Guantanamera is inarguably the best-known Cuban song ever. Composed in 1928 by José Fernández Díaz, a Havana-based singer-songwriter riffing on a traditional country music structure, it has since been performed and recorded by countless artists all over the world. The literal translation of the full, original title, Guajira Guantanamera, is “woman from the countryside of Guantánamo.” Yet guajira, or guajiro in its masculine form, carries multiple meanings, including peasant, simple country person, or, pejoratively, hick or hillbilly; it also refers to a style of Cuban country music as well as to a rustic dance step that was popular in Havana in the early 20th century. “Joseíto” Fernández’s original composition was not a conventional song with fixed lyrics; rather, it was a vehicle for improvised poesy bracketed by the catchy repeated chorus. In the 1930s, on his popular radio program, he would often sing lyrics inspired by current events, or even take suggestions called in by listeners. 1
It was the Spanish-Cuban composer Julián Orbón who, in 1958, gave Guantanamera the content and meaning, that we (Cubans, at least) know today. He did so by borrowing lines from the poetry collection Versos Sencillos (Simple Verses), words that every Cuban knows by heart: Yo soy un hombre sincero, de donde crece la palma … Con los pobres de la tierra, quiero yo mi suerte echar. (I am an honest man, from where the palm tree grows … With the poor people of the earth, I wish to cast my lot.) The verses were written in 1891 by José Martí, one of the principal heroes in the struggle for independence, who was killed fighting the Spanish in 1895. It is significant that Orbón adapted the words of the famous writer — who was also a rebel and a martyr — just as the guerrilla troops of Fidel Castro were mustering in the mountains above Guantánamo; in this way he transformed an already popular tune into a patriotic anthem. The Orbón arrangement attracted the attention of folk singer Pete Seeger, who was also a human rights activist sympathetic to the Cuban revolution. Seeger recorded Guantanamera at a concert in Carnegie Hall in 1963 and included it on his album We Shall Overcome, which popularized the song to audiences in the United States and beyond.
The salons of Havana and Matanzas nurtured polemical arguments for Cuban independence, but the armed conflicts all originated in the hills above Guantánamo.
That a peasant girl from Guantánamo should be the metaphorical object of affection for José Martí or Julián Orbón is not surprising. Located at the easternmost edge of the island, and cut off from the rest of the country by high mountains, the Guantánamo region has long been viewed by Cubans as distant, exotic, and somewhat lawless — though in a romantic way. It was at this eastern end of the island that the Spanish established their first settlement, Baracoa, in the early 16th century; it was also where the first armed rebellion against colonial rule took place three centuries later. While the intellectual salons of Havana and Matanzas nurtured polemical arguments for Cuban independence, the armed conflicts — the Ten Years War, of 1868–1878, which ended in defeat; the War of Independence, which culminated in Spanish surrender in 1898 (a victory hijacked by the U.S.; more about that later); and Fidel Castro’s 1958 offensive against the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista — all originated in the Sierra Maestra mountains and the hills above Guantánamo. And all were marked by counterintuitive alliances between urban-educated, ideologically driven revolutionaries and the local peasantry, who provided essential networks of provisioning and reconnaissance.
For good reason, then, Guantánamo is understood to be the cradle of Cuban liberty. For equally good reason, the occupation of Guantánamo Bay by the United States — now in its 124th year — is experienced as an especially acute insult. Initially secured in 1898 by military incursion during the Spanish-American War, the rights to a U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay were formalized by the treaty that followed the war, in which a land lease was essentially extorted from a fledgling Cuban republic; renewed in perpetuity by a corrupt Cuban regime in 1934; and vehemently denounced by the current Cuban government. The U.S. Naval Station has been a thorn in the foot of Cuba since its inception, inflicting a wound that got progressively infected after the Cuban revolution in 1959 and became downright gangrenous in 2002 with the creation of the detention camp. Today, for most people, “Guantánamo” conjures the naval base and prison, the notorious “Gitmo.” But Guantánamo is also a city, a province, and a bay, a place of great natural beauty, with a rich history and contemporary life that have been woefully disfigured by the long military occupation. 2
The United States of America is only the most recent world power to covet Guantánamo Bay.
