogation, abandonment, or other related actions" over U.S. control of the base without congressional action, the bill sparked mild criticism from Democrats except for one passionate detractor: Rep. Alan Grayson, the firebrand congressman from Orlando, Fla.

"This is, in my mind, something that could possibly be well-characterized as colonialism," Grayson said in his opening remarks. "It is true that it is buried in the depths of our history. It happened more than 100 years ago, but the fact remains that we are militarily occupying part of another country's land without the permission of those people."

Rep. Gerry Connolly, a fellow Democrat from Virginia, argued that colonialism was a moot point because Obama had no intention of returning the military base.

"Surely, my friend from Florida is not suggesting, that on the eve of his visit to Cuba, the president is secretly contemplating the handing over unilaterally of Guantanamo to the government of Cuba," he said.

Grayson countered that his point is that U.S. policy "needs to be deeply rethought."

"If the United States is guilty of a grievous sin called colonialism, then this is something that we should put behind us, not extend," he said. "It's not a question of process, my friend, it's a question of substance."

Rep. Reid Ribble, a Republican from Wisconsin, painted a rosier picture of U.S. military presence on the island by invoking the military's response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

When disaster struck roughly 173 nautical miles away, Navy forces stationed in Guantanamo responded with "life-saving medical treatment, rescue treatment, and the compassionate expression of the American people," the congressman said.

Quoting Rudyard Kipling, Grayson ridiculed this argument as a patronizing example of "The White Man's Burden," a poem used to justify another front of the Spanish-American War in the Philippines.

"There's a real danger with confusing compassion with guns," Grayson said.

In a surprising turn, deeply conservative Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher said he shared Grayson's view of U.S. "colonialism and neocolonialism" with regard to Cuba, but he argued that this should not change until the Castros are out of power.

"To right former wrongs, timing is very important," he said.

Republican Congressmen Ted Poe of Texas and Ted Yoho of Florida offered full-throated defenses of the U.S. control of Guantanamo, which they cast as an act of "liberation" rather than conquest.

For Poe, Roosevelt "liberated Cuba with the Rough Riders" from Spanish imperialism.

In a cheeky rejoinder, Grayson asked whether Guantanamo was Cuba's "tip" for U.S. military services.

No other House Democrat offered a moral counterargument to the U.S. occupation of Cuba, although a handful bristled at the disrespect toward Obama.

"With all due respect for one of my colleagues, I don't think that this is a debate about colonialism," Congresswoman Lois Frankel, from West Palm Beach, Fla., remarked.

"Our president has no intention to abrogate our control of Guantanamo," she added.

When the bill came to a vote, only Grayson's voice could be heard among the "Nays" over the live webcast.

U.S. military control over Cuba may have inspired more contentious a debate at the time of its seizure as it is does today.

Literary lion Mark Twain, a prominent critic of the Spanish-American War, repeatedly denounced what he called Roosevelt's intentions to "conquer, not to redeem" the Cuban and Filipino people. Twain wrote some of darkest satires like "The War Prayer" and "Salutation to the 20th Century" while serving as vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League, a now-defunct peace group.

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