The United States' oldest overseas military post, Guantanamo Naval Base (or "Gitmo") on the southeastern coast of Cuba, does not rest on property belonging to the United States. The actual owner of that territory legally is Cuba. We rent it from Cuba at a cost of $2,000 per year, according to the Lease Agreement signed in 1903.
We first paid for the rented property with gold coins, but now we pay by check. Fidel Castro has refused to cash our checks because he wants us to depart the premises. He argued that the treaty was forced upon Cuba and it should be revoked as no longer applicable.
As much as we hate to admit it, Castro might be correct. The main reasons justifying our naval base in Cuba were that our shipping (ships and submarines) needed a refueling station in the Caribbean. Technology has improved so that our ships no longer need to be refueled at a base so close to home in America.
We also needed an outpost to protect the Panama Canal but that protection is no longer necessary.
Gitmo covers 45 square miles with a 21.4-mile fence along the border with Cuba. The one gate in that fence has been sealed since the Cuban Missile Crisis. About that time, Castro cut off the water supply to our base. Thus we were forced to build a desalinization plant to provide water to supply the approximately 3,000 people and a number of enemy combat prisoners living on that base
How did we become involved with Guantanamo?
Early in the 19th century, when Napoleon conquered Spain and deposed King Ferdinand VII, he put his brother, Joseph, on the Spanish throne. Most of the Latin American colonies of Spain declared their independence, saying they were subjects of the true King Ferdinand, but not the French-imposed monarch.
Cuba was the only major Spanish colony in America not to revolt. Spanish governance of their remaining colony was harsh and not enlightened. So revolutions led by nationalist heroes like Jose Marti broke out.
A first revolt lasted from 1868 to 1878. A second revolt ran from 1895 to 1898. When the Spanish began forcing suspected rebels into concentration camps where many died, the United States began to worry about the safety of our citizens living in Cuba. President William McKinley ordered the battleship Maine to sail into Cuban waters to offer protection to U.S. citizens.
That battleship was sunk in Havana harbor, killing 266 sailors on board. Two investigations reached different conclusions. One thought a mine outside of the ship had blasted a hole in the hull and ignited gunpowder on board. We did not know who may have planted such a mine, but many suspected the Spanish did so.
Later a second investigation concluded that the explosion was from within, not external. It appeared to be an accident.
With inflamed American public opinion, the U.S. joined the Cubans in their war with Spain. Our Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders charged up San Juan Hill and became famous.
Perhaps the major contribution by U.S. forces involved the naval battle in the waters off Santiago de Cuba. The U.S. Navy caught the Spanish Navy bottled up in the harbor and picked them off one by one as they left their safe haven. When I led a study tour of Cuba in 1997, my students and I flew into Santiago, and we could clearly see the hulls of the Spanish fleet lying on the bottom of the sea in the clear waters near the shore.
During the war in 1898, U.S. Marines established a camp at Guantanamo. We have been there ever since.
Our relations with Cuba have been complicated. After Castro came to power in 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower ordered all U.S. military stationed in Guantanamo not to enter communist Cuba.
Since 1987, the U.S. has operated the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility with three parts: Camp Delta, Camp Iguana and Camp X-Ray (now closed).
Soon after taking office, President Barack Obama ordered that the detention center should close within a year. Some 540 enemy combatants have passed through the facility. Approximately 240 detainees remain there.
Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney differ on Guantanamo. Obama argues that some of the treatment given Gitmo prisoners was torture that damaged our reputation abroad. Cheney apparently believes the end justifies the means because information gathered by enhanced interrogation techniques has prevented another 9/11 attack and loss of American lives.
History will judge which view of Guantanamo is right.
Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears reguilarly and on gainesvilletimes.com.