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Thursday, 17 January, 2002, 13:16 GMT
Thaw in Cuba-US relations
Cuban soldier observes the US base in Guantanamo from the Cuban side
Cuba wants to avoid confrontation over Guantanamo
By the BBC's Daniel Schweimler

Most people predicted there would not be a significant change in relations between the United States and Cuba until President Fidel Castro left power.

However, nothing has been the same since 11 September.

The tone adopted in a recent Cuban Government statement about the arrival of Taleban and al-Qaeda prisoners at the US military base in Guantanamo Bay on the Cuban mainland was surprisingly conciliatory.

This is despite reiterating Havana's claim to the 117 square kilometres that the Americans have occupied since 1898.

'Illegal' presence

The statement said their presence there was illegal and the Cuban people would never renounce their claim to the territory.

Cuban soldier on lookout in Guantanamo
Guantanamo Bay has long been a source of tension between the two countries

That is the line President Castro has maintained consistently since he came to power in 1959.

The US pays Cuba $4,085 a year in rent under the terms of an agreement signed in 1934.

The Cuban Government refuses to cash the cheques, which President Castro is rumoured to keep in his top drawer - a reminder of what he calls "a dagger pointed at Cuba's heart".

However, the latest statement adds that the enclave is the exact place where American and Cuban soldiers stand face to face, thus the place where serenity and a sense of responsibility are most required.

It goes on to say that although Cubans are willing to fight and die in defence of their sovereignty and rights, the duty of the people and their leaders is to preserve the nation from avoidable, unnecessary and bloody wars.

Guantanamo Bay has been just one source of tension between Washington and Havana over the past four decades, but one of the more dangerous.

Cuban President Fidel Castro
Castro is a political survivor

Shots have been fired across the border and extra troops were brought in during times of extreme tension, such as the failed US-backed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and the missile crisis of the following year.

In the 1990s, when tens of thousands of Cubans tried to flee the communist government, many headed for the nearest US soil, which turned out to be Guantanamo Bay.

The latest Cuban Government statement said that despite previous history there have been changes and now an atmosphere of mutual respect prevails.

Cuba said it would make every effort to preserve this atmosphere of detente and offered to co-operate with medical supplies and sanitation programmes.

Previous friction

The tone of the statement is a far cry from the angry words that have flown between Washington and Havana in previous years.

The drawn-out custody battle of the shipwrecked boy, Elian Gonzalez, dominated relations a couple of years ago.

More recently the case of five Cubans sentenced to long prison terms in Miami for spying on the US caused further friction.

But last month US companies sent the first shiploads of food to Cuba for 40 years to help alleviate the damage caused to the island by Hurricane Michelle the previous month.

And increasing numbers of American tourists and business people are visiting the island, despite Washington's 40 year long trade embargo and travel ban.


President Castro has survived several US presidents and kept his government in power since 1959 against all the odds.

He knows how to play the game of world politics and has regularly defied his critics who have, for many years, been predicting his demise.

Quite why Fidel Castro has adopted such a conciliatory tone over Guantanamo Bay is open to speculation.

But what is certain is that the strategy has been well calculated to impress both public opinion in Cuba and political opinion abroad, especially in the United States.

Are the Afghan prisoners being treated fairly?



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See also:

06 Aug 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Cuba
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