For all its historic import and feel-good photo shoots, President Obama’s visit to Havana played out on familiar terms. Obama and Cuban president Raúl Castro traded barbs about human rights abuses, Obama pressed for more avenues for the flow of private capital, and both leaders called for an end to the US trade embargo.
Castro also urged the US to return the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base to Cuban hands, drawing focus to an oft-ignored obstacle to the normalization of relations between the old enemies. Castro’s request is nothing new: Cubans of all political stripes have long demanded the base’s return, and since 1960, Havana has refused to cash the $4,085 lease payment Washington sends each year, alleging the lease is illegal.
Yet even as Obama seeks to close GTMO’s infamous detention center, the White House has made clear that it has no intent to return the base — despite Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio’s paranoid claims to the contrary.
Of course, Guantánamo is more than the object of a decades-old dispute. For the past fourteen years, the site — which occupies forty-five square miles of Cuba’s southeastern coast and houses thousands of servicemen, civilians, and foreign workers, along with ninety-one detainees — has been the setting of untold crimes committed by the US government. Yet these particular horrors are simply the latest in a history of oppression at GTMO that stretches back to its birth more than a century ago.
Indeed, the present-day prison and Cuba’s long-standing complaints are part and parcel of the same history — the history of Washington and Havana, of labor disputes and Cold War tensions, of workers, refugees, and detainees caught in legal limbo.
As the first of many US bases on foreign soil, GTMO’s history is also one of US empire and conquest, the Caribbean and its people, and resistance and survival under the gaze of bellicose governments.
In 1494, Christopher Columbus landed at Guantánamo Bay during his second voyage to the Caribbean. He was followed in 1511 by Diego Velazquez, who conquered the island and its indigenous inhabitants, the Taíno, for the Spanish crown. The Taíno proved to be resistant to Spanish rule and susceptible to European disease, so Velazquez soon authorized the import of African slaves.
Though Guantánamo Bay was among the Spanish Empire’s earliest conquests, Havana’s colonial government initially ignored much of eastern Cuba. But after a failed British invasion in 1741, Spain moved to consolidate its hold on the region and the bay. The area quickly became home to Spanish hacendados, French gentry fleeing the Haitian Revolution, and still more slaves imported en masse to plant and harvest sugar, tobacco, and coffee.
The United States entered the picture in 1898, declaring war on a Spanish government already fighting Filipino and Cuban struggles for independence. That summer, US soldiers and Cuban revolutionaries captured Guantánamo Bay — the US Navy’s preferred entrée into the Caribbean. Unswayed by the opposition of the Cuban revolutionaries and with their sights set on the Panama Canal and the empire to come, US forces established a camp at the bay. They haven’t left since.
When the US occupation ended five years later, Theodore Roosevelt and the new Cuban government negotiated a series of treaties giving the US the right to build and maintain certain naval stations — including Guantánamo — and to intervene militarily “for the preservation of Cuban independence.” The US made full use of these provisions in the coming decades, deploying troops from GTMO and elsewhere to protect the property of the United Fruit Company and the Guantánamo Sugar Company — US corporations that had seized control of the region’s agricultural economy.
Washington’s meddling extended well beyond Cuba. In a string of conflicts across Latin America known as the Banana Wars, the military intervened on behalf of United Fruit and the other US corporations that dominated the hemisphere’s sugar and fruit industries.
These interventions stoked anti-US sentiment across the region, spurring Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 to instate his “Good Neighbor” policy — a vow that the US would never intervene in Latin America’s domestic affairs. With respect to Cuba, FDR abrogated most privileges secured in 1903. The sole exception, however, was a big one: the US still claimed the right to a base at Guantánamo Bay.
In fact, the 1934 treaty took the 1903 agreement a step further. Whereas the earlier accord secured a ninety-nine-year lease, FDR’s pact gave the US control of the bay until it abandoned its base, or until both parties agreed to renegotiate.
In other words, no change could come without Washington’s approval. And no change has.
Building No-Man’s Land
In the late 1930s, in response to growing tensions across the Atlantic, FDR had military bases constructed throughout the Western Hemisphere. For Guantánamo, this meant transforming a modest outpust into a full-fledged naval base, and introduced the need for a massive labor force.
