Cuba or the Base?

Piero Gleijeses

  • Guantanamo: A Working-Class History between Empire and Revolution by Jana Lipman
    California, 325 pp, £17.95, December 2008, ISBN 978 0 520 25540 1

‘Once the United States is in Cuba, who will drive them out?’ José Martí, the father of Cuban independence, asked from his New York exile in 1889. Six years later, as Cuba’s revolt against Spanish colonial rule began, Martí, now back in Cuba, was still preoccupied with the US threat. ‘What I have done, and shall continue to do,’ he wrote in his last letter, ‘is to … block with our blood … the annexation of the peoples of America to the turbulent and brutal North that despises them … I lived in the monster and know its entrails – and my sling is that of David.’ The next day he was killed by Spanish troops at the battle of Dos Ríos.

For three more years the Cubans fought alone against the Spanish. Then, in April 1898, the United States entered the war against a now exhausted Spain, waving the flag of Cuba Libre. American journalists and politicians hailed the intervention: it was ‘the most honourable single war in all history’, in the words of George Hoar, Republican senator from Massachusetts, ‘a war in which there does not enter the slightest thought or desire of foreign conquest, or of national gain, or advantage’. European diplomats and journalists were less impressed. ‘These high-minded claims fool no one,’ Le Temps asserted.

Americans scoffed at such cynicism. ‘It is a misapprehension that we want Cuba, and that we are intriguing to get it for ourselves,’ an editorial in the New York Times explained. The Teller Amendment, approved by Congress in April 1898, testified to the purity of America’s intentions. The United States, it said, ‘disclaims any disposition or intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction or control over said island except for pacification thereof, and asserts its determination, when that is accomplished, to leave the government and control of the island to its people’. The amendment calmed Cuban fears. General Calixto García, who commanded the Cuban Liberation Army in the eastern part of the island where US troops landed, placed his forces at the Americans’ disposal. ‘They have recognised our right to be free and independent,’ he declared, ‘and that is enough for me.’ Martí would have been less trusting, but he was dead.

When the war ended, the United States did not keep its word: it forced the Cubans, as a non-negotiable condition for the termination of US military occupation, to append to their constitution the Platt Amendment of 1901, which granted Washington the right to send troops to Cuba at its discretion and to establish bases on the island. This was a flagrant violation of the Teller Amendment, yet hardly any Americans objected. Meanwhile, those Cubans who dared to oppose the Platt Amendment were denounced as ungrateful and chastised like errant children. It was the American people who had won Cuba’s independence, Senator Albert Beveridge argued in a much admired article in the North American Review: ‘Cuba was not able to expel Spain … The United States ejected Spanish government from that island. In doing this, the United States expended many scores of millions of dollars. Our soldiers gladly gave their lives.’

In fact, had the United States not intervened, the Spaniards would have been able to hold on to Cuba for only another year or two before sheer exhaustion and the rebels’ resilience forced them out. Spain had sent 200,000 soldiers to Cuba, but by the time the American troops arrived only 80,000 remained and the Spanish treasury was bankrupt. American intervention hastened Spain’s departure, at the cost of Cuban independence. Yet most Americans believed, and still believe, that their country fought for Cuba’s independence and kept its promise.

The US naval base at Guantánamo Bay – GTMO – is a direct legacy of this episode. The 1903 Lease Agreement between Washington and the nominally independent government of Cuba granted the United States complete jurisdiction over 45 square miles of the island, including the mouth of Guantánamo Bay. The agreement stipulated that ‘while on the one hand’ the United States recognised Cuba’s ‘ultimate sovereignty’ over the area, ‘on the other hand’ Cuba consented that during the period of the occupation the US ‘shall exercise complete jurisdiction and control over and within said areas’. There was no termination date.

