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America's Cuban Territory

Long before the arrival of al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners, the U.S. base at Guantánamo Bay has been a source of tension and controversy
John Lantigua
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Spy Scandal, May/Jun 02

It was January 1996 and I had just landed on the island of Cuba in a U.S. Navy plane, which was strange enough. Now I was riding a launch, bucking low waves, entering bright blue Guantánamo Bay, heading for the naval headquarters on the far shore. No Cuban military or local civilian militia shot at us from the beach, even though we were within range.

Then we rounded a spit of arid, windswept, rocky land, and I saw cacti. In Cuba, the pearl of the Caribbean? Cacti in a country synonymous with the humid heat, verdure and temptations of the tropics? But there it was, a stand of cacti worthy of a John Ford Western. Had it been imported by an imaginative and accommodating Navy commander trying to make ensigns from Arizona feel at home? No, I was later told; it had been cultivated by order of Fidel Castro himself to fence in the U.S. troops stationed there, and keep Cubans out of the base.

It was then that I started to comprehend the thorny issue of the United States Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The arrival at the station six years later, on January 11, 2002, of captured Taliban fighters and operatives of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network is only the latest chapter in the episodic history of "Gitmo," as it is known, transforming, once again, this secluded tropical backwater into a geopolitical hot spot.

According to the captain's log of his second voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus spent the night of April 30, 1494, anchored in what is now Guantánamo Bay. He called the site Puerto Grande, and it proved hospitable: no record exists of trouble befalling the fabled mariner that night. But the history of Gitmo since then is sprinkled with occupations, combat and international confrontations.

The British navy occupied the bay for four months in 1741 when it fought Spain over trade interests in the American colonies. A century and a half later, in 1898, a battalion of American marines became the first U.S. troops to land in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. According to local lore, Spanish guerrillas, who signaled to each other with dovelike coos, closed in on the outpost and killed two of the marines, the first American casualties of that conflict.

But in the end, the United States would win that war, inspired by Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders' charge up San Juan Hill outside the city of Santiago de Cuba. Spain was forced to relinquish Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam, transforming the United States into an emerging global power, and Cuba gained its independence. In 1903, the new Cuban government signed an agreement with Roosevelt, who had since become president, allowing the United States to lease 45 square miles of Cuban territory, on either side of the mouth of Guantánamo Bay, for use as a "U.S. Coaling and Navy Station." The rent was 2,000 gold coins per year, which today is worth $4,085.

The Cubans insist that when their constitution was written in 1901, its framers were forced to include the wording of the Platt Amendment, a law passed unilaterally by the United States that same year that gave Washington the right to intervene in Cuba. Otherwise, the United States would not withdraw its occupation troops. According to the Cubans, the leasing of the land for the naval station was a direct result of that strong-arm tactic.

In 1934, the lease was renegotiated with the stipulation that the outpost would revert to Cuban control only by mutual agreement. No such agreement has ever been reached; American servicemen and servicewomen have been stationed there ever since.

During the first half of the last century, life at Gitmo was generally low-key. In 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt expanded Gitmo into a port for air and sea patrols, but it remained far from the action. Apart from that, during intermittent civil wars and other political turmoil in Cuba, troops stationed at Guantánamo were deployed briefly to protect U.S. economic interests on the island, and sometimes to restore order. But they couldn't head off the Cuban revolution, and in the late 1950s Gitmo, relatively quiet since 1945, was forced to wake like Rip Van Winkle from its drowsy isolation.

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