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US uses Cuba base to put pressure on Haiti: Pushpinder Khaneka tells why Guantanamo - America's unique foothold on Castro's island - is the world's best military bargain

THE UN Security Council vote clearing the way for a US-led invasion of Haiti is bound to lead to an increase in US military activity in the Caribbean. The nearest US territory, the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba - a mere 90 miles (145km) from Port-au-Prince - is likely to play an important role in any military action.

The US has already reinforced troops at Guantanamo to put pressure on Haiti's military leaders, and the base is the hub for the US-led embargo against Haiti. Once again the base is playing its role in helping the US hold sway in what it considers its backyard.

Guantanamo is unique. It is the oldest US base on foreign soil; it is the only one in a Communist country; it is far and away the world's best military bargain - President Castro's government has not cashed any of the dollars 4,000 annual rental cheques since 1960, the year after it came to power - and it is maintained in the teeth of the host country's opposition. Mr Castro has called the base 'a dagger thrust in the heart of Cuba' but has said Cuba will not attempt to retake it.

The base has come in handy as a tool of US foreign policy, for military intervention in the Caribbean and Central America - such as the US invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965. More recently, however, it has been regarded as largely redundant and a burden on the military budget. Some 7,000 people, including troops and civilians, live on the base's 45 square miles, about a third of which are in the bay's waters. On its land 'border' with Cuba runs a 17-mile, 8ft high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. Next to the fence lies one of the world's biggest active minefields - more than 700 deadly acres, mostly laid down during the 1962 Missile Crisis.

After the Spanish-American war in 1898, during which the Cubans won independence from Spain, the Havana rebels found their erstwhile allies reluctant to leave. The US finally pulled out in 1901 but, under the Platt Amendment signed that year, it reserved the right to intervene in the island's affairs to 'maintain the independence of Cuba and protect the people'. Not content with having the right to save the Cubans from themselves, the US also leased, in perpetuity, land around Guantanamo Bay - initially as a coaling station.

Over the years, a number of Cuban 'strongmen' found it politically convenient to be closely allied to the US. Indeed, US support kept many of them in power. But since the 1959 revolution that brought President Castro to power, Havana has regarded the US occupation of the base as illegal, claiming the lease was invalid beause it was imposed on Cuba.

It has taken its case to the United Nations and the Non-Aligned Movement - to no avail.

Despite the end of the Cold War, the US is in no hurry to give up its foothold in Cuba. The Defense Department's recent round of closures of US bases since the fall of the Berlin Wall has not included the Cuban facility.

During all Havana's years of close links with the Soviet Union, and US denunciation of Soviet military might in Cuba, there has only been one foreign base on the island - and that, ironically, has belonged to the US.

(Photograph omitted)