Guantanamo’s other history

Returning Guantanamo to Cubans may develop US-Cuba relations and create brighter opportunities for the entire Caribbean.

Guantanamo Bay Facility Continues To Serve As Detention Center For War Detainees
Cubans long for the return of Guantanamo, but the future of this US owned territory is unknown [Getty Images]

Over the past months a persistent hunger strike among “war on terror” prisoners has put the Guantanamo Bay US military base and detention camp back in the news. It has been more than a decade now that the formerly little known US enclave in Cuban territory became a well-known place around the world for the questionable activities that have taken place there.

For Cubans, however, the naval base of Guantanamo was a thorn in the side of the Cuban Republic since its birth in May 1902; a sine qua non condition to allow the new republic to exist, imposed by the US occupying troops that had been in the island since 1898 after their victory over the crumbling Spanish Colonial power in the Hispanic-American war.

To all Cubans, before and after Castro took power, the base has been a transgression to national sovereignty. The opposition to the permanence of US troops in Guantanamo is probably one of the few issues that still unite the vast majority of Cubans, regardless of their partisan beliefs, both in the island and the Diaspora.

An intrinsically nationalistic and political people, Cubans have always longed for that piece of arid land near the eastern tip of the island to be returned to their rightful owners. Nevertheless, over the past years neither the Cuban government nor the American have taken any steps towards its devolution. What sort of future can be envisioned for this contested territory? Will it continue to be a notorious US prison or are there any possibilities that it will be returned to Cuba – now or in the future – so that it can be used in a less controversial manner?

A brief history of US-Cuban relations

The base was originally one of the many burdens placed upon the nascent Republic of Cuba by the interventionist US government. Although American troops had taken the territory by force in 1898, it was not until 1903 that the base was permanently leased to the US by the government of Tomas Estrada Palma, Cuba’s first president.

Guantanamo may provide the US and Cuba with a chance to develop and improve their diplomatic relations, and to transform its dark legend of illegalities and torture into a bright opportunity for collaboration and growth for the entire Caribbean.


Needless to say that this enforced agreement, like others at the time, including the Platt Amendment of 1901 and the two Reciprocity treaties of 1903, was nothing more than a one-sided pact enforced upon a weak new nation coming out of a devastating war; an early twentieth-century imperialist move embodying the up and coming ideals of US expansion in the Americas.

Over the next few decades the base functioned as a coaling station for the American ships that were helping with the implementation of Theodore Roosevelt’s Big Stick policy across Central America and the Caribbean. During this period Guantanamo-based US marines also entered Cuban territory to “protect” American interests in at least a couple of times in 1912 and again in 1917, making their presence felt whenever they thought it was appropriate.

The status of the base was ratified by yet another treaty in 1934, signed with the transitory government that had come to power after a revolution had brought down the US-backed regime of General Gerardo Machado in 1933. From that moment on, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration made sure that the lease could only be terminated by mutual agreement between the governments of the United States and Cuba. A cunning move indeed.

And so 1959 arrived and the formerly “friendly” relations between the US and Cuba began a fast-paced period of deterioration that led to confrontations and mutual accusations for years to come. In a few instances throughout the 1960s, US troops shot at and killed Cuban soldiers, and allegations of abductions, torturing, and assassinations of civilians took place more than once.

In one of these cases, Cuban driver Ruben Lopez Sabariego was said to have been tortured and killed in the base in 1961. His body was found in a ditch more than 40 days after denunciations of his illegal detention were made by his family on the Cuban side of the fence. In another case, in July 1962, the tortured lifeless body of Caimanera-based fisherman Rodolfo Rosell was found in his boat, in waters of the base.

Further confrontations took place during the following years. Cuban Private Ramon Lopez Peña, 19 at the time, was shot twice in the neck in 1964, and another Cuban private, Luis Ramirez Lopez was shot dead in 1966 by a US sentry.

