Martinez joins call for examination of Gitmo

In remarks Friday the Florida senator also calls for more focus on Latin America and laments Iraq progress.

By wire services
Published June 11, 2005

KEY WEST - U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez said Friday that the Bush administration should consider Sen. Joseph Biden's suggestion to shut down the U.S. military's prison camp on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

He also criticized the administration and Congress for paying little attention to growing Latin American problems and lamented the slow progress in Iraq.

Biden, D-Del., made his remarks this week in the wake of a Pentagon report detailing incidents in which U.S. guards desecrated the Koran.

His remarks to the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors/Florida Press Association convention were a departure for Martinez, Bush's former Housing and Urban Development secretary, who was elected senator last year with the strong backing of the White House.

The high-security prison camp in Cuba has been surrounded by controversy since it opened in January 2002, three months after the invasion of Afghanistan.

Inmates have accused their American captors of abuse and of violation of their Muslim beliefs as an interrogation method. The International Red Cross and internal FBI documents have corroborated some of those allegations. Last month, Amnesty International called the Guantanamo detention center for alleged terrorists "the gulag of our time."

"It's become an icon for bad stories and at some point you wonder the cost-benefit ratio," said Martinez, R-Fla. "How much do you get out of having that facility there? Is it serving all the purposes you thought it would serve when initially you began it? Or can this be done some other way a little better?"

Martinez, a lawyer, added, "It's not very American, by the way, to be holding people indefinitely. Now they're like POWs, and the conflict is still ongoing and typically you wouldn't release POWs until the end of the conflict."

On Latin America, Martinez said the administration is increasingly aware that it needs to pay more attention to the area, but it should have been a focus from the start, given instability in countries like Bolivia, Ecuador and Haiti.

"The administration has been very remiss for the last four years in its direction toward Latin America to their great consternation now," Martinez said. "There is a growing recognition of the administration and in Congress that we have not been paying enough attention to a region that's really in trouble.

"We have tremendous problems in Bolivia right now. It's a crisis situation. So is Ecuador, in a little more latent way. And clearly Venezuela, in partnership with Cuba, is creating a lot of problems for stability, for democracy, for the rule of law. And I think that's going to spill over into the upcoming elections in Central America."

The United Nations peacekeeping force in Haiti hasn't been doing its job, Martinez said, expressing concerns that there could be problems with upcoming elections there.

"I'm anxious to go to Haiti. What a basket case it is," Martinez said. "We need for those elections not to be a setback. They're not going to be the full answer, but it can't be a setback."

Martinez, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he plans to go to Latin America in August and has asked fellow committee member Norm Coleman, R-Minn., for guidance on who would be interested in joining him.

The response, Martinez said, was, "Your question is the problem. There's not that many of us."

Martinez, who backed the war in Iraq during his Senate campaign, raised questions about the progress there.

"I am discouraged by how long it has taken for us to begin to draw down some forces," he said. "I would have thought by now, and I think in a clearer moment that the president and (Defense) Secretary (Donald) Rumsfeld would have thought that by now we would be in a position to be able to draw down some forces. Unfortunately that doesn't seem to be the case."

He said he has had to write many condolence letters to families of Floridians killed in Iraq.

"It brings home the importance of the decision to send men and women to go to war," he said. "It has become a foreign fighters' war against us there and the progress seems slow and difficult."