Jana Lipman’s Guantánamo tells the story of GTMO from its origins until 2007. She has combed the archives in Washington and (for the pre-revolutionary period) in Cuba; in 2004, she spent five months in the city of Guantánamo, examining local sources and conducting extensive interviews with 18 Cubans who had worked at GTMO. ‘The eldest was 93 and the youngest were in their mid-seventies,’ she writes, ‘and two of the men were still commuting and working for the US Navy when I met them.’ Lipman used her time well. She is one of the handful of American and European historians who have spent enough time in Cuba to develop a real knowledge of its society – in refreshing contrast to the pundits who descend on Havana for a few days to conduct quick interviews, often in uncertain Spanish, before returning home to make ponderous pronouncements on ‘Cuban reality’.

Before Castro came to power, relations between the US and its informal colony were harmonious. This was what Lipman calls, with gentle irony, the period of the ‘good neighbours’. FDR’s good neighbour policy has often been misunderstood: it did not mean that Washington would refrain from subverting governments in its backyard, only that military intervention would be a last resort, rather than a knee-jerk reaction, as had been the case in previous decades. Cuba posed the test case when, in September 1933, a group of men seized power in Havana and proclaimed a provisional government under Ramón Grau San Martín. This, as the historian Louis Pérez has pointed out, was ‘the first government of the republic formed without North American sanction’. Not only did it threaten the immense privileges of American companies on the island, but on the day of his inauguration Grau abrogated the Platt Amendment in a symbolic gesture intended to relieve the pent-up frustration of Cuban nationalists. FDR did not invade, as his predecessors probably would have done: he merely ringed the island with US warships and refused to recognise Grau’s government, while in Havana the US special representative urged the Cuban army, led by Fulgencio Batista, to overthrow the pesky president. In January 1934, Batista ejected Grau and, in a display of neighbourliness, FDR renounced the Platt Amendment. This made little difference. A new treaty reaffirmed the lease on GTMO, and, again, there was no date given for it to end. The treaty continues to provide the moral and legal justification for America’s occupation of Cuban territory.

The most interesting aspect of the pre-revolutionary period is GTMO’s interaction with the communities around it. Lipman’s book tells the story of the Cubans who worked on the base, desperately poor men and women who were willing to endure humiliation and hardship because their meagre wages on GTMO far surpassed what they could earn elsewhere in Cuba. It also tells the story of the francos – US sailors and marines on shore leave (‘liberty parties’) who spent their dollars in Guantánamo – and their hosts, Guantánamo’s fuerzas vivas, as the local press called them: the hoteliers, restaurateurs and other businessmen who benefited from their presence. The francos’ interests were straightforward: rum and prostitutes. But ‘in their drunken states and presumptuousness,’ Lipman writes, ‘US sailors and marines acted as if all women in Guantánamo … were available for their sexual advances.’ US naval officers knew that the francos’ behaviour upset the Cubans and, together with the local elite, they tried to encourage more genteel social gatherings, at which middle-class Cuban girls could dance with American soldiers on their best behaviour. But these were sideshows. The relationship between the francos and the Cubans was based on ‘sex, prostitution and brothels’.

Cuba in the 1940s and 1950s was poor, backward and undemocratic, yet it still had much to teach the land of Jefferson. ‘Cubans of colour,’ as Lipman reminds us, ‘had suffrage rights, and their votes were often the key in Cuban elections.’ American diplomats in Oriente, the province where GTMO is located,

rued the fact that they had to negotiate with a black community, and even worse, one that was enfranchised … The high levels of political participation particularly rankled US military officers when they had to negotiate with black Cubans in leadership positions. For example, in a case of drunken francos being held by municipal authorities, US officials complained that the Guantánamo judge who had jurisdiction over the case was a ‘nigger’. Having to negotiate [with] and accept people of colour in authority challenged US officers’ racial privilege over a neocolonial population. Even more unsettling, Guantánamo offered a model in which people of colour could vote and hold public positions, potentially exposing white and black US sailors to a more racially open society.

These wrinkles aside, GTMO was a paragon of the ‘good neighbour’ relationship, a neocolonial arrangement in which the Cuban government and local elites, despite occasional grumbles, never challenged the US occupation. In 1959, however, Castro came to power, and the rules changed. The francos no longer left GTMO in search of women and rum. Cubans, however, were still allowed to work at the base. It was an absurd situation: Cubans were working on a military base in territory that had been stolen from Cuba by a country bent on overthrowing their government, pursuing a programme of paramilitary operations, economic warfare and sabotage designed to visit what Kennedy’s adviser, the historian Arthur Schlesinger, called the ‘terrors of the earth’ on Castro.

