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.
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.