March 28, 2008

Guantanamo Bay Naval Base

Stupid Question ™
Jan. 31, 2002
By John Ruch
© 2002

Q: How did the US wind up with a naval base on Cuba?

A: Guantanamo Bay Naval Base is booty from the Spanish-American War, a truly callous exercise in “expansionism” (less politely, “imperialism”) that also netted us Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.

Always interested in Cuba’s long fight for independence from Spain, the US really paid attention in 1896. A brutal Spanish crackdown threatened not only Cubans but also American business interests in sugar and mining. And many politicians just wanted to grab new territory.

By 1898, the US had found enough factually shaky—but politically popular—pretexts to go to war. The Navy scouted Guantanamo Bay on the southeastern end of Cuba as a possible naval base.

In those days, naval bases were both good strategy and imperialist symbolism. The Pearl Harbor base in Hawaii had been established in 1887, and bases in all the new ex-Spanish territories were soon to follow.

On June 10, 1898, the Marines landed at Guantanamo. Americans have been in the bay ever since.

The US quickly won the war, but Cuba did not get its promised independence. Instead, the US ran a military state for three years. In 1903, the Platt Amendment to the Army appropriation bill required the new “free” Cuba to sell or lease Cuban land to the US for naval bases.

Cuba would have “ultimate sovereignty” over the land, but the US would have “complete jurisdiction and control.” Furthermore, Cuba could not unilaterally break the lease. Also, the US could not expand the bases, or use them to shelter criminals, run businesses or block Cuban shipping.

Under these offer-you-can’t-refuse terms, the 71-square-mile Guantanamo Bay Naval Base was leased to the US for $2,000 a year in gold, effective Dec. 10, 1903.

Known in Navy shorthand at GTMO (pronounced “Gitmo”), the base enjoyed relative friendliness with Cuba, employing 3,500 civilians.

But when Fidel Castro came to power and turned Communist, GTMO turned truly bizarre—at least in legal theory, it became a US base on enemy soil. Castro cut off the base’s water supply and planted the “Cactus Curtain”—an 8-mile line of cacti—to prevent people from fleeing onto the base.

GTMO is a sort of suburb-in-exile, with a population of 7,000 troops and staff, private houses, named streets, movie theaters, a golf course, hunting season, even a Masonic Lodge and a McDonald’s.

Castro claims GTMO’s presence is illegal, and he’s probably right—the Mickey D’s alone violates the lease. He refuses to cash the rent checks (now adjusted to $4,085), but he doesn’t have the muscle to evict the US.

The Navy has long conceded that GTMO is militarily unnecessary; during the Cuban Missile Crisis, we considered swapping it for the removal of Soviet missiles, and in 1977 the secretary of the Navy recommended closing it.

Today, it’s primarily a holding pen for refugees (and now Afghan prisoners). But it will continue to exist as long as it continues to have political symbolism.

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