Guantánamo Public Memory Project

The Egos of Two Nations Clash over Guantánamo Bay

A US newspaper covers the Guantánamo water crisis.


In February of 1964, the fresh water supply from the Yaterus river was shut off at the U.S. Naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Because there were no adequate fresh water sources at the naval base, the pipeline leading to the river was the only and most vital source of fresh water. The shut off took effect after 30 Cubans were arrested for illegally fishing in Florida waters. The fishermen were tried, fined and returned to Cuba unharmed; however Cuban Foreign Minister Raul Roa stated the fishermen were kidnapped by the U.S. Government in international waters. What seemed like an incident of minimal proportion gave way to Fidel Castro and the Cuban government shutting off the water supply to the U.S. Naval base as retaliation for the arrest and capture of the Cuban fishermen. The shut-off lead to strict rationing on the Naval base as dependents were subject to three hours of water per day provided by 14 million gallon fresh water storage tanks. As an alternative to the pipeline being cut-off, barges were brought in from Ocho Rios, Jamaica to provide fresh water to the base. Two days after the cutoff an engineering/survey team was brought in to solve the water problem and by mid-February 1964 the desalting plant at Point Loma, California was disassembled and transported to Guantánamo Bay. It arrived on April 15th and a new water plant was constructed at the base.

This moment in Guantánamo’s history struck me the most because it gave me an insight as to what the underlying factors were to incidents of conflict between Cuba and the US, such as the 1964 water crisis, the uncashed checks, and critical speeches made by Castro. I came to the conclusion that these incidents, which didn’t actually lead to the closing of GTMO, were acts of egos playing a role in both nations’ agendas. The US and Cuba were playing a game of tag to see who would have the last laugh so neither one would feel as if they were undermined by the other. The importance of image and reputation played an enormous role in this and many incidents that occurred between the US and Cuba. Neither wanted to look defeated in the eyes of other nations and world leaders. Images such as the the newspaper headline stating “Castro Shuts off GITMO Water” could send the type of message to the world that Castro might really have control over the naval base and therefore could defeat the US  by shutting off the water supply to the base making the dependents suffer. This offers a new perspective on GITMO as to the role the naval base played in the fight for power between these two nations. It also helps us understand how Castro was able to seize the water supply and bring operations at the base to a screeching halt, even though the base is US territory.


Posted by Tensae Befekadu – B.S. Candidate at University of Minnesota – Twin Cities

The University of Minnesota – Twin Cities 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.

One Comment to: The Egos of Two Nations Clash over Guantánamo Bay

June 9, 2014 6:17 pmJerry Dudley wrote:

In 1974 through 1976 I was a field engineer for Raytheon company working on board navy ships. Late night on board the USS John F Kennedy I was in the ward room having coffee with a naval officer that I didn’t know. During our conversation the topic came up about the cubans turning off the water at GITMO. The man I was speaking with told me that he had been working at the Pentagon during the “crisis” and from his vantage point the whole thing was a lack of communications. The water pipes at GITMO were very old and they would stop working on a regular basis. Also the United States government were paying Castro a lot of money for the water. During this period of undependable plumbing a new base captain was assigned to the base. Once he heard the “cubans shut off the water ” he immediately took a large axe and went to the valve and personally destroyed it. The man became a hero and Castro lost his water money.


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