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One of the most revealing things about the recently released trove of Guantánamo documents was the Obama administration’s response to it: “Both the previous and the current Administrations have made every effort to act with the utmost care and diligence in transferring detainees from Guantanamo,” Pentagon and State Department officials jointly remarked. “Both administrations have made the protection of American citizens the top priority and we are concerned that the disclosure of these documents could be damaging to those efforts.”
Thus the president who made opposition to Bush administration national security policy and a pledge to close Guantánamo a hallmark of his 2008 election campaign sought to shield himself from criticism of his ongoing use of the prison by aligning himself with his predecessor.
And no wonder. The Guantánamo prison camp enjoys more public and political support today than at any time in its ten-year history. In poll after poll taken since President Obama took office, the American public has overwhelmingly rejected the idea of closing the prison and transferring its population stateside, most recently in December 2010. That same month, a Democratic Congress dealt a near-fatal blow to the administration’s effort to close the prison by prohibiting the President from transferring detainees to the United States and from repatriating detainees without the signature of the Secretary of Defense—provisions enacted without parliamentary debate and virtually without public notice. The President’s recent capitulation on the prison only confirms what the polls and politicians have been telling us for the last several years: we are all Guantánamo now.
In fact, Guantánamo has played a pivotal role in American history going back before the U.S. was even a country. The record of America’s long involvement at Guantánamo Bay calls into question the popular notion that post 9/11 Guantánamo represents a fall from grace at the same time that it illuminates a fundamental paradox at the heart of American national identity between liberty and coercion.
Since its beginning as a cluster of colonies, the United States has been an expansionist, global juggernaut in the making. The occupation of Guantánamo in 1898 fulfilled a yearning for an American foothold in Cuba dating back to the colonial era. Guantánamo was the first fruit of a harvest of territories, resources, and markets thought to be essential to U.S. prosperity and to the liberal democratic principles prosperity guaranteed.
We may never know for sure who the first North American was to set eyes on the bay, but American colonists attended the successful British assault on Guantánamo of 1741. Mount Vernon, the nation’s venerated civic shrine, is named after the British admiral that George Washington’s half brother Lawrence served with in Guantánamo for three months that summer. Thereafter Americans would keep Guantánamo closely in sight, constrained by exigency if not etiquette from intervening in Cuba’s protracted battle for independence until the U.S.S Maine blew up in Havana harbor in early 1898.
The ensuing U.S. century at Guantánamo has consisted of periods of relative calm punctuated by fierce activity and hasty adaptation to unfolding global crises. The quiet and underused coaling station from which the U.S. strode triumphantly onto the global stage at the turn of the twentieth century scarcely resembled the boisterous depot to which the Fleet repaired for fuel and refreshment during Prohibition. Prohibition-era Guantánamo, in turn, little resembled the base at which Batista’s pilots refueled in their battle against the Cuban resistance. Nor did the Guantánamo that accommodated Batista in the late 1950s much resemble that dangled by Kennedy in an attempt to bait Castro into war just a few years later. Finally, Kennedy’s Guantánamo differed markedly from the Guantánamo of presidents Carter and Reagan, which appeared so outdated by the 1970s and 80s that both men contemplated returning the base to Cuba. Only in the last decade or so has Guantánamo’s role begun to settle out. Guantánamo has become the place to hold refugees (over 85,000 Cubans and Haitians under the Bush and Clinton administrations in the 1990s) and prisoners of war—a never-never land within US jurisdiction yet beyond the rule of law.
The Guantánamo prison camp lies along the Cuban coastline, separated from the hub of naval activity by a range of hills. Navy folks like to think of their side of the hills as the “real Guantánamo” (sometimes the “good Guantánamo”), leaving the visitor to conclude what he or she may about the prison. But the prison wouldn’t be there without the Navy. And the Navy wouldn’t be there without the U.S. government’s decision to retain the bay at the end of the war with Spain. Finally, none of this would be there today without the tacit consent of the American people whose standard of living the U.S. government and military is sworn to protect. Up close, a chasm seems to separate Americans who, apparently for the first time in the nation’s history, tried to write torture into U.S. law from those who reject torture unconditionally. But through the lens of history, the differences blur, and Americans become one people, just as Guantánamo becomes one bay.
Jonathan M. Hansen is a lecturer in the Committee on Degrees in Social Studies. He is author of Guantánamo: An American History, forthcoming this autumn from Hill and Wang.
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