BY MARY SANCHEZ | Knight Ridder Newspapers

People who rail against the Bush administration for abuses at Guantanamo Bay are pitching an incomplete argument. We lease it.
That right, Fidel Castro is our landlord. And the United States is a bad tenant.

Under an agreement signed in 1903 and another in 1934, the U.S. agreed to pay Cuba for the area to use “as a coaling or naval stations only, and for no other purpose.”

The agreements make no mention of use as a prison camp, for housing unlawful combatants.

So the United States is not complying by the original agreement. The U.S. Treasury sends a check every year to the Cuban government for $4,085. The original amount was about $2,000 in gold.

Castro hasn’t cashed the checks since he took over in 1959. Which some might say, breaks the deal on Cuba’s side of the table, giving the U.S. more free reign. The U.S. obviously isn’t budging.

This month, a subsidiary of Halliburton signed a $30 million deal to build more prison space and a security fence at Guantanamo. The new contract adds to work already done there, with more in the planning stages.

So while the United States first wrestled control of the bay for protectionist reasons, what is happening there now could in the long run hurt North American interests.

The images and stories of abuse at Guantanamo, even those that have been overplayed, are tough to overturn in the domain of global public relations. Perception is reality. And the perception of Guantanamo Bay in Islamic countries is not good.

The United States needs no more examples of Quran bashing paraded before people already bent on twisting their religion for violence. Still, activists who want Guantanamo Bay shut down as a prison camp would do better to understand what they are fighting.

Warehousing foreign prisoners is simply a convenient use right now for Guantanamo Bay. The space has also been used to keep Haitians from entering the United States.

This spot of land and water has a long history. The idea originally was to have a chunk of land to keep the British from setting up shop so close to U.S. shores. The U.S. sent in reinforcements when Cuba was trying to free itself from Spanish rule. The Cubans were really pretty close to victory. But even after Cuba was free, the U.S. military acted a bit like squatters, refusing to leave.

Finally, a deal was brokered by President Theodore Roosevelt and then Cuban President Tomas Estrada Palma. It was called the Platt Amendment, after the Orville Platt, a Connecticut senator who introduced it as legislation.

The U.S. agreed to pull its military out of Cuba in exchange for leasing rights to 45 miles of land and water, Guantanamo Bay. Again, the deal was to use the area for a naval station and to refuel ships needing coal. No private enterprise, like profit-making by corporations, was to be conducted on the land.

Later, in 1934, that deal was made into a perpetual lease by a treaty, with the original terms staying intact.

So here we are.

Guantanamo Bay’s importance has long been sealed by its locale. First, the thought was to hold off the British. Then, the villain was the Soviets and communism. But broader goals have long existed for U.S.-control of the bay, with or without Castro or the war on terror.

That was true when Thomas Jefferson first jealously eyed Cuba. And it is true today as Halliburton subsidiaries are drawing up plans for an air-conditioned, two-story prison.

Like it or not, Guantanomo Bay, and the land its sits on are locked into a love/hate dance with the United States. And historically speaking, this will be a very long entanglement.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)