Guantanamera, Guantanamo

by Martin Peretz | April 28, 2010

I am told that “Guantanamera,” a song derived from a poem by the Cuban turn-of-the century revolutionary Jose Marti and made famous by the American Communist folk singer Pete Seeger, refers to a girl, presumably very beautiful, from Guantanamo. The original Spanish lyrics do not confirm this. Nor do the lyrics of the fourth verse, improvised by Seeger and Arlo Guthrie:

And for the cruel one
who would tear out this heart with which I live
I do not cultivate nettles nor thistles
I cultivate a white rose.

Or, for that matter, the text from from the original fifth stanza:

With the poor people of the earth
I want to share my fate...

Still, one can see how, in the late fifties and through the sixties, Seeger made this song a paean to Fidel Castro and the state of the people he was said to be building.

Of course, Castro built a police state for perpetuity, if one takes half a century to be virtually perpetual. Nearly 60 years before Castro’s ascension to power, Cuba had, with the crucial assistance of the U.S., freed itself from Spain and was put under a dependency relationship with America. Washington then secured by treaty what became the highly important naval base of Guantanamo in perpetuity—but for a rental fee of $2000 in gold per annum. (See an article, “How We Got Guantanamo,” in the February 1962 issue of American Heritage.) Today this comes to less than two ounces of bullion. A bargain.

Guantanamo certainly had been counted an asset during Washington strategic discussions of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. But, more to the point, the very naming of it by candidate Obama at campaign rallies became occasions for the crowds to cheer or boo, depending on the sentence structure of the would-be president’s promise to shut it down.

Second only to Abu Ghraib, if indeed second to anything at all, Guantanamo became America’s badge of shame. Inmates had been tortured there. Inmates couldn’t get adequate legal assistance there. (This turned out to be a phony issue, as Wall Street and Washington law firms trooped to do pro bono work for the terrorists.) “Shut it down,” was one refrain. And the aspirant to the White House promised to shut it down. And to shut it down by January 1, 2010.

The administration began to release some of the prisoners, many of them to Yemen, where presumably they were to repent and be reformed. But, oops, Yemen suddenly became a central base of Al Qaeda. They could also have been sent to countries where they would have been murdered (or tortured, then murdered). Saudi Arabia had too many miscreants of its own to welcome more.

The Obami were stopped in their tracks, not least by the congressional Democrats who wanted no such degenerates in their own districts or their own states.

This was another failure of Obama diplomacy. If he couldn’t persuade Senator Webb, Democrat of Virginian, how could he be expected to persuade Ahmadinejad?

There are some 192 prisoners in Gunatanamo, about 50 of whom are too dangerous to release but unprosecutable, according to Peter Finn and Del Quentin Wilber in the January 29 issue of the Washington Post. The rest are in limbo.

Of course, as some helpful man in the Washington office of Human Rights Watch (about which there is a devastating article by Ben Birnbaum elsewhere in this space and in the current hard copy edition of TNR) advises, the president can always have the prisoners indicted on federal law and try them in the U.S. This is not a very popular option. Moreover, many legal thinkers believe it is judicially nuts.

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