A Dagger in the Heart of Cuba’s Land: The U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo


On February 7, 1901, President Tomás Estrada Palma signed the agreement ceding Cuban territory to the United States in order to construct its naval base in Guantánamo.

Guantánamo Bay is one of the country’s deepest and largest bays. Christopher Columbus discovered it during his second voyage to the New World on April 30, 1494. It has some very special natural characteristics: profundity, security and the capacity to receive large ships. For centuries, it was virtually under-utilized, given that the Spanish colonizers were not capable of appreciating its qualities.

After an attempt by the British to occupy the bay in July of 1741 in the hope of establishing a base of operations there, the colonial government understood the site’s strategic importance.


In the early 19th century, the United States publicly stated its interest in taking over Cuba on realizing that the island had a privileged geographical location, natural resources, as well as its historical, economic and social characteristics and those of its population.

Attempts to buy the island from Spain were made in 1805, 1807 and 1808, but according to the Central Report of the First Congress of the Communist Party, 'if Spanish obstinacy ever served Cuba’s cause, it was in its systematic refusal to assent to the buying and selling operation that the United States repeatedly proposed to that country during the last century.'

In 1823, John Quincy Adams, the U.S. secretary of state, articulated the 'ripe fruit' thesis, holding that Cuba would inevitably fall into U.S. hands as soon as it was no longer a Spanish colony. And that same year, President James Monroe developed the doctrine that bears his name, warning the European powers that America was reserved solely and exclusively 'for the Americans.' At the same time, his country obstructed and discouraged the Cuban people’s attempts at independence for years.

In 1895, U.S. investments in the island totaled some 50 million pesos, particularly in the sugar and tobacco industries, along with iron, chrome and manganese deposits.

Thus, in 1898, the Americans understood that conditions were propitious for intervening in the armed conflict before the imminent end of the Spanish colonial empire and the unstoppable advance of the Liberation Army.

Taking advantage of the growing sympathy among U.S. Americans for Cuba’s cause, the U.S. Congress in April 1898 approved the Joint Resolution that brought about the Northern giant’s intervention in the Spanish-Cuban conflict.

The Spanish-Cuban-U.S. War, described as the first imperialist war of pillage, was centered primarily in the eastern provinces of Cuba and the Guantánamo region. On July 16, 1898 the surrender was signed and on December 10 that same year the Treaty of Paris was signed. The United States took over Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam; Cuba remained as a 'special territory' from which the Americans were to withdraw after the 'appeasement.'

The administrative government, with General Leonard Wood heading it, convened a Constituent Assembly charged with drawing up the Constitution of the future republic. But in order to firmly establish future relations between Cuba and the United States, the occupying forces brought heavy pressure to bear and imposed the notorious Platt Amendment, with two clauses that atrociously encroached on national sovereignty and represented serious implications for the nascent republic’s self-determination.

Clause 3 of the Amendment reserved the right of the United States to intervene for the preservation of Cuba’s independence and the support of a government appropriate to its interests, while Clause 7 forced Cuba to cede part of its territory for the establishment of naval bases or coaling stations.

Historian Miguel D’Estéfano Pissani, in his book Derecho de Tratados (Treaty Law), explains: 'The Platt Amendment became a Damocles’ Sword, whose edges were the naval and coaling concessions. The strength of the Constitutional appendix was based, precisely, on the military base clause.'

On November 8, 1902, the U.S. government asked for a permanent lease of land in the bays of Nipe, Honda, Cienfuegos and Guantánamo. But due to a violent reaction by the people, it was limited to the Honda and Guantánamo bays.

One of the most outstanding individuals of our independence struggles, Juan Gualberto Gómez, made his voice heard, warning that Articles 3 and 7 of the Platt Amendment '...were the same as handing the keys of our house over to the Americans, so that they could come in at any hour..., day or night, with good or bad intentions...' and that '...its purpose is none other than to reduce the power of future Cuban governments and the sovereignty of our Republic.'

Finally, after various negotiations, on December 10, 1903, the United States took possession of the territory for its naval base in Guantánamo. Via a supplementary agreement signed on July 2, 1903, the U.S. government promised to pay 2,000 pesos per year in U.S. gold (about $4,085 at today’s values), a risible figure that it would continue to deposit but which Cuba has refused to accept or cash since the triumph of the Revolution in 1959.

According to Doctor Fernando Alvarez Tabío, in his article 'La Base Naval de Guantánamo y el derecho Internacional' (The Guantánamo Naval Base and International Law'), the leasing contract for the naval base lacks legality and juridical validity because it is marred in its essential elements: (...) due to the inability of the Cuban government to cede a piece of its national territory in perpetuity... and because the consent was snatched via irresistible and unjust moral violence...

Rejecting Honda Bay, the United States concentrated on Guantánamo. That choice was due to a strategic objective. Because of its exceptional value and geographic characteristics, it made it possible to assure military predominance in the Caribbean and fix its eyes on Panama’s inter-ocean canal, for which it had obtained the construction rights that year as well, in 1903.


During its century of existence, the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo has been the scene of shameful episodes and events.

Once the base was established, U.S. capital investment accelerated, first with the construction of the base’s necessary aqueduct and then in the sugar industry, railroads and electric power. Gambling, prostitution and contraband proliferated with the arrival of the Marines, and became lucrative businesses for the national bourgeoisie.

The enclave’s presence also had repercussions on the region’s political life. In 1917, 1919 and 1922, the Marines were sent out from the base to 'protect' the sugar mills and other U.S. economic interests in response to the revolt by the Partido Independiente de Color (Colored Independence Party), the Chambelona uprising and that of the liberals against the Menocal government.

During the final liberation war led by Fidel and the Rebel Army, the base was used as a supply point for the Batista dictatorship’s air force, which indiscriminately bombed and fired on campesinos and civilians in the liberated zones. The base was also a launching point for U.S. troops invading other countries, like Haiti in 1915 and the Dominican Republic in 1918.

After the revolutionary triumph in January 1959, the base became a refuge for the old regime’s murderers and torturers, and has been used as a platform for aggression against Cuba, including infiltration by enemy agents; the protection of counterrevolutionary bands; pretexts for justifying direct aggression against the island; a center of radio-electronic espionage and a point of concentration for ships and planes enabling a naval blockade to be imposed on the island in a short space of time.

Throughout these years, the military enclave has been the center of provocations and violations against our country and against the Border Guards responsible for patrolling the exterior perimeter. According to official figures, from 1962 to August 1992, more than 13,000 such incidents have been registered, including shots fired with rifles and pistols (taking the lives of two Cuban Border Guards); aiming with machine guns, tanks and cannons; the throwing of objects; obscene gestures; breaking through the border fence and violating air and maritime space with ships, planes and helicopters.

The most recent ugly episode in the base’s history is its use as a prison, where more than 500 prisoners accused of being terrorists or having links to terrorism have been held and subjected to physical and psychological torture, without the right to legal assistance or a decent trial. The world has been shaken by the spine-chilling images of chained men being subjected to extreme degradation and force fed after waging a hunger strike to protest conditions in the prison, where they are denied access to their lawyers, humanitarian organizations or the United Nations.

The Constitution of the Republic of Cuba, approved by the people on February 24, 1976, says in Article 11 that our country '...rejects and considers null and void the treaties, pacts or concessions agreed to under unequal or unknown conditions or that diminish its sovereignty or territorial integrity.'

Thus, Cuba demands the return of that territory because, as Fidel affirmed, '...That base is in their possession against the will of our people...it is a dagger thrust into the heart of Cuba’s land...'

(From Granma International)