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Guantanamo Bay History

The Long and Convoluted History of the Guantanamo Bay of Cuba

Most of us know Guantanamo Bay for its renowned detention facility, but its history can be traced back to Christopher Columbus' visit in 1494.
Historyplex Staff
Last Updated: Mar 26, 2018
Guantanamo Bay is a natural harbor in the Guantanamo province of southeastern Cuba, which serves as a US Naval Base and detention facility for prisoners of the recently fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It has a strategic location, which gives the US Navy an edge in this part of the world. Even though this region became popular only after the establishment of naval base and detention facility, its history can be traced back to the 15th century, when Christopher Columbus arrived here on his second voyage.

Guantanamo Bay Timeline

Christopher Columbus
On his second voyage of exploration, Christopher Columbus took a halt at the Guantanamo Bay harbor in 1494. (The place where he landed is known as the Fisherman's Point today.) Back then, this region was inhabited by the Taíno fisherman. On this overnight halt at Guantanamo, Columbus named the bay Puerto Grande. After the Spanish forces took control of Cuba, the bay area became a strategically important location for their fleet. The region saw some action in 1741, when the British forces occupied it for a brief period during the War of Jenkins' Ear. The British referred to this bay as the Cumberland Bay.

American Presence in the Area
The US presence at Guantanamo Bay was first recorded during the Spanish-American War of 1898, when Santiago-bound US naval ships took shelter at this natural harbor. On June 10, 1898, a battalion of US Marines landed at the Fisherman's Point and camped in this region. The Battle of Guantanamo Bay turned out to be one of the most important chapters of the Spanish-American War, as both sides fought to seize this harbor of strategic and commercial importance. After an intense battle that followed, the US troops captured this harbor, which turned out to be of great help in the Battle of Santiago de Cuba and eventual invasion of Puerto Rico. In 1901, Cuba got independence, and the Platt Amendment laid the conditions for US withdrawal from the region and the relationship between the two nations.

Setting a Naval Base
In 1903, Cuba and the United States of America signed the Cuban-American Treaty, which gave the United States territorial control of the southern Guantanamo Bay. The perpetual lease offered by the then Cuban President, Tomás Estrada Palma, and signed by the then President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt gave America the right to construct a naval base and start coaling operations in this region. As per the stipulations of the Cuban-American Treaty, the United States was to get absolute jurisdiction and control over the Guantanamo Bay area, while the ultimate sovereignty of the same rested with the Republic of Cuba. The US Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay was officially opened on December 10, 1913, while the US Naval Operating Base was established on April 1, 1941. Eventually, on June 18, 1952, the name of this naval base was changed from Naval Operating Base to Naval Base.

Setting a Detention Facility
Even though the use of Guantanamo Bay as a detention facility can be traced back to 1970s, when it was used to house Cuban and Haitian refugees who were caught at the sea, its actual use as a full-fledged prison started more recently. Basically, the history of Guantanamo Bay prison can be traced to its use to house the prisoners of war since 2001 Afghanistan War. In 2002, the then US administration under George W. Bush established a full-fledged detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. It was first used to detain the prisoners of Afghanistan War and eventually, the prisoners of Iraq War of 2003. Since October 2001, as many as 775 prisoners of war have been detained at this prison before being released, or transferred to other facilities. As of November 2010, 174 prisoners continue to languish in this detention camp, which has been making quite some buzz for all the wrong reasons.

Even though the Guantanamo Bay area is under the direct control of the United States as of today, the current Cuban administration terms it illegal control of region which rightfully belongs to Cuba. As far as the Cuban-American Treaty is concerned, the Cuban administration maintains that it was obtained by the United States by force.