National Geographic Society Newsroom

Geography in the News: Guantanamo

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM and Guantanamo’s Troubles The U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was selected by President George W. Bush’s administration to house some of the worst of Osamma bin Laden’s al-Queda terrorists and their Taliban supporters from Afghanistan. It is one of the few...

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM and

Guantanamo’s Troubles

The U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was selected by President George W. Bush’s administration to house some of the worst of Osamma bin Laden’s al-Queda terrorists and their Taliban supporters from Afghanistan. It is one of the few military bases outside of the United States totally and unequivocally under U.S. control, a critical issue in the administration’s “war on terror.”

President Obama campaigned five years ago to close the facility, but was blocked by Congress. The reasons are complicated, but the issue is not likely to go away. Presently, approximately 100 of the 166 prisoners are on hunger strikes, 39 of whom are reportedly undergoing force feeding.


This is not the first time the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base has been used to detain individuals, but it is the first time known terrorists have been imprisoned there. Cuban and other refugees were held within the base during the 1990s, but the amount of security necessary for that operation pales in comparison to housing and controlling the current group from Afghanistan.

How did the U.S. gain control of this section of Cuba and what is the geography of this place that initially made it the most desirable location to detain terrorists?

Guantanamo Bay is one of the best harbors on the island of Cuba. Located on the southeastern end of this elongated island, the Bay is a drowned river mouth, called an estuary. The U.S. Naval Base is a block of land and water around the mouth of the Bay.

Cuba has occupied an important economic and geopolitical position in the Caribbean since the arrival of the Spanish in the late 15th century. The island’s geographical position was perfect for the Spanish, who used its harbors for staging sites to assemble the manpower and equipment to conquer South and Central America’s native populations. Later, these harbors served as break-in-bulk points for gold transportation back to Spain.

The Spanish ruled Cuba from Columbus’ arrival in 1492 until the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Internal fighting had become so pronounced prior to the war, that Americans living in Cuba requested protection, prompting the United States to send the battleship U.S.S. Maine. An explosion of unknown origin sank the ship in Havana’s harbor on Feb. 15, 1898, with a loss of 266 lives.

Two months later, the United States declared war on Spain and by June 17, 1898, U.S. troops landed in Cuba, including Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. A month later the Spanish navy had been defeated and by August, the Spanish-American War was over. Although the United States took credit for the victory, it was clear that the open rebellion by Cubans against Spanish control had weakened both the Spanish military and public resolve to pursue the war. For some American soldiers, including the Rough Riders, the war was almost a romantic venture.

A U.S. military government was installed in Cuba. