If you want to understand Guantánamo in the age of the War on Terror, you need to understand it in the age of Clinton and Bush Senior. In the early 1990s, the American naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, became home to thousands of refugees fleeing from Haiti. Parts of the base were converted to refugee camps, where Haitians lived in squalor, and awaited permission to emigrate to the United States. The problem only got worse when several hundred refugees tested positive for HIV. At the time, federal law prevented anyone with the virus from moving to the US.
As Jonathan Hansen writes in Guantánamo: An American History, it was at this juncture that "the US government first broached the idea of exploiting Guantánamo Bay's ambiguous political and legal status to deny constitutional protections to individuals detained at the naval base". If the government could argue the base was neither US nor Cuban territory, then Haitian refugees would have fewer constitutional protections, such as a right to counsel, and their applications for asylum would be easier to refuse.
As a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton excoriated president George H W Bush's treatment of Haitian asylum seekers. But as Hansen documents, Clinton's administration continued the policies of his predecessor, and the Justice Department repeatedly went to court to argue that the Constitution did not apply at Guantánamo Bay. They were defeated in lower courts, but the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the department's favour. However, support from high-profile lawyers and celebrities, along with leaked video of guards beating refugees, forced Clinton to change course and Haitian refugees were finally allowed to enter the US.
The Haitian episode stands as an ominous precursor to the post-9/11 life of Guantánamo Bay, in which the US naval base has become home to a notorious prison camp for detainees in the War on Terror. Although we are told that guards and interrogators no longer engage in torture, successive administrations have ensured that its detainees remain largely free of the protections provided by the US Constitution and the Geneva Conventions.
Marooned in a lawless place, Gitmo detainees are now subject to the psychic torture of not knowing if, or how, they could ever be freed. With the advent of indefinite detention, secret evidence files and military tribunals, terms like "innocent" and "guilty" have been made superfluous. And with Barack Obama having signed indefinite detention into law, there is a real chance that some of the 170 men still imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay may die there of old age, joining the five prisoners who have committed suicide.
As Hansen's indispensable book makes clear, the history of US involvement at Guantánamo Bay is long, complex and frequently injurious to all involved. The US has, he argues, gained some benefits from its 108-year occupation of a 45-square-mile section of land in southeastern Cuba. The harbour at Guantánamo has provided useful refuge from storms and, during the Second World War, became an essential site for refuelling naval ships. After the rise of Fidel Castro, Gitmo was sometimes the only point of contact between American and Cuban officials. But more often, the base has served as a symbol of American imperialism and, for Cubans, a reminder of outsiders' persistent designs on the island.
Christopher Columbus landed in Guantánamo in 1494, and within two decades, Spanish colonists had established several settlements and massacred thousands of native Taíno. Over the next few centuries, Great Britain, and eventually the United States, showed frequent interest in taking control of the island.
In June 1823, James Monroe wrote to Thomas Jefferson that "too much importance could not be attached to" Cuba. A few months later, Jefferson wrote to James Madison that Cuba was "the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of states". Both saw it as essential to promoting and safeguarding trade in the Gulf of Mexico. Hansen cites Cuba as inspiration for the Monroe Doctrine, which declared American primacy in the Western Hemisphere and warned European nations against outside interference.