Although direct confrontations eventually waned off, the legal situation of the base, by then already the oldest US military enclave outside their national territory, continued to be a source of dispute. A new chapter to Guantanamo’s saga was added when the US turned the former coaling station into a refugee camp for Cuban rafters in the mid-1990s.

Reluctance to engage

In 1994 after Fidel Castro negligently opened the borders for dissatisfied Cubans to flee the country risking their lives at sea, the massive number of resulting rafters, also known as balseros, forced Bill Clinton’s government to use the base as a temporary refugee centre.

Due to its limited facilities, the conditions for the Cubans – who were also joined by a considerable number of Haitians – were poor to say the least. Their desperate situation led to protests and open manifestations of public unrest. Over the next few months Clinton’s administration was forced to open new camps within the boundaries of the base, and to improve the existing infrastructure in order to provide for the more than 50,000 refugees taken there.

Eventually, Cubans were steadily shipped away to the US, and Haitians were sent back to their homeland after the controversial US invasion of Haiti in November 1994 that ousted democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. It was not until January 1996 when the last Cubans left for the United States, that the base resumed its normal military duties, closing another polemic chapter in its history.

A swan song for Guantanamo?

When the US redesigned the former coaling station in order to hold the Cuban and Haitian rafters, they could not suspect that they were writing the opening act for a much talked-about sequel.

Soon after the invasion of Afghanistan that followed the terrorist attack on New York on 9/11, the base provided a favourable offshore detention camp for the many prisoners made during the invasion. A detention camp where human rights laws were consistently ignored, and where “humiliating acts, solitary confinement, temperature extremes, use of forced positions” and other brutalities became common occurrences.

For the past decade Guantanamo has been a permanent feature in the news. From the frequent accusations of the illegal detention of innocent victims caught in the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, to the countless allegations of torture, Guantanamo has always been there. Yet, very rarely the issue of its devolution to the Republic of Cuba has been raised.

Perhaps, as Professor Arturo Lopez-Levy told me recently, this is because “this is not an immediate issue, but one that will become more central in the US-Cuban relationship agenda in years to come.”

Fair enough; although not all Cubans may agree on the immediate devolution of this piece of land to its rightful owner, almost all concur that Guantanamo must be returned sooner or later. Only recently, Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas, whose hunger strike a couple of years ago made headlines around the world, stated that although he would like to see the detention camp closed, he would be reticent to return the territory to the current Cuban government. He then suggested that the base should remain under US jurisdiction until a democratic government would be in place in Havana.

Professor Lopez-Levy, looking at the issue from a less partisan angle, sees the base as both a challenge and an opportunity and proposes to use its excellent infrastructure for a bi-national Health centre that could provide health care, not just to Cuba but to the entire Caribbean region.

In the meantime, from Havana the nationalistic rhetoric of years past has given way to a more pragmatic way of looking at the outside world. Although the siege mentality that permeated Cuban politics for the past five decades is still very much alive and kicking, a number of changes, mostly economic, have been taking place in the past years. The devolution of the base, however, has hardly come up at all. As a matter of fact, it has been one of Cuba’s regional allies, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, who has been the only one to demand its devolution in recent times.

Nationalism aside, the fact remains that the occupation of Guantanamo, although technically legal, was enforced upon two weak Cuban governments who were hardly in a position to confront the might of the United States at the time.

Sooner or later a new treaty free of imperialist bullying should be negotiated with the government of the Republic of Cuba. Whether that government is led by Raul Castro or by some democratically elected successor is ultimately irrelevant.

It should be down to the people of Cuba to determine the future of this now world (in)famous base. Guantanamo may provide the US and Cuba with a chance to develop and improve their diplomatic relations, and to transform its dark legend of illegalities and torture into a bright opportunity for collaboration and growth for the entire Caribbean.

Dr Manuel Barcia is Deputy Director at the Institute for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Leeds.

Follow him on Twitter: @mbarcia24