Book Reviews

Book Review – Guantánamo: An American History

GUANTÁNAMO: An American History. By Jonathan M. Hansen. New York: Hill and Wang. 2011.

Guantánamo might seem narrow as a topic of study, but the author places it in broader contexts which it also serves to illuminate. Geological prehistory, personal stories of women, workers, and racial minorities, political and military developments, continental diplomacy, Constitutional issues, all figure in the story. The overriding theme is the tragic incompatibility of liberty, the announced aim of U.S. policy, with its true objective: imperial control.Guantanamo

Hansen depicts Guantánamo Bay as a stage on which America’s (and before that Spain’s and Britain’s) imperial ambitions played out. He makes frequent allusions to the wider Caribbean setting that defined Guantánamo’s strategic value for American policy makers long before it came under U.S. control. Hansen recounts little known but fascinating episodes such as the British-led occupation of the bay during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, an episode in which hundreds of North American colonists participated, and he provides welcome detail on familiar ones such as the tense negotiations between the U.S. government and delegates to the Cuban Constitutional Convention over the terms of Cuba’s independence.

Hansen makes effective use of social history to personalize the story of imperialism. He notes that in its heyday, Guantánamo was touted as an idealized American town, “the ultimate gated community” (236), but it was a town that enforced racial discrimination. Moreover it could not escape the fact that it was a military base in the tropics. Navy wives suffered from tedium when the fleet was away and from excessive male attention when it returned. U.S. labor laws did not apply to Cuban or Jamaican workers on the base while prostitution and other vices illegal in the U.S. flourished just outside.

Sometimes Hansen seems excessive in his condemnation of the U.S.—he gives too little credit to turn of the century anti-imperialists and his claim that Fidel Castro sought good relations with the U.S. until he was rebuffed in the spring of 1959 seems naïve. On the other hand, he cites evidence that the U.S. War Department wanted to prolong the Cuban insurrection of the 1890s in the cynical hope that “the extermination” of both sides would facilitate the island’s annexation. And it is dispiriting to learn that the Kennedy administration contemplated manufacturing an “incident” at Guantánamo to justify an invasion of the island by U.S. troops. Hansen’s last two chapters detail the horrific treatment of Haitian refugees and military detainees of “The War on Terror,” practices that were facilitated by Guantánamo’s status as an imperial enclave. They make for painful but salutary reading and go far to vindicate the author’s thesis.

Some minor issues mar this otherwise excellent book. It is silent on Guantánamo’s role in U.S. imperial adventures in the early twentieth century. Additional maps would have been helpful in places such as the detailed account of the arrival of U.S. forces in 1898. A bibliography would also have been useful. Finally, the text would benefit from more careful copy editing (e.g., “U.S. military planners expected to begin the war not [in Cuba, but in?] in Puerto Rico…” on page 86 and “flout” for flaunt on page 190).

Daniel R. Miller, Calvin College

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