Twenty years ago this month, the military transformed the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, into a detention camp for suspected terrorists. The first arrivals, largely captured in Afghanistan, were shackled, dressed in bright orange jumpsuits and photographed cowering behind barbed wire. The U.S. government claimed it could hold these “enemy combatants” indefinitely without trial, outside the Geneva Conventions protecting prisoners of war. In response, American attorneys launched numerous lawsuits over habeas corpus, human rights and due process.

A flag flies at half-staff in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, after a deadly terrorist attack in Afghanistan. Alex Brandon/Associated Press

But long before the United States held detainees on the base, Cuban workers recognized the base’s strained relationship with the law. Indeed, the base’s legal history is rooted in Cuban history. Cuban workers repeatedly petitioned the U.S. government to recognize their rights on the base. It was only after the United States stopped depending on Cuban workers that it could reimagine the base as a refugee camp in the 1990s, and then a detention center in the fight against terrorism. Yet many of the problems with its use as a detention center echoed the problems exposed by Cuban workers. And these problems remain today.

The history of the base goes back to the Spanish-American War in 1898.

U.S. troops fought Spain for a brief six weeks, although Cubans had been fighting for independence for three decades. Spain surrendered to the United States, and the U.S. military remained on the island, refusing to leave unless Cuban leaders accepted the U.S.-written Platt Amendment in their constitution. The amendment greatly limited Cuba’s sovereignty, and it required Cuba to lease land to the United States for a coaling or naval station.


Cuban leaders balked; this was an affront to their years-long campaign for independence. Ultimately, however, they had little choice but to grudgingly vote to accept the Platt Amendment in return for the end of U.S. occupation.


The 1903 Lease Agreement gave Cuba “ultimate sovereignty” and the United States “complete jurisdiction and control” over the 45 square miles that would become the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay. This set up a clear legal contradiction.

With the Great Depression and the military buildup before World War II, thousands of Cubans sought jobs on the base. The base offered better salaries and more steady work than jobs on sugar plantations. Many Cubans valued these base jobs, but working for the U.S. military raised legal questions.

As journalist Lino Lemes wrote, Cuban workers on the base were “not protected by American social laws or Cuban social laws.” In the 1940s, he was referring broadly to minimum-wage, pension and leave policies. Lemes wrote in a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the U.S. officials applied whichever law “happened to be more convenient.” In other words, did Cuban law or U.S. law govern Cuban workers and U.S. military personnel on the base?

The issue came to a head in 1954. As with most military installations, there was an ongoing problem with petty theft. U.S. officials accused Cuban workers of pilfering everything from bicycles to penicillin. But local Cuban courts, which had jurisdiction, did not often prosecute or convict these offenses. The local courts did not prioritize these cases, and they often even refused to return stolen goods to the United States. Base officers began to investigate whether they could try Cuban workers themselves. This created a conflict between military officials who wanted to crack down on theft and State Department officials who valued amicable U.S.-Cuban relations more than a missing radio or $100.

In 1954, however, base officials moved forward with a change in how they handled such petty theft. They accused Lorenzo Salomón Deer, a Cuban worker, of stealing eight cartons of cigarettes. Rather than pressing charges in Cuba, the U.S. officers held Salomón on the base for two weeks without notifying his family or a lawyer.



This outraged Salomón’s fellow workers when they heard what had happened. One base worker protested that Salomón had “disappeared as if he had been swallowed by the earth.” On release, Salomón claimed that he had been forced to stand for 14 to 15 hours each day, received rotten potatoes and dirty water and was beaten regularly. He signed a confession that he had stolen the cigarettes, but he added that his confinement was so brutal, he would have confessed to killing Abraham Lincoln, too.

Local leaders charged that the United States violated base workers’ most basic rights. One labor leader said he couldn’t believe that the United States, a “champion of democracy,” would use such “methods and systems of terror.” He didn’t claim Salomón was innocent, but he argued that the United States could not hold Cuban workers on the base and circumvent the Cuban legal system. He added, “The base officials have every right to clarify whatever event happened on the base, but we don’t believe that they have the right to physically and mentally mistreat a single Cuban citizen.”

While the United States insisted it had done no wrong, Salomón was ultimately tried and convicted in a Cuban court. Local protests worked in this case. Cuban workers succeeded in pressuring the base to respect their rights, and there’s no record that U.S. naval officers held any other workers it suspected of petty theft in the same way. The Navy recognized limits on its authority as good politics, if not legally necessary.

This changed with the 1959 Cuban Revolution, and the subsequent rupture of U.S.-Cuban relations. The base did not stop the revolution. Many Cuban workers initially thought they could support the revolution and continue working on the base. But by 1964, the U.S. government wanted the base to be more self-sufficient. It fired the majority of Cuban workers and then brought in Jamaican and Filipino contract workers. This trend accelerated during the 21st-century wars in the Middle East. With this, the U.S. base in Guantánamo Bay became more and more of an island unto itself.

The United States would double down on its power to hold people on the base in the 1990s when it transformed the base into a Haitian refugee camp. The United States argued that Haitians on the base were not governed by the U.S. Constitution. By this point, there were no worker protests. However, human rights lawyers fought for Haitians’ due process rights in language that would have been familiar to Cuban base workers, emphasizing that people held on the base must have access to lawyers and can’t be abused or detained indefinitely.


What these stories reveal is that in some ways, the military prison at Guantánamo Bay had a precedent – the United States historically did not recognize that a clear legal standard applied to non-Americans on the base. Before the revolution, it was only Cuban workers who spoke out, and the Eisenhower administration’s desire to maintain good relations, that checked the U.S. military’s ability to detain them. Cuban workers recognized that the base’s tenuous legal framework opened the door for injustice, arbitrariness and even allegations of torture.

The handling of detainees in the fight against terrorism brought these dangers to fruition. The Cuban workers’ 1950s protests against detention and allegations of abuse were shockingly prescient. The main reason the United States chose to create a prison camp in Guantánamo Bay was that it could simultaneously hold the detainees outside the United States and not be constrained by a host country. As long as this remains true, there is a risk of the United States using the base to hold others.

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