Present day Guantánamo Bay is a space that exists in obscurity, both in terms of geography and public imagination. Locating it on a map might involve a simple rendering of the Caribbean islands or, specifically, the southeastern region of Cuba; but to identify the space as a land once colonized by Spain where native Cubans fought for independence, which is currently on lease to the United States, creates a map with more shadowy borders. Why Guantánamo has attracted so many nations involves understanding the broader historical interactions that have made the site so valuable. Exploring the allure of the Cuban landscape illuminates the obscurity surrounding Guantánamo Bay, but also illustrates the multitude of questions that define its contemporary significance.
The geography of Guantánamo has always involved a contested race for authority, due to its centrality in the Western hemisphere as a gateway for economic opportunity and political authority. On his second voyage in 1494, Christopher Columbus discovered Guantánamo Bay on the southeastern coast of Cuba — a natural harbor with a wide mouth lying low to the ocean and surrounded by a mountain range. From here Columbus encountered Cuba’s natural fecundity: an island that was capable of producing valuable resources such as silver, tobacco, coffee, and sugar. These natural resources (particularly sugar) would ensure Spain’s political dominance over global trade in the Atlantic World, and effectually define the Cuban landscape as an integral economic resource for future colonial enterprises.
Beyond the bay, Columbus familiarized himself with the complex network of trade winds that centralized Guantánamo Bay within the larger Caribbean Basin. Between Guantánamo Bay and the northwest end of Hispaniola lies one of the busiest sea-lanes in the Western hemisphere—the Windward Passage. Its winds blow ships from the Atlantic into the Caribbean Basin where travelers have total access to the Antilles Islands, the Gulf of Mexico, Central and South America, and – by the twentieth century – even the Pacific Ocean by way of the Panama Canal. This oceanic system effectively unites the global hemispheres, making it ideal for boundless human movement, colonial expansion, and commercial enterprise. Thus, the ecologically complex, secure, and ripe landscape of Guantánamo Bay was an attractive resource for Spanish colonial expansion in the Caribbean Basin, inciting a familiar history of imperial exploitation of commerce in the modern Atlantic World.
In the late nineteenth century, the United States sought to use Guantánamo Bay as a strategic location to counter the remnants of Spanish colonial rule in the Western Hemisphere. After the outbreak of the Spanish-American War of 1898, U.S. naval forces deployed in the Bay. At the battle of Guantánamo Bay from June 6-10, 1898, U.S. and Cuban troops defeated Spanish forces. The War threw Spain off the seat of world power, and lifted the U.S. to the forefront of global democracy and power. However, the U.S. narrative within Cuba’s independence was also part of a broader imperial program. While encouraging democracy in Cuba, the Cuban-American Treaty of 1903 (coinciding with the Platt Amendment of 1901) transformed Guantánamo Bay into space that produced Cuban sovereignty, but remained under U.S. military jurisdiction. Thus, despite recognizing Cuban independence, U.S. political authority over Guantánamo Naval Base (GTMO) reaffirmed its continued control of a region that had been historically paramount to colonialist strategies, further undermining Cuba’s ability to self-govern.
It is important to mark this event as a shift from the colonial mapping of Guantánamo Bay to the neocolonialist GTMO’s mapping and present day detention camp. This functional change in the region would absorb the consequences of 20th and 21st century foreign affairs, ranging from the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the detention of Haitian refugees during the 1990s, and recent War on Terror detainees. All things considered, the naval base has incited ongoing consternation over an unrecognized diplomatic basis for continued U.S. presence in Guantánamo Bay since the Cuban-American treaty of 1903. With this exceptional status, the base serves U.S. foreign affairs, but not Cuba’s. Thus, with the establishment of U.S. political authority in GTMO, the acknowledgement of Cuba as an independent sovereign state has always remained in question.
Today, the base remains an entangled balancing act of political and national control. But with the recent international focus on 21st century detentions, new obscurities arise from questions over human rights violations and democracy. Does Guantánamo Bay’s exceptional legal status justify the use of the naval base as a detention camp? How many times has the base been “closed,” and what does closure ultimately mean for those who viewed the naval base as important versus those who have been “freed?” These are among the many questions that expose the need for a closer interpretation of the allure of the Cuban landscape, and what makes U.S. control over Guantánamo Bay still vital today. With the changing contexts of Guantánamo’s centrality in world focus, it is important to view the Cuban landscape as a continued narrative of imperial expansion that is evolving with new meanings of global political economy.
Posted by Patrick Ree – MA Candidate at Rutgers University
Rutgers University is participating in the Guantánamo Public Memory Project‘s National Dialogue and Traveling Exhibit. Opening at NYU’s Kimmel Center for University Life Windows Gallery in December 2012 and traveling to 9 sites (and counting) across the country through at least 2014, the exhibit will explore GTMO’s history from US occupation in 1898 to today’s debates and visions for its future. The exhibit is being developed through a unique collaboration among a growing number of universities as a dialogue among their students, communities, and people with first-hand experience at GTMO.