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Guantanamo and other Cold War legacies

by Marc Becker
January 30, 2002

One of the weirdest legacies of the Cold War has to be the U.S. navel base at Guantanamo, Cuba. The U.S. maintains and pays for this base in a 117.6 square kilometer area of country with which it has not had formal diplomatic relations for about 40 years.

To understand this irony, we have to go back more than 100 years. Although most European powers had lost their American colonies, toward the end of the 19th century Spain still held tight to its remaining possessions in Cuba and Puerto Rico. A booming sugar economy brought on by the collapse of sugar production in Haiti after their successful slave revolt meant that Cuba did not gain its independence in the 1820s like most of the rest of Latin America.

In 1895, José Martí returned from exile to fight for Cuban independence. Cuban nationalists were on the verge of victory when the U.S., in an unabashed act of imperialism, intervened in 1898 to claim victory for itself. In a thin facade designed to veil its imperial intentions, the U.S. congress passed the Teller Amendment which disavowed intentions to annex the island as it had done to half of Mexico 50 years earlier. No mention, however, was made of neighboring Puerto Rico which was annexed and remains to this day a U.S. colony.

The Teller Amendment, however, did not prevent the U.S. from intervening in order to control Cuba politically and economically. The infamous Platt Amendment which President McKinley forced on Cuba in 1901 while militarily occupying the country stipulated "that the government of Cuba consents that the United States may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property and individual liberty." The U.S. would determine what an adequate government was.

In 1903, Havana and Washington signed an Agreement on Coaling and Naval Stations which granted the U.S. access to Guantanamo and Bahía Honda (although the later was never used) to do "all that is necessary to outfit those places so they can be used exclusively as coaling or naval stations, and for no other purpose."

In compensation for one of the best bays in Cuba, the U.S. agreed to pay Cuba $2,000 annually (later increased to $4,085). In surely what must be a violation of the U.S. treasury ban on trade with Cuba, Washington continues to send a check every year to the Treasurer General of the Republic of Cuba (an office that disappeared years ago) for use of the island. The checks probably remain in Fidel Castro's desk drawer, as in moral opposition to the agreement Cuba refuses to cash the checks.

Before the 1959 Cuban Revolution, thousands of Cubans worked on the base. After the revolution, they were fired and now only about 10 work there, having to navigate daily a Berlin wall type border of barbed wire and land mines. The U.S. continues to put the base to multiple uses (most recently the detention of Taliban prisoners of war), but most of these are violations of the treaty that allows the U.S. to use the base. Havana continues to demand that "the illegally occupied territory of Guantanamo should be returned to Cuba."

After the September 11 attacks, Cuba expressed its sympathy and solidarity with the North American people. An official government statement declared that Cuba could identify with this grief because they too have been victims of terrorist attacks, most of these carried out from U.S. territory resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people. The two countries share a desire to end the scourge of terrorism, but they hold different positions as to the most efficient way to eradicate it. The Cuban government believes that bombing Afghanistan will only escalate a cycle of violence and do little to address the underlying causes of terrorism.

Meanwhile, Cuban and U.S. soldiers stand facing each other over one of the last remaining militarized borders of the Cold War. Cuba wishes that Washington would consult with its government over the use of the Guantanamo navel base. And, more than anything, it wants the bay back.

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