Guantanamo Bay A Sticking Point Between U.S., Cuba Since 1903 Guantanamo Bay is home to the United States' oldest overseas base. Melissa Block talks to Vanderbilt History Professor Paul Kramer.
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Guantanamo Bay A Sticking Point Between U.S., Cuba Since 1903

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Guantanamo Bay A Sticking Point Between U.S., Cuba Since 1903

Guantanamo Bay A Sticking Point Between U.S., Cuba Since 1903

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

As we just heard from Michele, the U.S. lease of Guantanamo dates back to the start of the last century, 1903. The agreement came after the U.S. saw the value in the Bay's protective waters during the Spanish-American war. For more on the history of Guantanamo Bay, we turn to Vanderbilt University history professor Paul Kramer. He's written about the history of the base for The New Yorker. Welcome to the program.

PAUL KRAMER: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: And let's talk first about those treaties after the Spanish-American war that gave the U.S. control of the land and water around Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. What were the terms of those treaties?

KRAMER: So, U.S. forces were occupying Cuba, and as one of the conditions for the removal of those forces, American policymakers interested in securing a strategic base said to the Cuban government that as it passed its constitution, its delegates were going to have to accept what was called the Platt amendment - the Platt amendment said that the United States reserved the right to unilaterally intervene in Cuban affairs whenever it was necessary and that the U.S. would reserve the right to buy or lease naval bases in Cuba. And so for Cubans, this is seen as a real affront and a violation of their dignity and their sovereignty, and there was a great deal of opposition. But eventually it is incorporated as a condition for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

BLOCK: So that was muscled through, basically.

KRAMER: Yeah. You can think of it as a kind of gunboat tendency in which the U.S. is negotiating what is technically a rental agreement but under very coercive conditions.

BLOCK: Now as you wrote in your piece in the New Yorker, the Guantanamo base was used by the U.S. early in the 20th century for the occupations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was very busy in World War II, but when did it turn to being a detention center? When did that come about?

KRAMER: The base began to be used as a detention center specifically in response to a set of refugee crises in the Caribbean in the early and mid-1990s. Tens of thousands of Haitians fled in the wake of a coup that overthrew the Aristide government. There was a scramble for a space that will both prevent Haitians from landing on U.S. soil, but also looking for a space that the U.S. controls. And the answer is Guantanamo where makeshift encampments are set up - basically prisons where refugees are going to be basically housed while awaiting asylum processing. And this becomes the first precedent that's set for the use of Guantanamo as a kind of jurisdictional no man's land.

BLOCK: When you look at the relationship between the Cubans who live right around Guantanamo Bay and the U.S. presence there over the years, what has that relationship been?

KRAMER: Early in the 20th century there was this dense interaction between the base and the community in all senses - that the surrounding towns of the places where American sailors will go to party when they're able to go off on what was called liberty. It's also a consumer base when you have sailors who come into town. There are also a lot of workers that work on the base, and that really changes with the fracture of relationships between the U.S. and Cuba after 1959.

By the late 20th century and early 21st century, Guantanamo has really become a kind of artificial island within an island. The U.S. fortifies the base. Workers on the base would no longer be drawn from the local Cuban population, but would be shipped in from Jamaica or even as far as the Philippines. So there's really a deliberate attempt to create a very fortified, isolated space in eastern Cuba that will be entirely under U.S. control in every sense.

BLOCK: Professor Kramer, thanks so much for talking with us.

KRAMER: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's Paul Kramer. He's a history professor at Vanderbilt University.

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