How We Got Guantanamo


The fight at the Cuzco well, the first pitched battle between American and Spanish troops during the war with Spain, ended the little campaign. The beaten Spaniards made their circuitous way back to their garrison in Guantanamo town, and although there were one or two minor guerrilla attacks on Marine outposts around Camp McCalla during succeeding months, no further real fighting took place ashore. To underscore the Marines’ victory, Admiral Sampson sent the battleship Texas along from Santiago to bombard the fort at Cayo Toro on June 16, an action in which Commander McCalla and the Marblehead joined with gusto. Despite Lord Nelson’s gloomy dictum, “A ship’s a fool to fight a fort,” the Navy had all the best of it in an hour’s shelling that ended with all Spanish guns dismounted and the barracks in ruins.

In markedly edifying contrast to the ghastly casualties suffered from all forms of disease by the U.S. Army, only forty miles away at Santiago, the Marines had a negligible sick list. The reaction at home to the efficient operation at Guantanamo was one of immediate enthusiasm, which was only whetted as the scandals at nearby Santiago began to be known. Within less than a year, Congress tripled the permanent size of the Corps.

Throughout Shafter’s bungled and malodorous campaign against Santiago, Guantanamo Bay served as the Navy’s advance base, often harboring as many as a dozen ships for coaling or repairs. The Vulcan, first mobile repair ship in the Navy, accomplished sixty-three major jobs there. When the decision was made to capture Puerto Rico in July, 1898, Guantanamo was the rendezvous from which General Miles’ expedition departed. Fully as important, the presence of United States troops ashore at Guantanamo pinned down Pareja’s 7,000 men to guard the rear approaches of Santiago against an overland attack. Conceivably, in addition to providing the Navy with a superb base, the relatively small Guantanamo Bay campaign may have tipped larger scales at Santiago.

After hostilities ceased in August, 1898 (just as Colonel Huntington’s Marines were poised to seize the port of Manzanillo, on the south coast of Cuba), the Navy continued to use Guantanamo as an anchorage. But the original cordiality between the Americans and the Cubans had dampened. Garcia, who had warmly welcomed the Navy and Marines at Guantanamo, had been mortally insulted at Santiago by General Shafter. The gouty 300-pound American general had declined to let Garcia or his men take part under arms in the final surrender of the Spanish. As for using the Cuban irregulars, whom Colonel Huntington had found “excellent … and fearless,” Shafter thought they would best be employed as laborers about the army camps.

In the nature of things, and however necessary it was, the American occupation galled the Cubans. Had they been freed from Spain only to take on a new master? Màximo Gòmez, the Cuban generalissimo, had suspected American intentions all along, and it was useless to explain why Americans must establish at least some rudimentary governmental machine in Cuba. Racked by disease, malnutrition, ignorance, and Spanish cruelty (slavery had not been abolished in Cuba until the 1880’s), Cubans had no experience at all of self-government. The tension increased, yet the Guantanamo area suffered less from the unrest and frustration with which the Cubans awaited the end of the American occupation: the Navy’s hand was light, its garrison small.

In February, 1903, when Cuba’s new government had attained independence, an agreement was reached between Theodore Roosevelt and Cuban President Tomâs Estrada Palma, leasing to the United States in perpetuity, for $2,000 a year in gold, Guantanamo and another site, Bahia Honda, which was abandoned nine years later. (It lies just fifty miles west of Havana on the north coast of Cuba, facing Florida!)

In the spring of 1903, a congressional investigating party visited Guantanamo, and back in Washington appropriated $100,000 to set up the Guantanamo naval base; a joint Cuban-American commission, sitting aboard the U.S.S. Olympia, Dewey’s flagship at Manila, laid out the exact boundaries of the U.S. reservation; the Navy formally took over on December 10, 1903.