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Baseness: On Guantánamo | The Nation

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Baseness: On Guantánamo

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With every year, the US naval base at Cuba’s Guantánamo Bay becomes less of a place and more of a concept, one that seems to have sprung from a vacuum on January 11, 2002, when twenty of the earliest detainees in the “war on terror” arrived there in orange jumpsuits, blackened goggles, shackles and earmuffs. Americans announce themselves for or against Gitmo, proud or ashamed, or perhaps resigned to it. Mitt Romney declares himself willing to double the size of the base. Academics incorporate it into their theories about X, Y or Z, and pundits cite it as evidence of whatever they want. Meanwhile, outside a small handful of books and articles, essential facts about Gitmo are hard to come by: what is there, and who, and why, and how it all works. This leaves us acutely ill-disposed to form meaningful opinions about the base, let alone speculate coherently about its meaning as a 108-year-old fixture of American policy.

Guantánamo
An American History.
By Jonathan M. Hansen.
Buy this book.
 

About the Author

Peter C. Baker
Peter C. Baker lives in Chicago and Wilmington, North Carolina.

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One of the most persistent tropes of our impoverished Gitmo conversation is the notion that the base represents a fall from grace for the United States—a radical and shameful break, post-9/11, with the nation’s legal and political tradition. As Jonathan Hansen reminds us in his valuable but frustrating book about Guantánamo Bay, which traces Spanish, French and US involvement there from the late fifteenth century through the present, history indicates the opposite. Gitmo in the present millennium is no departure at all—not even from the American tradition in Guantánamo Bay. The book begins with a whirlwind tour of US–Cuba relations—and, by extension, Europe–Cuba and US–Europe relations—from primarily the mid-eighteenth to the late nineteenth century. Spain took control of the island in 1494 and concerned itself mostly with the port at Havana. But from its earliest days, the United States cast hungry eyes toward the island’s natural bounty and proximity to key shipping routes. In 1741 a group of American colonists came ashore at Guantánamo Bay as part of a British expeditionary force and attempted to establish a settlement there. Most were killed, many by tropical disease, but the failure made the colony no less attractive. On one point Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Jefferson Davis and James Polk were in accord: Cuba—by 1840 the most valuable colony in the world, flush with sugar and African slaves—was the perfect, perhaps even existentially necessary, addition to the union. Between them, these politicians and their boosters in the fourth estate produced no shortage of eloquent, highly abstract justifications for takeover on the grounds of peace, liberty and natural law.

Annexation fever waned somewhat after the Civil War, in large part because the island turned out to serve US interests just fine as a Spanish colony open for American business. So long as Cuban Creoles failed in their occasional insurgencies, all comers—Spanish aristocrats, French planters expelled from Haiti by the slave rebellion, former Southern plantation owners—were free to shape the economic landscape as they saw fit. More than ever, cash crops came to dominate the island’s economy; old estates merged; ever more sugar fields were planted; profits flowed north and east. This lucrative state of affairs was not seriously jeopardized until the last years of the nineteenth century, when a bid for independence by the Cuban Revolutionary Party threatened to succeed, and US officials became keen to join the winning side. In February 1898 the USS Maine was sunk in Havana Harbor. The US public roared for retaliation, and on April 25 the Cuban War of Independence became the Spanish-American War. US soldiers landed at Guantánamo Bay on June 10; Spain capitulated five weeks later.

Not one Cuban was invited to the surrender ceremony. That Creoles might have played an invaluable role in the military victory, or might be capable of governing themselves, did not enter many American minds. Delegates to the first Cuban Constitutional Convention were presented by the United States with a list of items that would form the basis of the Platt Amendment and, in the words of US Secretary of War Elihu Root, “the people of Cuba should desire” to include. Together they amounted to an almost complete ceding of sovereignty to the United States. The provision that most humiliated many Cubans was Clause VII, which codified the right of the United States to establish naval bases on the island. But the deal was, in Hansen’s words, “Platt as originally worded or continued US military occupation.” And so Cuba came into being as a nation almost completely under foreign thumbs. Four years after the occupation technically ended, only 15 percent of Cuban land was owned by Cubans; just as much was owned by Spaniards. All major industries were still almost entirely foreign-run, and profits still traveled out of the country, except now they passed first through the pockets of the local political elite.