The United States of America is only the most recent world power to covet Guantánamo Bay, the largest natural harbor on the south coast of Cuba. 3 The colonizing Spaniards, starting in the 16th century, wiped out the indigenous Taíno, who had lived in the region for centuries before the arrival of Europeans 4; in turn the Spanish defended the harbor from French and English forces throughout the next two centuries. All these rival imperial powers sought to control the shipping lanes of the Windward Passage between Cuba and Hispaniola, which were the primary access from the Atlantic to the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Ultimately the city of Santiago, about 70 miles to the west, with a deeper and more easily fortifiable bay, was judged a more propitious port, and it grew rapidly, while the area around Guantánamo Bay remained sparsely populated until the beginning of the 19th century. In those years, the coast was dotted with fishing villages, salt flats, and points of transfer for agricultural and forest products onto boats bound for Santiago for transshipment to distant markets. Guantánamo Bay also earned a shady reputation as a depot for smuggling illicit goods and for the clandestine trading of enslaved Africans, well into the 19th century. 5
The province remains the most Africanized region of Cuba, ‘the home of rum, rumba, and rebellion.’
In fact, what ignited the local economy was the slave rebellion in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti, which lasted from 1791 to 1804 and impelled thousands of French planters to flee to other Caribbean islands. The Spanish crown, which had long sought to establish productive, tax-paying industries in the Guantánamo basin, offered sweet inducements to White planters, including discounted land prices and expedited residency permits. Many French immigrants chose to move to more established Cuban settlements, like Matanzas and Cienfuegos, but enough stayed in Guantánamo, where they prospered by cultivating sugar, cotton, indigo, and, in the mountains, coffee and cacao. Their plantations were, of course, all worked by slaves. The experience of Saint-Domingue — where, before the uprising, enslaved Africans outnumbered White colonists by about ten to one — presented an existential threat to Cuban planter society, which had long feared tipping to a Black-majority population. 6 It was thus a grim irony that after the arrival of the slave-owning French in Guantánamo, the ratio of Black to White in the region is estimated to have risen to more than seven to one. The historic Oriente province, including Guantánamo, remains the most Africanized region of Cuba — a fact reflected in musical and religious traditions, and in its popular sobriquet as “the home of rum, rumba, and rebellion.” 7
By 1820 the small market town of Guantánamo had been established by French settlers along with more recent Catalan immigrants, located at the point where the road between Santiago and Baracoa crossed the Guantánamo River. 8 By mid-century, a twelve-mile straight-shot railroad had been constructed to connect Guantánamo to the fishing village of Caimanera, which lay at the passage between the inner and outer bays and which was soon upgraded into a proper port facility. 9 Thus, by the late 19th century the Guantánamo basin offered an infrastructure that was attracting investment in industrial-scale sugar planting and bringing new regional growth and prosperity; and, as it happened, that was also setting the stage for U.S. imperialism.
In 1898 the United States intervened in Cuba’s second War of Independence — the conflict known in U.S. history books as the Spanish-American War — after the USS Maine exploded and sank in Havana harbor, killing most of the sailors on board. 10 The point of entry for the U.S. military was Guantánamo Bay. The city of Guantánamo was then then a Spanish stronghold, and in a three-day battle in June, U.S. sailors and marines fought alongside the Cuban insurgents and routed the Spanish troops. After the surrender of the Spanish, one month later, the American forces remained. The contradictory rationale was that foreign military presence was needed to defend Cuba against further foreign conquest. Just as important — or more so — military presence would serve to protect U.S. business interests on the island, which by then included vast and profitable sugar plantations and mills. Indeed, although there was considerable popular sentiment among Americans for “Cuba Libre,” the U.S. motives for entering the conflict were never altruistic.