The difficulty of finding reliable sources on US-Cuban relations after 1959 are enormous, but Lipman rises to the challenge, especially in her account of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Using evidence that has surfaced since the early 1990s, she shows that Kennedy’s aggressive policy towards Cuba triggered the Soviet decision to install nuclear missiles on the island: ‘Cuba’s fear of a US invasion, and not Soviet geopolitical strategy, was the central factor in Khrushchev’s decision.’ ‘I want to state quite frankly that with hindsight, if I had been a Cuban leader, I think I might have expected a US invasion,’ Robert McNamara, Kennedy’s defence secretary, confessed in 1989. ‘I should say, as well, if I had been a Soviet leader at the time, I might have come to the same conclusion.’

Lipman offers a new and compelling angle on the crisis by examining what was happening at GTMO during that time. The navy evacuated US dependents when the missile crisis began – 2432 women and children. Their departure, Lipman points out, ‘made visible the only female population remaining on the base – local domestic servants’. For some of these women, the missile crisis provided an unexpected opportunity. Many military wives held clerical jobs on GTMO and after they had been evacuated ‘US officers suddenly tapped English-speaking maids for their clerical skills.’ ‘For Claire,’ Lipman writes of one of the workers she interviewed, ‘the missile crisis meant a reprieve from domestic labour.’ When the Americans returned life went back to ‘normal’: the American women resumed their clerical jobs, and the Cubans went back to cleaning their houses.

The Cuban government allowed its nationals to continue to work at the base all the way through the crisis and they helped keep it functioning, though a handful resigned in a show of solidarity with their country. The crisis ‘tested workers’ loyalty to the US navy, or at least their tenacity to their jobs’, Lipman writes. Her evidence does not allow her to claim knowledge of their motivation, and she does not pretend otherwise.

In 1964, after the state of Florida jailed 38 Cuban fishermen and impounded their boats, Castro cut off the water supply to GTMO. (GTMO relied on water from the Yateras River outside the base.) Washington’s response was swift: GTMO officials gave the Cuban base workers ‘a blunt choice – Cuba or the base … If they chose “the base”, they had to cut all ties with Cuba and their families for the foreseeable future.’ If they chose Cuba – that is, to continue living in their own country – they would lose their jobs and their US government pensions. Of the 2000 employees who were forced to make this choice, 448 chose the base; the remainder were fired on the spot, and denied their pensions. For no obvious reason, 750 employees were allowed to continue to work at GTMO, but without any retirement rights. In 1979, Jimmy Carter – self-proclaimed champion of human rights – softened this policy, decreeing that Cubans who commuted to the base would receive a government pension. But this decision – which simply gave workers what was owed to them – applied only to those who retired after 1979.

No Cubans have been hired to work on the base since 1964, and by 2007 the number of commuters had dwindled to three. They have been replaced by contract workers from Jamaica, the Philippines and other poor countries. ‘The US navy’s ability to bring foreign workers to the base at will and likewise to deport them, all without publicity or protest, opened a new era of migration to the base,’ Lipman writes. Over the last three decades, GTMO has lost its strategic significance as a military base, but it remains a provocation to revolutionary Cuba. Bush gave it a new purpose: relying on the contorted language of the Lease Agreement (in which the United States recognises Cuba’s ‘ultimate sovereignty’ over GTMO), he and his Justice Department claimed that the US constitution did not extend to the base and that it was, therefore, the ideal place to dump prisoners from the ‘war on terror’. If Obama closes the detention camps, as he has pledged to do, GTMO will lose its new-found raison d’être. For most Americans, this will be the end of the story: they object to the way Bush used GTMO, not to its existence. But even without its detainees GTMO will remain a symbol of US duplicity: it did not seize the land from a defeated foe, but from people who had fought for their independence, and it did so after Congress had sworn that it had no ‘intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction or control’ over Cuba. GTMO, with or without its gulag, is a monument to US arrogance.