Guantanamo Bay Naval Station (GTMO), the oldest overseas US navy base, is at the top of Cuba’s list of matters to resolve as US-Cuba negotiators try to normalize diplomatic relations. The 45-square-mile outpost symbolized America’s resolve to oppose Soviet intrusion in our hemisphere – and more recently serves as a modern haven for mysterious methods employed against captured Islamic terrorists. The result of the current negotiations may be that GTMO’s 116 years of continuous service will end should Cuba’s demands prevail.
GTMO’s history offers a fascinating perspective on America’s emergence as a dominant military force over the last several hundred years. During the 1800s and early 1900s, many American politicians argued for imperial power status, and Cuba was an example of where they said US imperialism should begin. Before the Civil War, politicians from the southern states wanted to buy Cuba from Spain and annex it as the next slave state. In 1854, they issued an official manifesto trying to force President Franklin Pierce to make the offer – and to declare war on Spain if she refused.
The Civil War ended the Cuba slave state initiative. Years later, another opportunity emerged. In 1898, the US supported Cuba’s war of independence against Spain. Amid Spain’s deflating imperial shine, the US debated the merits of taking Spain’s place as an imperial power, seizing Spanish colonies, including Cuba, for itself.
Anti-imperialists temporarily won the debate, passing the Teller Amendment, which promised to support Cuban independence without annexation. Yet pro-imperial forces prevailed in Congress, passing the Platt Amendment, which provided that if Spain lost the war, Cuba would be nominally independent but under US control. This is how the US leased land from Cuba for its base at Guantanamo Bay, which remains today. The US also annexed other Spanish colonies: Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. In effect, the US had become an imperial power.
Rent for the base was established at $2,000 per year payable in gold – and was updated to $4,000 per year in 1934, according to this history of the base by scholar Paul Kramer. Cuba refuses payment every year.
GTMO’s main military features include a naval base, a hospital, an airfield and a military prison. Reports that Cuba does not have a McDonalds are incorrect. The truth is that GTMO not only has a McDonalds but also a Taco Bell and a Subway. It has also been suggested that prisoners cooperating with interrogations have been rewarded with Happy Meals from the local McDonalds. GTMO in many ways resembles an American city more than a military base – fast food, schools and a beach offer a familiar environment for residents, 40% of whom are civilian contractors.