The 1898 treaty that ended the Spanish-American War effectively made Cuba a protectorate of the United States. Five years later, U.S. rights to occupy Guantánamo Bay were formalized as part of the infamous Platt Amendment. This document, named for its sponsor, a conservative senator from Connecticut, was attached to an army appropriations bill that was passed by Congress and then forced upon the Cuban constitutional commission, which, under threat of a total military takeover, adopted the amendment word for word. Among other provisions, this brief declaration granted the United States wide latitude to intervene to ensure political stability on the island nation, and, crucially, the right to establish “coaling or naval stations at certain specified points to be agreed upon with the President of the United States.” 11
Guantánamo was the first of several extraterritorial bases established in a wave of imperialist expansion. The rent was $2,000 per annum.
Soon one such specified point was agreed upon: in 1903 U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt and Cuban president Miguel Estrada Palma signed a lease giving the United States 45 square miles of land and water, straddling the mouth of Guantánamo Bay, for use as a naval station — the first of the nation’s several extraterritorial military bases established in a wave of imperialist expansion. 12 The rent was a mere $2,000 per annum, to be paid in gold coin. The Platt Amendment was promptly deployed as a pretext by Secretary of War (and future president) William Howard Taft to supplant Cuba’s fledgling republican government with a U.S. military governorship, which lasted from 1903 to 1906. The term Plattismo is today still used to connote heavy-handed American interference in Cuban affairs.
In 1934 the Platt Amendment was abrogated by President Franklin Roosevelt, as part of his “Good Neighbor” Latin American policy. At the same time, however, FDR renegotiated the lease on Guantánamo to extend it in perpetuity (and to convert the rent to U.S. dollars; $4,085 in 1934, and then to be adjusted annually for inflation). The government of Federico Laredo Bru — a puppet of the corrupt Batista, an army colonel who had staged a successful coup and was in effect running the country — acquiesced to these terms. 13 It was not long before U.S. Naval Base GTMO became strategically important during World War II — which Cuba entered on the Allied side two days after Pearl Harbor — harboring a fleet that defended the Caribbean from German U-boats.
If the residency of the U.S. Navy at Guantánamo was an affront to nationalistic Cubans, it proved to be an economic boon to locals. The base was staffed by Cuban construction workers, mechanics, groundskeepers, cooks, and domestic servants — over 3,500 in peak years, many living at the naval station and others commuting from Guantánamo city, Caimanera, or Boquerón, a village at the eastern edge of the base. Cuban businesses thrived by supplying the base with everything from water and electricity to food and building supplies. Americans went to Guantánamo city for its shops, theaters, and restaurants, while people with business at the base patronized the town’s hotels, which, pandering to the prime clientele, had names like Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. Many American officers and their families lived in Guantánamo city or the surrounding countryside.
Unsurprisingly, GTMO supported a more sordid economy. The city of Guantánamo was home to numerous brothels, gambling houses, and nightclubs featuring salacious entertainment. By many accounts, Caimanera, accessible from the base by ferry, had by the 1920s degenerated into an open market for alcohol and sex. Especially in the Prohibition years, from 1920 to 1933, servicemen of all ranks indulged in offshore liberties, and many were periodically confined to the base to quash debauchery and to curb outbreaks of venereal disease.
The tribulations of life on the isolated base were spotlighted in April 1930, when an unnamed “Navy Wife” published “Guantánamo Blues: A Taste of Tropical Fruits of Prohibition” in that month’s issue of Liberty Magazine. She described the reprehensible behavior of Navy men, from officers to enlisted personnel, and their predatory treatment of women. As she recounted, social life oscillated between raucous partying at the officers’ club or Caimanera saloons, which she called a constant “nightmare” in which “the idea of rape” never left her mind, and the utter boredom that led one to drink. The author’s own prejudices were betrayed by her references to “funny brown natives” and the foibles of the “colored servants” assigned to American families. Navy brass routinely attempted to impose social order, but with scant success. In 1938 a writer for the popular Cuban journal Bohemia declared Guantánamo the “sewer of Cuba,” a “stagnant, hedonistic, dirty, and desolate” place. 14
The first half of the 20th century, a period of prosperity and relative harmony, gave the city its urban and architectural character.
