For over 100 years, the United States has occupied 45 square miles of land and water in Guantánamo province in eastern Cuba. Its naval base there is the oldest one outside the continental United States.
Writing in the New York Times in 2012, Jonathan Hansen, author of Guantánamo: An American History, says that: “American presence there has been more than a thorn in Cuba’s side. It has served to remind the world of America’s long history of interventionist militarism. Few gestures would have as salutary an effect on the stultifying impasse in American-Cuban relations as handing over this coveted piece of land.”
U.S. craving for control over Cuba, from the presidency of Thomas Jefferson on, provides the context. In 1823, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams wrote that, “Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its own unnatural connection with Spain, and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only towards the North American Union.”
After three years of dreadful war ending in 1898, Cuban rebels had effectively won their independence from Spain. Then, the United States intervened militarily to crush the Spanish colonial army. U.S. troops occupied Cuba until 1902, and then left on one condition: that the Platt Amendment, devised by the United States, would be inserted into the new Cuban constitution.
The Platt Amendment authorized the U.S. military to intervene at will in Cuba – which it would do in years to come. It also provided for a 100-year lease of sites in Cuba that the United States could use as naval bases and coaling stations. Eventually, the United States was content to occupy only the area in Guantánamo.
Gambling and prostitution took root around the base. Personnel there were implicated from time to time in the murder or abuse of Cuban citizens. After 1959, according to Cuban analyst Rafael Hernández, the purpose of the Guantánamo base and others in the Caribbean was “to control, police and spy on Cuba.”
Pressed by a short-lived, left-leaning Cuban government in 1934, the United States signed a new treaty with Cuba, which indicated the United States would be leaving Guantánamo, but only if both sides agreed. The U.S. Helms-Burton Act of 1996 proclaimed that the United States would never leave as long as Cuba’s government included Raúl or Fidel Castro.
The U.S. lease of the Guantánamo tract is illegitimate under international law, at least according to lawyer Alfred de Zayas, an expert on the matter. In 2003, he argued that: the treaty was imposed by force; it reflected colonial prerogatives illegal under the United Nations Charter and its new norms; it stipulated that the area be used strictly as a naval base and coaling station – not as a prison; and it breaks rules of sovereignty.
Use of the base as a prison began in the early 1990s when the need arose to sequester Haitian and Cuban migrants captured at sea. After the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the prison at Guantánamo became a place for holding enemy combatants seized in U.S. wars, one where U.S. legal guarantees don’t apply.
The U.S. prison in Guantánamo, internationally denounced as a hell-hole of abuse and torture, serves as an added insult to the Cuban people. As of August 2016, the Guantánamo prison had taken in 779 prisoners since its opening in 2002. Of those, 708 have been released or transferred, one having been transferred to the United States to be tried. Nine have died; 61 men are still held, of whom 20 have been recommended for release.
If not as a prison, why is Guantánamo still useful to the United States? A Washington Post report last year has James Stavridis, formerly the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and presently dean of the Tuft University Fletcher School of Diplomacy, saying that the base is a “strategic and highly useful” U.S. asset, adding that, “It’s hard to think of another place with the combination of a deep water port, decent airstrip, and a lot of land.”
Stavridis goes on to say that, “[A]s a military installation, though, Guantánamo…is no longer essential.” The expert’s ambivalence ought to give pause to those arguing for occupation because of military need.
However, whether or not the base is useful to the United States is irrelevant; it’s a matter of Cuban sovereignty.
Photo: A guard sits in a watchtower at the Guantánamo Bay prison camp on May 15, 2007. | Brennan Linsley/AP