A New Challenge for the United States' Oldest Military Base Overseas
Cuba gained its independence when the U.S. military occupation of the island that began in 1898 was ended in 1902. The following year, Cuba agreed to lease to the United States in perpetuity the area of land and water occupying both sides of Guantánamo Bay in the island’s eastern region, which the U.S. would use as a coaling station.
In 1934, the two countries reaffirmed the lease and specified that it could only be terminated with the consent of both the U.S. and Cuba or if the United States abandoned the base. When, after the Cuban Revolution, the United States cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, the American and Cuban military began patrolling the base’s boundary, a 17.4-mile fence which is still guarded today by the U.S. Marines and Cuba’s Frontier Brigade.
The primary mission of U.S. Naval Base Guantánamo Bay is “to serve as a strategic logistics base for the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet and to support counter drug operations in the Caribbean.” The base took on another mission in 1994: migrant operations. In May of that year, a joint task force of the U.S. military launched Operation Sea Signal to rescue and intercept Haitian migrants at sea escaping the island’s military government.
The U.S. Naval Base Guantánamo Bay was selected as temporary shelter for these migrants. When the Cuban rafter crisis emerged in August, already 15,000 Haitians were living in tents on the base. Operation Sea Signal was expanded to include Cuban rafters, and Guantánamo began preparing to house up to 60,000 Cubans.
Manual for U.S. military assigned to Joint Task Force 160’s Operation Sea Signal, 1995 From the GRASP (Guantánamo Refugee Assistance Program) Collection.