So began the long history of GTMO’s workers, who’d come to find themselves caught in legal limbo in their search for a better life.
The contract to build Guantánamo went to the Frederick Snare Corporation, a US company whose presence spanned Latin America. Empowered to hire as it wished, Snare turned to local workers hailing from Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the West Indies, and beyond. Called “commuters,” most lived in the city of Guantánamo and made lengthy trips each day to the towns of Caimanera and Boquerón, where they could enter the base by ferry or on foot.
Like many present-day bases, these Cuban communities became sites of rampant crime, much of it enabled and sanctioned by base officials who paid little heed to local authorities and rarely held US citizens accountable for committing offenses outside the base. For the commuters, though, local crime was just the beginning.
Snare, helping pioneer a practice now common on US military posts across the world, exploited its status as a private contractor to skirt both Cuban and US labor laws. At GTMO, the Navy’s employees received full-time positions with modest benefits. Snare’s employees got nothing of the sort. Instead, the corporation hired most of its workers on a part-time basis, for low pay, and with no guarantee of day-to-day employment.
This was no small matter: at the peak of World War II — when GTMO was used to protect Caribbean shipping lanes — nearly ten thousand commuters worked at the base, most of them employed by Snare. At least two of these employees died in work-related accidents during the construction frenzy, and countless others endured long hours and abusive bosses, with little to no representation.
Faced with complaints, Snare simply reiterated that it was bound by neither Cuban nor US labor laws. And the Navy implicitly backed the company up, disavowing jurisdiction over the matter.
The Navy was more than happy, however, to intervene in other areas: it sent Snare lists of “undesirable” workers, required all would-be employees to obtain special authorization to work on the base, and operated the boats ferrying workers between the base and Caimanera. When a Navy lieutenant struck and killed a worker who leapt aboard one of these ferries, the Navy asserted its jurisidiction over the case, court-martialed the lieutenant for manslaughter, and found him not guilty.
Though contract workers bore the brunt of workplace abuses, all local workers — including the Navy’s official employees — shared a common set of struggles. Before and after the war, workers commuted to the base in cattle cars and ferries packed far beyond their capacity, endured invasive strip searches, and struggled to win even middling concessions from their employers.
Base officials and private contractors used the workers’ diverse origins to stifle collective organizing. Workers hailed from around the Caribbean, and in a country still reeling from the Great Depression, labor tensions split along racial and national lines. Workers leveraged their citizenship, language, and race to obtain positions with more security and responsibility, and bosses seemed happy to oblige.
English-speaking workers secured full-time administrative and skilled labor roles — the most coveted positions — while the rest were left to compete for manual labor jobs, the majority of which were part-time or temporary contract positions. At the bottom — in terms of pay, benefits, and prestige — were women of color in domestic roles, who earned far less than both white women in the same positions and their male peers on the rung above. And of course, no one enjoyed the same benefits as US civilians working the same jobs.
Workplace abuses and disparities did not go unnoticed. The local press invoked FDR’s language of good neighborliness to push for more Cuban employment (most of the full-time workers were Jamaican or West Indian, due to their English language skills), and in 1950, base workers successfully organized a fledgling union, aided by a joint effort from Cuban anticommunist unionist Eusebio Mujal and the American Federation of Labor’s Serafino Romualdi.
In exchange for giving up the right to strike, the union secured modest reforms, including wage hikes, paid leave, and a modest pension. Yet the union was only open to the Navy’s employees — not contract workers — and Cold War hysteria over communism limited the union’s ability to advocate for pro-worker measures.
All this came to a head in September 1954, when base officials arrested worker Lorenzo Salomón Deer for allegedly stealing $1,543.26 worth of cigarettes. Officials detained Salomón for two weeks without trial, beat and tortured him, and forced him to confess. Local union leaders condemned Salomón’s arrest and torture in a statement that echoes to the present, writing: “We could not conceive that in a naval establishment of the most powerful nation in the world, champion of democracy, things like this could happen.”
