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The Imperialist and Racist Origins of the Guantánamo Penal Colony

Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Photo: Marion Doss / Flickr)

The year is 1898. The Civil War ended 33 years prior. Slavery had been abolished for over three decades, yet, blacks remained subjugated through other forms of racist oppression, particularly Jim Crow racial segregationist laws in the South. Before its death, slavery already laid the foundation for American capitalism. The United States expanded westward and finally reached the Pacific Ocean. It brought states like California into its fold and killed large swaths of Native Americans in the process. As a young empire, the United States was looking for opportunities to expand its global reach and control vital markets and resources. The Spanish-American War of 1898 brought such an opportunity, which is where the story of Guantánamo Bay prison begins.

American businessmen, military officers, and politicians were hungry for expansion. A US navy captain named A.T. Mahan said, “Americans must now begin to look outward.” William McKinley, before he became president, admitted, “We want a foreign market for our surplus products.” Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge wrote:

In the interests of our commerce … we should build the Nicaragua canal, and for the protection of that canal and for the sake of our commercial supremacy in the Pacific we should control the Hawaiian islands and maintain our influence in Samoa … and when the Nicaraguan canal is built, the island of Cuba … will become a necessity…. The great nations are rapidly absorbing for their future expansion and their present defense all the waste places of the earth. It is a movement which makes for civilization and the advancement of the race. As one of the great nations of the world the United States must not fall out of the line of march. [emphasis added] [1]

By the late 19th century, “American trade exceeded that of every country in the world except England,” wrote historian Walter LaFeber. Farm products, tobacco, cotton and wheat “had long depended heavily on international markets for their prosperity,” particularly since the transatlantic slave trade. [2] In addition, oil became a big export for the United States. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company ” accounted for 90 percent of American exports of kerosene and controlled 70 percent of the world market,” the late historian Howard Zinn pointed out in his seminal book A People’s History of the United States. [3]

In the beginning, US business interests were not keen on going to war, so long as they could trade with other countries through open-door policies. According to Zinn, “American merchants did not need colonies or wars of conquest if they could just have free access to markets. This idea of an ‘open door’ became the dominant theme of American foreign policy in the twentieth century,” especially with America’s relationship to China. [4]

That calculus changed with the Cuban uprising against Spanish colonialism. There was “substantial economic interest” in Cuba, said Zinn, such as US investments in plantations, railroad, mining and other industries. [5] American elites feared that a successful Cuban revolution could undermine their economic interests. As white businessmen with economic interests to protect and a belief in white supremacy, they also feared having an independent nation with a substantial black population on America’s doorstep, especially after black African slaves successfully kicked out the French and established the independent nation of Haiti, which is right next to Cuba. While US elites viewed the dying Spanish empire as a rival that needed to be kicked aside, Cuban independence was not on their minds. Hence, they wanted to steer the island’s revolution in their favor.

On February 15, 1898, the American battleship USS Maine exploded and sank in Cuba’s Havana harbor, killing 268 men. This led to calls for military intervention from the media and business elite, particularly those who would economically benefit from war with Cuba. Why the ship exploded was never explained. However, this did not damper war fever. Two months later, after Spain’s refusal of President McKinley’s ultimatum demanding it withdraw from Cuba, on April 25, 1898, the United States officially declared war against Spain and American forces moved into Cuba.

Before the war, Congress passed the Teller Amendment, which promised the United States would not annex Cuba. The war was sold to the public – thanks largely to the pro-war yellow journalism led by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer – as one fought for Cuban freedom from Spain. This led many Americans (and even Cubans) to believe that the war was to support Cuban independence rather than motivated by imperial avarice. The United States would find a way around this amendment.

Over a month after the United States declared war on Spain, American forces took Cuba’s Guantánamo Bay. As Fordham University School of Law Professor Joseph C. Sweeney writes, “the Secretary of the Navy, John D. Long, ordered Commodore Winifred Schley of the blockading squadron to take possession of Guantánamo as a coaling station.” On June 7, “the cruiser USS Marblehead anchored in the outer harbor of Guantanamo, and on June 10 following a naval bombardment sixty Marines from the Navy ships landed as a covering force.” In addition, “a battalion of Marines – 650 men – under Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington, USMC, landed on the same day on the eastern side of the bay from the troopship USS Panther and established a hillside camp.” After US Marines, naval forces and Cuban guerillas defeated the Spanish force in the area, on June 14, the United States finally captured Guantánamo Bay.

