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Guantanamo Bay

Historic Naval Base meets Suburban America

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Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

A U.S. military guard tower stands on the perimeter of a detainee camp at the U.S. detention center for 'enemy combatants' in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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Updated October 22, 2010
Located four hundred miles from the mainland United States, Guantanamo Bay in the Guantanamo Province of Cuba is the oldest overseas American naval base. It is also the only naval base in a communist country, and the only one that has no political affiliation with the United States. With 45 miles of naval infrastructure, Guantanamo Bay is often called the "Pearl Harbor of the Atlantic." Due to its remote location and jurisdiction, Guantanamo Bay has been deemed by one United States government official as the “legal equivalent of outer space”.

History of Guantanamo Bay

In 1898, the Spanish American War united Cuba and the United States. Aided by the U.S., Cuba fought for independence from Spain. That same year, the U.S. captured Guantanamo Bay, and the Spanish surrendered. In December of 1898, the Treaty of Paris was signed and Cuba was granted independence.

At the wake of the 20th century, the U.S. formally leased this 45 square mile parcel from newly independent Cuba to use as a fueling station. The lease was renewed in 1934 under Fulgencio Batista and President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration. The agreement required consent of both parties should either want to withdraw; that is, reconsider U.S. occupation of the base. Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba were severed in January of 1961. In hopes the U.S. will forfeit the base, Cuba no longer accepts the $5,000 annual American rent. In 2002, Cuba officially requested that Guantanamo Bay be returned. Interpretation of the 1934 mutual consent agreement differs, causing frequent squabbles between the two countries.

In 1964, Fidel Castro cut off the base’s water supply in response to the U.S. government fining Cubans for fishing near Florida. As a result, Guantanamo Bay is self sufficient, and produces its own water and electricity. The naval base itself is divided into two functioning areas on either side of the bay. The east side of the bay is the main base, and the airfield occupies the west side. Today, both sides of the base’s 17-mile fence line are patrolled by U.S. Marines and Cuban militiamen.

During the 1990s, social upheaval in Haiti brought over 30,000 Haitian refugees to Guantanamo Bay. In 1994, the base provided humanitarian services to thousands of migrants during Operation Sea Signal. That year, civilian employees and their families were evacuated from the base to accommodate for the influx of migrants. The migrant population climbed upwards of 40,000. By 1996, the Haitian and Cuban refugees had filtered out, and family members of the military were allowed to return. Ever since, Guantanamo Bay sees a small, steady migrant population of about 40 people each year.

Geography and Land Use of Guantanamo Bay

Lying on the southeast corner of Cuba, the climate of Guantanamo Bay is typical of a Caribbean country. Hot and humid year round, Provincial Guantanamo experiences a rainy season from May to October, and a dry season from November to April. The name “Guantanamo” means “land among rivers”. The entire southeast region of Cuba is known for its extensive rural mountainous zones and river basins. The lands surrounding the Guantanamo Bay naval base began generating American capital during the late 20th century. Just northwest of Guantanamo Bay, the economy of Guantanamo City thrives on the fruits of the sugar industry and extensive military employment opportunities.

The bay itself is a 12-mile long north-south indentation, and is six miles across. Islands, peninsulas and coves can be found on the east side of the bay. The Guantanamo Valley lies west of the bay along the Sierra Maestra. The lowlands on the west side are adorned in mangroves. Its flat nature makes it ideal for Guantanamo’s airfield.

Similar to many American towns, Guantanamo Bay is furnished with subdivisions, baseball fields and chain restaurants. Roughly 10,000 people reside there, 4,000 of which are in the U.S. military. The remaining residents are family members of the military, local Cuban support staff, and laborers from neighboring countries. There is a hospital, dental clinic, and a meteorologic and oceanographic command station. In 2005, four 262-foot tall wind turbines were constructed on John Paul Jones Hill, the highest point on the base. During the windiest months, they provide the base with about a quarter of the power it consumes.

Since the sharp population rise in 2002 of military and support personnel, Guantanamo Bay boasts a golf course and an outdoor theater. There is also a school, but with so few kids that sports teams play against groups of local firefighters and hospital workers. Separated from the base by cacti and elevated landforms, residential Guantanamo Bay bears much similarity to suburban America.

Guantanamo Bay as Detention Center

Following the September 2001 attacks on the U.S., several detention camps were built at Guantanamo Bay which held hundred of detainees. As of 2010, facilities remaining in operation include Camp Delta, Camp Echo, and Camp Iguana and about 170 detainees remain. Many of the prisoners originate from Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. There is longstanding debate over Guantanamo Bay’s role as a detention facility, particularly among lawyers and human rights activists. Its true nature and inner workings are somewhat elusive to the American public, and are under constant scrutiny. One can only speculate the future of Guantanamo Bay and as history suggests, its utility and habitation are ever changing.

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