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Fidel, You’re No Bin Laden

What are the reasons for imprisoning captured Al Qaeda fighters on the U.S. military base on Cuba?

January 16, 2002

What are the reasons for imprisoning captured Al Qaeda fighters on the U.S. military base on Cuba?

Of course, the days when Cuba was a serious threat to U.S. interests are long gone. Cuba’s best friend and sponsor, the Soviet Union, has been tossed to history’s dust-heap. Cuban soldiers no longer fight proxy wars in Africa. Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s fiery five-hour speeches fall on deaf ears in his own hemisphere.

There is precious little danger that even such a deeply troubled place as Argentina may go communist. Yet, Washington has a long memory.

After all, Castro was once America’s Public Enemy Number One — much as Osama bin Laden is today. More than three decades after CIA-trained Cuban exiles tried to overthrow him in an invasion at the Bay of Pigs, Castro is still alive and well. He is, in fact, the longest-serving government leader anywhere on the globe.

This certainly rankles Washington. Why else would the United States cling to one of the few remaining vestiges of the Spanish-American war fought more than a century ago — the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba?

The base was captured from the Spanish in June 1898. It has remained in U.S. hands despite Castro’s 1959 seizure of power on the island and the 1961 break in formal relations between the two nations.

But Guantanamo Bay is precisely the place that the U.S. Department of Defense has decided to imprison Al Qaeda fighters. They’re kept in open air cages reminiscent of the one that held traitorous American poet Ezra Pound after World War II. Pound had been arrested and incarcerated in Pisa for propaganda broadcasts that he’d made in English over Italian radio from 1941 to 1943.

There is a whiff of quarantine, too, to the choice of Guantanamo. Keeping the Al Qaeda prisoners on a military base in the Caribbean segregates them from the mainland United States. They are closer at hand than in Afghanistan, yet still separated by water from the Florida Keys.

The Pentagon insists that the prisoners are being treated humanely. Islamic dietary laws, they note, are being observed in the feeding of the Al Qaeda. No prosciutto or sausages will be served.

Yet other signals sent by the choice of Cuba as a prison camp can also be detected. They have less to do with pork than with pigs. The disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, you may remember, occurred in April 1961. The invasion by Cuban exiles trained by the CIA resulted in an unprecedented humiliation for the United States and President John F. Kennedy.

But the questions don’t end there. One has to wonder about the subtler reasoning behind the Pentagon’s peculiar choice of lockdown site. Does it represent a chance to embarrass Castro in his own backyard? Is it a means to show the Cuban leader that he poses no Bin Laden-like threat in American eyes?

Or will the choice inadvertently stoke a long-dampened revolutionary zeal in Cuba? One only need look to the patriotic ardor aroused in Cubans by political grandstanding in the U.S. over the fate of Elian Gonzales in 2000 for ample proof.

Or could it even be that the Bush Administration hopes that the Al Qaeda fighters’ propensity to rebel in captivity emerges once again? That scenario could prove an elegant solution to a number of problems.

The politically ticklish question of the Al Qaeda prisoners’ status, for instance, would disappear if they escaped. And what of the manhunt that inevitably will follow such an escape? Would American troops pursue the fugitives into Cuban territory?

Come to think of it, jailing Al Qaeda’s fiercest fighters in Guantanamo Bay is a perfect pretext by which Washington could rid itself of a four-decade thorn in its side.