Working Between Worlds
Salomón’s case deepened the growing dissatisfaction with both US influence and Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship, which included labor boss Mujal. These were the rotten fruits of Cuban independence: US corporations filled the vacuum left by Spanish landlords, and leaders in Havana sold out the working class.
Conditions were ripe for revolt, and in the 1950s, it came along in the form of Fidel Castro and the 26th of July Movement.
During the revolution, the Cuban military used GTMO’s airstrip to land and refuel between bombing campaigns, while workers and sympathetic US citizens smuggled arms, money, and information to rebels outside the base. Revolutionaries kidnapped US citizens from GTMO as a way to press the US to stop aiding the Batista regime, and a few US teenagers even left the outpost to join the guerrilla forces in the surrounding mountains, earning valuable publicity for Castro’s revolution.
Following the revolutionaries’ victory in 1959, Castro’s nationalization of US interests, and the Eisenhower administration’s subsequent embargo, the base became a site of Cold War tensions acted out on a granular scale, with nuclear war on the line.
Some of these tensions were ready-made for the cameras: Fidel Castro once took a turn patrolling the border, and guards on both sides competed over who could raise their flag the highest. (The Cubans eventually moved their flag to the top of a nearby hill.)
Yet the conflict sometimes claimed real victims: GTMO worker Manuel Prieto Gómez was tortured for allegedly supporting Castro’s revolution; Rubén López Sabariego, another worker, was murdered for the same reason; at least two Cuban border guards were shot and killed by their US counterparts; and several would-be immigrants died crossing the minefield between the base and the border.
While Cuba didn’t shy away from confrontations with Washington, it avoided major retaliation for fear of an all-out invasion. The concerns weren’t misplaced. In April 1961, CIA-sponsored paramilitaries attempted to forcibly bring down the revolutionary government in the Bay of Pigs invasion.
And the US military — particularly during John F. Kennedy’s administration — devised numerous plans to assassinate the Castros, with GTMO often named as a site for a false flag attack.
Amid Washington’s machinations, the Castro government forbade the hiring of new Cuban workers at GTMO; those who remained employed became objects of suspicion and propaganda.
Authorities on both sides also began conducting rigorous searches of workers upon entry and exit, ramping up a practice the US had employed since the late thirties. But base authorities also exchanged workers’ dollars into pesos at a higher rate than the Cuban government, gave employees access to consumer luxuries, and paraded workers about as victims freed from the horrors of communism. In response, the Cuban government cited abuses against base workers and limited labor rights as evidence of the evils of capitalism and US imperialism.
Cuban commuters observed these geopolitical recriminations with their own survival in mind. Yet before long, their era came to an end.
In 1964, the Coast Guard detained a group of Cuban fishermen who had drifted into US waters near Key West, accusing them of espionage. (The boats were equipped with sophisticated communications gear.) The Cuban government reacted by cutting off the aqueduct supplying water to the base, and both sides escalated their military presence around the bay.
To provoke Castro and prevent subterfuge, the Navy suspended Cuban retirees’ pensions and fired approximately 2,000 of the base’s 2,750 Cuban workers. The Navy gave these terminated workers an ultimatum: return to Cuba, or stay at GTMO. Roughly 1,500 of them chose Cuba, where they were mostly placed in comfortable bureaucratic positions. Another 448 workers — most of whom ultimately emigrated to the US — opted to live on the base.
While several hundred Cuban workers kept their jobs, continuing to commute to and from the base, the 1964 firings marked the beginning of the end of Cuban labor at GTMO. The Navy turned to Jamaican workers to fill the gap, and in recent years they’ve been joined by a growing force of Filipino workers.
The disappearance of Cubans from the GTMO labor force (the last two retired in 2012) hasn’t brought better conditions for the remaining workers. Snare’s model of foreign contract labor remains alive and well. The Jamaicans who replaced the fired Cubans in 1964 were hired through a private contractor, and most of the base’s current foreign workers are short-term contract employees of Burns and Roe or the Pentad Corporation. Indeed, the Navy didn’t build GTMO’s detention centers — foreign contract employees of Halliburton did.