The first half of the 20th century, a period of prosperity and relative harmony between Guantanameros (at least the business elite) and Americans, gave present-day Guantánamo its urban and architectural character. Laid out on a grid, as was typical in Spanish colonies, the town was built up in the middle decades of the 19th century with mostly one-story construction of traditional technique. Surviving structures from this era have a distinctly French flavor, reflecting the settlement by refugees from Saint Domingue; the vernacular houses would look at home in Port au Prince or the French quarter of New Orleans. The central square, now Parque José Martí, is dominated by the church of Santa Catalina de Ricci, a chaste neoclassical structure with a bell tower, built in 1863. As elsewhere in Cuba, independence from Spain and the consequent flood of foreign investment — and locally, the establishment of the base — produced a building boom that continued right up to World War II with barely a pause during the Great Depression. 15 Guantánamo gained importance as a regional commercial center, which justified the decisions of the National Bank of Cuba, the Royal Bank of Canada, and other financial institutions to erect grand Beaux Arts branch buildings. Brick sugar warehouses were built near the Guantánamo-Caimanera railroad, representing American investment of sufficient scale for the New York-based Sanborn Fire Insurance Company to include Guantánamo in its portfolio of property maps.
Guantánamo’s preeminent architect and urban planner during the early republican era was José Leticio Salcines Morlote. Born in 1889 to a wealthy Spanish father and Cuban mother, Salcines studied architecture at the University of Havana (in a curriculum then weighted toward engineering), graduating and returning to Guantánamo in 1913. 16 Backed by family wealth and connections, and perfectly timed to exploit his hometown’s economic surge, Salcines’s architecture practice prospered from the beginning. His first notable project was the Palacio Salcines, completed in 1919 as his own home and architectural office. An ostentatious showplace — he was hanging out his shingle in grand manner — the three-story structure is an exuberant confection of classical and art nouveau ornament; it is now the Municipal Museum. Major commissions followed, including the headquarters of the Guantánamo Sugar Company, in 1919, and the city’s grandiose neo-baroque Municipal Market, in 1921. Salcines, who held various government positions throughout a long career, was an active promoter of civic improvement projects, including the electrification of streetlights and the modernization of municipal waterworks. In the early 1920s, he oversaw the damming of the Yateras river to create a reliable source of drinking water, along with an aqueduct to supply the U.S. naval base, which was later the focus of political contention.
Guantánamo’s streetscape is characterized by colonial revival and art deco shops, hotels, and theaters. Somehow the great wave of modernism that emanated from Havana never made it over the mountains.
While attuned to the latest engineering technologies, Salcines the architectural designer remained profoundly conservative, a few tardy assays into art deco notwithstanding. Guantánamo City Hall, completed in 1951 (and now the provincial library), is an eclectic pile born of a much earlier era. Somehow the great wave of modernism that emanated from Havana starting in the late 1940s never made it over the mountains to Guantánamo. 17 Guantánamo’s low-rise streetscape is today characterized by colonial revival and restrained art deco houses, shops, hotels, and theaters. When I led a tour of Cuba for the Society of Architectural Historians in 2018, our local guide, an earnest young architect from the Office of the Historian of the City of Guantánamo, could show us only one example of modern architecture that he considered worthy: the Iglesia La Milagrosa, an A-frame concrete church from 1955 designed by Joaquín Sebares, one of the city’s few accomplished practitioners of modernism — a work of merit but hardly radical for its date. An island-wide survey of modern architecture by Docomomo Cuba includes not one entry for Guantánamo. 18 I asked the architectural historian Eduardo Luis Rodríguez, who edited the volume, about this omission and he told me that, for sure, there is minor but good modern architecture in Guantánamo. The documentation project, he explained, relied on contributions from each provincial historian’s office, and in 2011 the guardians of cultural resources in Guantánamo evidently didn’t consider their modernist heritage to be important.