In 1903 the United States invoked Clause VII to demand a lease on forty-five square miles of land in Guantánamo Bay’s outer harbor, to be used as a coaling station. Thirty years later, the Roosevelt administration took advantage of an acute round of Cuban political turmoil to install Sgt. Fulgencio Batista as the country’s strongman. Shortly thereafter, Roosevelt nullified the locally unpopular Platt Amendment, essentially as a PR move. But he simultaneously renegotiated the Guantánamo agreement; not surprisingly, Batista agreed with his benefactors not only that the lease should be renewed but also that it should be made binding in perpetuity, and breakable only with American consent.

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For the first three decades of its existence, America’s first overseas military base was a relatively dingy place, known primarily for its tropical weather and, during Prohibition, the selection of cheap bars in the nearby towns of Caimanera and Guantánamo. But as US involvement in World War II became increasingly likely, the nation’s investment in its overseas outposts soared. So, too, the role of private contractors in the military. In 1940 the Navy granted the Frederick Snare Corporation (a Halliburton of yesteryear) a $37 million contract to transform the base into a large hub in a Caribbean network of defense against German U-boats. Frederick Snare hired some 10,000 Cubans, Jamaicans and West Indians, and within three years they’d built a marine barracks, two airstrips, a school, a chapel and all manner of lodgings and recreation facilities—the majority of the base’s current footprint.

During the cold war, Gitmo acquired a new raison d’être: outpost in America’s fight against world communism, thought to be creeping north from Latin America. From a PR standpoint, the base could hardly have been a less enticing advertisement for truth, justice and the American way. US soldiers regularly visited Caimanera and the town of Guantánamo on “liberty parties,” which variously involved getting drunk, acting rowdy and visiting prostitutes with stunning regularity, armed with free condoms and penicillin pills they often neglected to use. On base, Cubans not only felt the sting of white American racism but also came under regular suspicion as potential communist agents, especially if they voiced any desire for labor reforms, however mild. US soldiers who killed Cuban workers went unpunished by both nations’ courts. If the Navy told Frederick Snare not to hire “suspicious” workers, the company obliged. When soldiers saw fit to subject a Cuban man suspected of stealing cigarettes from the Navy Exchange to two weeks of detention and torture—including beatings and fourteen-hour stretches of forced standing—they did so with impunity.

Jana Lipman, in her excellent Guantánamo: A Working-Class History Between Empire and Revolution (2009), considers the years between the Snare contract and Fidel Castro’s rise through fine-grained examinations of the many international transactions and collisions the base made possible. She tallies average guest-worker wages; documents shifts in the cost and length of workers’ commutes from nearby towns to the base; and discusses the base union’s radio broadcasts. She digs up the Navy’s database of local prostitutes (who were identified through soldiers’ reports of venereal disease) and the Guantánamo civil registry of intermarriages. She quotes heavily from the Cuban newspapers of the time, parsing a wide variety of responses to the base from newspapers of different political affiliations. She also traveled to Guantánamo town, where she tracked down former base workers and recorded their memories of everything from racial tension between Cuban and West Indian base employees to how it felt to oppose Batista while tending the fortress of his greatest ally. Her book is an uncommonly evocative portrait of American empire and its complications, masterfully rendered in both quotidian and broadly historic terms.

Hansen, who cites Lipman’s book extensively, doesn’t neglect the fine grain altogether, but he often seems so excited by his subject’s conceptual potential—such momentous History, converging on such a small space!—that he neglects to be sufficiently attentive to the convergence. And unfortunately, when specifics are lacking, it is usually on the Cuban side of the equation. As the book progresses, the emphasis on US actors and sources threatens to undermine Hansen’s stated aim of writing a truly American history.

This is not to say that Guantánamo doesn’t relate all manner of fascinating and telling incidents, especially as Castro moves closer to ousting Batista and the United States once again scrambles to maintain Cuba as an offshore profit center for its business interests. Throughout El Jefe’s insurgency, it was not clear to the United States—or, probably, to the protean Castro—whether the man or his movement was truly communist, fervently nationalist or somewhere in between. Indeed, some US citizens stationed at Gitmo not only viewed Castro as a freedom fighter but also helped Cubans funnel guns and other supplies off base. Three officers’ teenaged sons joined Castro in the mountains for several months. But this was before the summer of 1958, when Fidel’s brother Raúl kidnapped fifty US soldiers and civilians and kept them hostage, releasing them in small batches for maximum publicity. Anti-Batista sentiment, whatever its ideological foundations, could mean little but antipathy toward the dictator’s puppet masters. Within a few years Fidel would be definitively branded as a general of the international red menace. Never again would there be a liberty party on Cuban soil.

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