After defeats in Cuba and the Philippines, Spain lobbied for peace negotiations with the United States. On December 10, 1898, the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the war, was signed. In the aftermath, the United States directly annexed Spain’s colonies in the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico. While the United States did not directly annex Cuba, it was brought into the American imperial sphere after the war ended. American business interests quickly grabbed as much industry and resources as they could after the war ended. As Zinn noted:

Americans began taking over railroad, mine, and sugar properties when the war ended. In a few years, $30 million of American capital was invested. United Fruit moved onto the Cuban sugar industry. It bought 1,900,000 acres of land for about twenty cents an acre. The American Tobacco Company arrived. By the end of the occupation, in 1901, Foner estimates that at least 80 percent of the exports of Cuba’s minerals were in American hands, mostly Bethlehem Steel.[6]

The Platt Amendment killed the promises of the Teller Amendment. Passed by Congress in February 1901 [7], it gave the United States “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” and called on Cuba to “sell or lease” land to the US “necessary for coaling or naval stations.” It was subsequently incorporated into Cuba’s constitution.

Two years later, Cuba leased to the United States “lands in Cuba for coaling and naval stations”, which included Guantánamo Bay in Cuba’s southeastern corner. In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt signed a treaty stating that as long as the United States does not “abandon” the naval base or the two governments do not agree to modify the original lease, the base then shall remain. This makes the lease essentially permanent since the United States has not abandoned Guantanamo, nor have the United States and Cuba modified the treaty. Moreover, Guantanamo was leased for coaling and naval purposes. Some, including attorney Marjorie Cohn (a co-author on this series), argue that a prison is not authorized under the treaty’s terms.

In 1959, another Cuban revolution overthrew the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. The new Cuban communist government demanded that the United States return Guantánamo Bay. Instead, the United States kept the base and banned its troops from entering the rest of Cuban territory, as is still the case today. Guantánamo is secluded from the rest of Cuba. Those who go to Guantánamo are prevented from venturing to other parts of the island via disconnected roads, fences and mountains.

To protest the base, the Cuban government has refused to cash checks ($4,085 a month) sent by the United States as payment for the lease on Guantanamo. Fidel Castro, the long-time former Cuban leader, only cashed one check in 1959 and claimed it was because of “confusion.”

Guantánamo is, perhaps, the oldest and most prominent US military base in the Caribbean. However, there are multiple US military installations, like forward operation locations (FOL), across the region including in El Salvador, Honduras and Curaçao. Many of them, including Guantánamo, are used for drug interdiction operations throughout the Caribbean and parts of Latin America. What Guantánamo is most notorious for is imprisoning suspected terrorists from around the world captured during the global war on terror.

Because of its remote location, the Bush administration chose Guantánamo Bay Naval Base as the place to build a prison and house suspected terrorists after 9/11. The prison was built in 2002 and has since been an American penal colony. Its remoteness from American soil – and courts – has made it easy for the United States government to commit human rights abuses, such as torture and indefinite detention, with impunity.

This month, there are two military commissions hearings occurring. The first, from June 11 to June 14, is for Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. A Saudi national, al-Nashiri is accused of masterminding the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 off the coast of Yemen, which killed 17 American sailors. The other, from June 17 to 21, is for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks which killed nearly 3,000 Americans in New York City, Washington, DC and Pennsylvania. Both men were subjected to torture, including waterboarding, by the CIA. These cases reveal how far the United States has been willing to go in its perpetual, global war on terrorism.


[1] Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. (First Perennial Classics edition, HarperCollins Publishers Inc., New York, 2001), page 299

[2] Ibid., page 301

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. (First Perennial Classics edition, HarperCollins Publishers Inc., New York, 2001), page 302

[6] Ibid., page 310

[7] Ibid., pages 311-312