In 1959, after Fidel Castro and his guerrilla forces marched to Havana from their camps in the Guantánamo basin and the Sierra Maestra, Guantánamo, like all of Cuba, saw its evolution radically redirected by the triumph of the socialist revolution. On top of the manifold social, political, and economic adjustments demanded of — and largely welcomed by — the Cuban citizenry under the new government, I daresay that Guantánamo experienced a change of fortune more abrupt than almost anywhere else, as the province’s major employer and commercial customer, the U.S. Naval Station GTMO, was cut off almost immediately from the rest of the nation. To avoid massive joblessness, the Castro government initially allowed Guantanameros then employed on the base to continue working there, but the numbers shrank by attrition and by the Americans’ expulsion of Cubans suspected of Communist sympathies. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson ordered the termination of almost all remaining Cuban employees, and ever since those service jobs have been filled mostly by Jamaican and Filipino workers. And the naval base has relied on external sources not only for labor but for potable water as well: also in 1964, Cuban authorities shut the valves on the pipes to the naval station from the Yateras Waterworks, the system built by José Salcines in the 1920s.
The hostile governments did agree on one point: that there shall be no crossing between Cuban and U.S.-held territory.
The two hostile governments did agree on one point: that there shall be no crossing between Cuban and U.S.-held territory. The Americans worried about infiltration of the base by spies and saboteurs, and the Cubans feared attack via Camp GTMO. These justifiable concerns were heightened during the misbegotten U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis, one year later. In response to these episodes, the U.S. military reinforced the base’s perimeter fence while the Cubans erected their own barriers, including a circumferential patrol road and an eight-mile-long swath planted with prickly Opuntia, the so-called “cactus curtain.” Both sides planted landmines in the interstitial no-man’s-land. Meanwhile the U.S. cut off access to the sea from the bay, killing Guantánamo’s fishing industry and maritime commerce, and, for its part, the Cuban government banned boat traffic within the bay to avoid the embarrassing spectacle of disaffected Cubans crossing the water to seek asylum on land leased to a foreign country. Amidst these power plays, unlucky Caimanera was trapped between the two lines of defense; even today, outsiders must get special permission to visit the town (I have never been there), and its 11,000 residents need a pass to leave.
The U.S. naval base at Guantánamo became something of an obsession for Fidel Castro, who declared its continuing presence on Cuban soil an aberrant vestige of colonialism and its egregiously unfair lease agreement unenforceable under international law. Today the Cuban government continues to protest what it views as an alien occupation, and has not cashed any of the rent checks since 1960. Reportedly, they have been accumulating in a drawer in Fidel’s old office.
Cuba views the base as an alien occupation, and has not cashed the rent checks since 1960. Reportedly, they have accumulated in a drawer in Castro’s old office.
Is there any other place in the world quite like Guantánamo? A plot of land in a sovereign country, occupied under non-wartime conditions by another country as a military base against the explicit wishes of the “host” nation? The United States maintains many military installations around the world, but to my knowledge they are all sanctioned by mutual agreement, however fraught. The citizens of Okinawa, for example, may protest the presence of U.S. naval and air bases in their prefecture, but the Japanese government has routinely renewed the treaty that permits them to exist. In telling contrast, GTMO — with its anachronistic legal status, near-zero strategic value, and exorbitant maintenance costs — has become almost as much a problem for the U.S. as for Cuba, and for decades U.S. presidents and military commanders have attempted to retire the facility. Jimmy Carter sought to prune Guantánamo from the network of redundant extraterritorial bases, but after ceding the Canal Zone back to Panama, he lacked the political capital to implement the plan for Cuba. George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton floated similar proposals; all ended in frustration and inaction.
And then came the attacks of 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the installation of the prison at Guantánamo Bay to house those deemed “enemy combatants” by the Bush administration in their “war on terror.” The detention center was originally set up in the 1990s to quarantine Haitians fleeing violence on their island. Rescued from floundering boats at sea, the refugees were housed for months in open-air wire-mesh cages, dubbed Camp X-Ray, while they awaited the processing of their applications for asylum in the U.S. Most were sent back to Haiti.
