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How America Won Its Cuban Terror Prison
by KEITH SUTER
7 December 2004
About 600 alleged members of the Taliban and al-Qaeda -- including two Australians -- are held at the US naval station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It is the US's oldest overseas naval base and the only one on communist soil.
Until the prisoners were transferred there, many people had no idea that the US had a base in Cuba and paid rent to the Communists for it.
The Americans pay "2000 gold coins" a year in rent, a sum that is now worth about $5000.
But since coming to power more than 40 years ago, Cuban leader Fidel Castro has cashed only one of the cheques. The others have not been cashed because he regards the base as illegal and contrary to international law. This means that the Americans are staying there rent-free.
Castro would like to see the Americans forced off the island but he does not have the military power to do so. If the Cubans ever attacked the base, the US could easily send reinforcements from the mainland to protect it.
Meanwhile, the Cuban-Americans who fled Cuba after the communist revolution in 1959 remain opposed to Castro. They are a powerful lobby group in US politics (especially in the key political state of Florida), so no US president is likely to consider giving in to Castro.
Guantanamo is a good location for a military prison because it is so difficult to reach. No unauthorised person can go into the base via Cuban territory and no unauthorised person can land directly on the base by sea or air. Australians David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib and the other detainees are isolated.
The Americans have had a base at Guantanamo since 1898. It was part of their reward for going to war against the Spanish empire.
On February 15, 1898, the battleship USS Maine exploded and sank in Havana harbour, the main Cuban port, with 260 men killed.
The Maine was powered by coal and many experts now believe that the explosion was accidental. If this is true, then the US went to war over an accident.
But in 1898 some American newspapers claimed that the ship had been a victim of Spanish sabotage. "Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain" became the rallying cry.
There was no value in Spain attacking the Maine and starting a war with the US. Spain was in military and economic decline and it was in no position to take on the US.
One theory about the explosion is that it was sabotage by Cuban nationalists who wanted to draw the US into their war against colonial Spain. If this were true, then the nationalists were using a risky strategy of tricking the US into getting involved in the war.
US president William McKinley and the Spanish government tried to avoid going to war.
But by April 1898, the pressure was too great so he had to go to Congress to get its consent to send American troops to Cuba to end the war between Spain and the Cuban nationalists.
Congress unanimously adopted a resolution stating that Cuba was "free and independent", called on the Spanish to leave and authorised the president to use whatever force he thought necessary. The US and Spain were at war.
The US quickly captured Guantanamo Bay and established a naval base there. As expected, the war did not last long because Spain did not have the resources to fight one so far from home.
Future US president Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt became a war hero when he led a charge at the battle of San Juan Hill.
The Americans were aided by Cuban nationalists, and the Spanish were not able to put up much of a fight because they had problems dealing with heat and disease. Within a month, the US had control of the island.
Hostilities ended on August 12, 1898, and a peace treaty was signed on December 10 that year. More than 2000 Americans had been killed, along with tens of thousands of Spaniards, Cubans and Filipinos.
The end of the war left the US in effective control of four Spanish colonies -- the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico and Cuba.
The era of Spanish rule in Asia and the Pacific -- which had begun with Christopher Columbus in 1492 -- was over. On his second trip to the Americas, he had sailed into Guantanamo Bay on April 30, 1494, where he remained overnight. He was impressed with it and called the bay Puerto Grande.
The war also changed the US. Before 1898, the US had kept out of foreign wars. It was more concerned with building up its own country and recovering from the American Civil War (1861-65). The latest war was a unifying experience because it brought the North and South together to face the common Spanish foe.
The 1898 Spanish-American War was the US's first major overseas military campaign. It had shown its new military might, acquired colonies, and it sent a warning that it would replace Europe as the world's major power.
It also showed the importance of newspapers in being able to whip up support for a war. The president did not want war but the papers ignored him and rallied public opinion.
On February 23, 1903, Roosevelt signed the original lease agreement with Cuba for Guantanamo Bay. The following month, Congress approved the first spending to build the naval base.
The US formally occupied Cuba until January 28, 1909. After independence, the island remained a favourite American tourist resort and became a location for organised crime. The US maintained close control over the island until the Communists took over in 1959.
In 1964 Castro's government cut off the base's water supply and the US was forced to import water from Jamaica. It now has desalination plants on the base. A few elderly Cubans do menial work on the base but Castro does not allow new Cuban recruits. Since Castro came to power, American military personnel have not been allowed to leave the base and go on to Cuban soil.
Since September 11, 2001, Guantanamo Bay's unique legal status and isolated location have been of great use to the Bush Administration. It had captured hundreds of people in Afghanistan and elsewhere that it suspected of being involved in terrorism. Lawyers argued that they should get prisoner-of-war status under the Geneva Conventions but the Bush Administration has said that the people were not prisoners of war and holds them at Guantanamo Bay with little legal representation.
The policy has been challenged in the US Supreme Court and the two Australians will get their day in court.