New Uses for Legal Limbo
At first, the end of the Cold War seemed to signal the end of GTMO’s utility. Ronald Reagan even briefly considered returning the base. But the US government quickly found other uses for the site, and in doing so, laid the legal groundwork for GTMO’s role in the “war on terror.”
In 1991, the overthrow of Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide prompted thousands to flee the country on boats and makeshift rafts, their eyes fixed on the US. Instead, they found themselves detained at Guántanamo.
Though hardly the first Haitian refugees to end up at the bay, they were the most recent since an important court case a decade earlier.
In the late 1970s, the US government balked when it saw Haitians — escaping US-backed dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier — surge into the country. It held these refugees in camps in Florida, deemed the new entrants economic rather than political refugees (subjecting them to more stringent rules), largely ceased asylum hearings, and carried out a plan for mass repatriation.
But a federal judge’s ruling in the refugees’ favor stymied the plan, and asylum hearings recommenced.
By 1991, the US government had learned its lesson. So when the new wave of refugees set sail from Haiti — amid the build-up to a US presidential election — GTMO offered a convenient solution for George H. W. Bush, potentially beyond the reach of US courts.
The US detained nearly 37,000 Haitians in makeshift tent cities, while authorities chose whom to grant asylum hearings, whom to deport without a hearing, and whom to leave in legal purgatory. Most of the people in this final group were HIV-positive refugees quarantined in their own camps, eligible for political asylum but banned from entering the United States. Some HIV-positive refugees were told they couldn’t leave GTMO until a cure was found.
Once again, Haitian refugees challenged their treatment. Protests led to protracted legal battles, and the case made its way to the Supreme Court. During his presidential campaign, Bill Clinton had promised to end the indefinite detention of refugees, leading many to believe he would let a lower court ruling in favor of the refugees stand. But in the week before his inauguration, Clinton reversed his position.
In an 8–1 decision in Sale v. Haitian Centers Council, the Supreme Court sided with the US government, noting that relevant laws governing refugees and immigration were not intended for “extraterritorial application” — GTMO, it seemed, was not US territory after all.
The judgment did not stop another wave of Haitian refugees from entering in 1994, joined by Cubans taking advantage of Castro’s one-time loosening of immigration restrictions. The US government again held the refugees at Guantánamo Bay, this time with precedent on their side. When legal challenges materialized, the Court of Appeals backed the government. While the Cubans were allowed to continue living in the US — immigrants from the island nation are almost automatically granted asylum — the Haitians were forcibly expelled.
In its concluding remarks, the Court of Appeals called for a humanitarian response to aid the refugees held at GTMO, even as it declared “that these migrants are without legal rights that are cognizable in the courts of the United States.”
Seven years later, in the early months of its war on terror, the second Bush administration wielded this jurisprudential logic to transform the base into a crucial component of its global campaign.
The first detainees, utterly lacking constitutional protections, arrived at GTMO in January 2002. The ensuing years witnessed the detention and torture of hundreds (and the deaths of a few), protests by detainees and others, and the begrudging implementation of military tribunals.
Candidate Obama recoiled at this Bush-era horror and vowed to close it down. His 2009 effort to close the prison died at the hands of a recalcitrant Congress, and the closure plan he announced last month is similarly doomed. For now, his plan’s primary utility seems to be on the campaign trail, where it serves as a handy moral cudgel for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
Yet amid his normalization of relations with the Castro government, Obama has the opportunity — and, perhaps, the authority — to return the base to Cuba, to take another step to engage Havana, and to end what has long been both a symbol of the worst of US foreign policy.
But for all his apparent interest in closing the prison, Obama has given little indication he wishes to relinquish the base, end indefinite detention of enemy combatants, or dismantle the United States’ still-sprawling empire.
And so Cuba’s appeal for the base’s return will likely pass to Obama’s successor and beyond, until it finds a president attentive to the demands of the Cuban people or a social movement intent on upending Washington’s posture of imperial arrogance.
Until then, Guantánamo Bay remains suspended between countries, between the Cold War and the war on terror, between the presence of empire and the possibility of something better.