Last week, the Cuban government declared that for the United States and Cuba to normalize relations, the United States would have to return the territory occupied by a U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. Washington clearly responded that returning the base is not on the table right now. This response makes sense, since quite a bit of politicking goes into the status of the base. However, the Guantanamo Bay issue highlights a notable aspect to the U.S.-Cuban negotiations — one that is rooted in the history of the U.S. ascension to superpower status as it challenged European powers in the Western Hemisphere.
U.S. Expansion in the Western Hemisphere
Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, has a prominent position at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico, separating access to the gulf into two choke points: the Yucatan Channel and the Straits of Florida. It is also situated on the sea-lanes between the U.S. East Coast and the Panama Canal, the shortest route for naval traffic between the two coasts of the United States. Cuba thus has been pivotal to the U.S. strategy to safeguard economic activity in the Gulf of Mexico and naval transport routes beyond that. The evolution of U.S. naval capabilities, however, has changed the part that Cuba, and thus the base at Guantanamo, has played.
The United States began extending its ambitions into the Caribbean, challenging the classical European colonial powers and arguably starting its ascent to the rank of a global power, with the Monroe Doctrine in 1823. Named after then-President James Monroe, the doctrine sought to prevent intervention by European powers — most notably Spain and Portugal — in their former colonies as the colonies achieved independence. The doctrine largely was a hollow statement at first because the United States did not have the naval power it would need to enforce it and establish the hegemony that it sought to put in place with the doctrine. However, the United Kingdom, which at the time had considerable naval capabilities, supported the Monroe Doctrine and committed to enforcing it because it also secured British access to the markets in these former colonies as long as they were not recovered by their former rulers.
Although it was a notable shift in U.S. foreign policy toward the Western Hemisphere as a whole, the Monroe Doctrine did not affect Cuba directly. The doctrine did not seek to meddle in the affairs of existing European colonies, and the Spanish ruled Cuba and Puerto Rico until the Spanish-American War in 1898. At that point, after the Monroe Doctrine had set the stage, U.S. military capabilities were catching up with its foreign policy intent. It was during the Spanish-American War that U.S. naval power entered the global stage and eventually resulted in the United States’ taking Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines from Spain.
However, Washington first needed a reason for intervention in Cuba. That opportunity came with the USS Maine explosion. The ship was deployed to Havana to protect U.S. business interests on the island. Moreover, news was spreading of atrocities committed by Spanish forces against the Cuban population. This intervention included the exact moment when U.S. forces arrived in Guantanamo Bay. In June 1898, a battalion of Marines landed at Fisherman’s Point in the Bay of Guantanamo to pin down the Spanish forces in the city of Guantanamo, preventing them from reinforcing the Spanish positions on San Juan Hill as Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders led the charge there.
Several years after the U.S. victory against the Spanish, in 1903, the newly independent Cuban government signed an agreement with Washington for the perpetual lease of Guantanamo Bay as a naval base. Initially, the peace agreement with Spain had transferred sovereignty over the island to the United States, but Washington decided to leave the island under the control of the local Cuban leaders who had started the rebellion against the Spanish. The U.S. naval station at Guantanamo, the result of the first real show of U.S. expeditionary power, went on to become instrumental in the further deployment of U.S. naval power. In those days, the time that naval vessels spent at sea was limited significantly by the fuel they required: coal. Having access to forward deployed coaling stations such as the one at Guantanamo extended the U.S. Navy’s ability to operate in the Caribbean.
Guantanamo Bay’s Changing Role
After World War II, during which Guantanamo also played a direct part in supporting merchant shipping convoys from the U.S. East Coast, the role of Guantanamo Bay changed considerably as a consequence of the Cuban Revolution. Throughout the revolution, Guantanamo Bay not only became a key element of U.S. resistance to the rebels led by Fidel Castro, it also became a pawn in the new bipolar world order pitting the United States against the Soviet Union. The relations between the new Cuban government and the Soviet Union made Cuba the Soviets’ most forward position toward the continental United States — something made very obvious during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The naval base at Guantanamo did not necessarily play a leading role in this part of history, although the continued U.S. presence in Guantanamo Bay persisted as a major source of dispute between Washington and Havana.
After the Cold War, the base’s military significance began to wane. The fall of the Soviet Union left Cuba a much less significant element in U.S. foreign policy, and the development of new technology had reduced the need for the base to support U.S. naval operations in the Caribbean. As much as geopolitics dictates history, the evolution of manmade technology can significantly alter states’ physical limitations and capabilities. The use of new and more efficient fuels in naval vessels improved the range and speed of these vessels to the point where the Gulf of Mexico’s security and naval movement beyond the U.S. coastline no longer required a logistical support node in Cuba.
The U.S. Navy continued using Guantanamo as a training ground, but the base’s significance even in this regard evaporated. By the mid-1990s, activity at the naval base at Guantanamo was demoted to Minimum Pillar Performance (limiting the activities and presence there to only that which is necessary to maintain the existence of the facilities). The U.S. military has maintained this caretaker presence at Guantanamo, but it has done so mostly in the service of the State Department, which intends to retain Guantanamo as a bargaining chip or leverage in relations with Havana, rather than out of military need.
The United States also realized that other similar naval operating bases in Latin America lost their utility in a new geopolitical and technological reality. During World War II, the United States had established such a base in Rio de Janeiro, but after the war this base closed, having served its military purpose. Similarly, the United States managed a series of naval bases throughout former British territories in the Western Hemisphere that it obtained in return for 50 Town-class destroyers through the lend-lease agreement with London. Most of these bases also were shut down shortly after World War II or during the Cold War. The United States intends to use its forward deploying military capabilities without establishing full-blown bases, as seen in Eastern Europe, Asia