In 2002 the complex was euphemistically renamed Camp Justice and renovated to receive detainees from abroad, many of whom had made intermediate stops at CIA-run “black hole” interrogation and torture sites. Guantánamo Bay was selected for this grim purpose explicitly because it is not on American soil and hence, the George W. Bush administration reasoned, not subject to constitutional judicial oversight. Today Guantánamo prison is universally condemned as a moral blot on the reputation of the United States. It is also, for what it’s worth, a clear violation of the terms of the lease agreement, which stipulates that the base is to be used exclusively for the defense of Cuba and U.S. interests in Cuba. Barack Obama sought to close the prison at Guantánamo, but Congress blocked his plan. Now it’s Joe Biden’s turn to try once again. From a peak population of about 780, the prison at GTMO houses (as I write) 37 prisoners, twenty of whom have been cleared for release to other countries.
With little reason to exist except as an irritant to the Cuban government, U.S. Naval Station GTMO has become a place of surreal malignancy.
With little reason to exist except as an irritant to the Cuban government, and with no interaction with the people of the island on which it is located, U.S. Naval Station GTMO has become a place of surreal malignancy. Camp Justice is strictly off limits to most military personnel even as the base remains home to several thousand enlistees and officers, and their families. As a reporter for the New York Times described it recently, the base “has the trappings of small-town America and the amenities of a college campus, and functions like a cross between a gated community and a police state.” And, the reporter added, “Most days it is easy to forget that the base sits in southeast Cuba.” 19 GTMO is a community on Cuban soil where the only Spanish you will hear is spoken by Puerto Rican military personnel.
Meanwhile, the city of Guantánamo persists in its own time warp. Few tourists visit, and those who do are usually stopping enroute between Santiago de Cuba and the picturesque colonial town of Baracoa, or descending from the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, a vast mountain forest studded with the ruins of 19th-century French coffee plantations, which has been maintained by the government as a nature preserve. Which is not to say that Guantánamo is a ghost town. On the contrary, with 216,000 inhabitants it is the sixth largest city in Cuba, a visibly poor but tidy, lively, provincial capital. The city still feels isolated from the rest of Cuba, and its inhabitants continue to resent the American occupation. Guantanameros to whom I have spoken are disgusted that the great bay — the very reason for the city’s founding — is not theirs to enjoy recreationally or to benefit from economically. It is strange indeed to look out over the vast body of water from a hilltop mirador and not see a single boat except a U.S. naval vessel in the far distance.
Guantánamo and its history can be seen as an exceptional distillation of the unhealthy relationship between Cuba and the United States.
Guantánamo and its history are most accurately interpreted as an exceptional distillation of the unhealthy relationship between Cuba and the United States. Over the first six decades of the 20th century, the U.S. sought to dominate Cuba economically and politically, but only in Guantánamo was Cuban territory seized and retained by military force. Investment from the north, in industries like sugar, mining, real estate, utilities, and tourism, fueled periods of great prosperity in Cuba, but in Guantánamo the local economy was disproportionately enmeshed with — and deformed by — U.S. interests. For many decades Cuba has enticed North Americans with promises of sun, sand, and sin, but nowhere were the vice enterprises as pernicious as in Guantánamo. Consequently, when the revolution expelled American businesses, legitimate and otherwise, the entire nation was hit hard, but nowhere was the economic collapse more abrupt than in Guantánamo. And today, while the cruel effects of the U.S. embargo — in force since 1962 — blight the lives of every Cuban, only in Guantánamo is the oppressing force visible across the water.
Snooty Habaneros may, as always, look down their noses at guajiros Guantanameros, but the region holds a place of patriotic affection in the Cuban psyche, now more than ever, as the last front in the struggle to decolonize the island. The next time you hear Guantanamera, listen to the lyrics.