Cuba wants Guantanamo back. How did it lose it?

tags: Guantanamo, Cuba

Paul Kramer is an associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University and the author of “The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States and the Philippines” (University of North Carolina Press, 2006). He was interviewed on NPR on January 29, 2015 about the subject of this essay.

... The United States took possession of Guantánamo Bay through what might be called gunboat tenancy. While Cuba’s constitutional convention gathered in late 1900 and early 1901, Secretary of War Elihu Root listed provisions that “the people of Cuba should desire” for their constitution; these included granting the United States the right to intervene freely in Cuban affairs and access to land for naval bases. These demands went into the Platt Amendment, passed by the U.S. Senate on March 1, 1901, and submitted to the convention for adoption; the United States would withdraw its forces from the island only after the delegates incorporated it into their constitution. Cubans opposed the Platt Amendment in speech, pamphlet, and mass protest; Juan Gualberto Gómez, a delegate and a former general, charged that it would transform Cubans into a “vassal people.” Nevertheless, under pressure a divided convention adopted it. 

The U.S. Navy moved quickly. Two 1903 agreements gave the United States control of forty-five square miles of land and water—a space about two-thirds the size of Washington, D.C.—for coaling and naval stations “and for no other purpose.” Rent was $2,000 a year, paid in gold; lacking a cutoff date, the lease was “for the time required.”

The terms were ambiguous from the start. Cuba retained “ultimate sovereignty,” for example, but the United States exercised “complete jurisdiction and control.” A second lease, signed in 1934, similarly embraced uncertainty. It raised the rent to $4,085, but provided no termination date. The agreement could be ended by American withdrawal or by a bilateral settlement, but not by Cuban action alone. The Navy had sprawled onto a thousand or so additional acres, but the new agreement did not say where they were: the base would continue occupying “the territorial area that it now has.” 

At noon on December 10, 1903, the United States assumed “complete jurisdiction and control.” A marine brigade, five naval companies, and a few Cubans looked on as the Stars and Stripes was hoisted to a twenty-one-gun salute. The American Minister stayed home, as did high-ranking Cuban officials. The Atlanta Constitution noted that most Cubans “were not inclined to sanction by their presence an act which they chose to consider was unjustly imposed on them.”

Some Americans questioned the United States’ imposition of power beyond its borders. What would be the legal status of these newly conquered territories? Supreme Court Justice Melville Weston Fuller, dissenting in the 1901 Downes v. Bidwell case on the status of Puerto Rico, had warned that “if an organized and settled province of another sovereignty is acquired by the United States,” Congress would retain the power “to keep it, like a disembodied shade, in an intermediate state of ambiguous existence for an indefinite period.”...

Read entire article at New Yorker

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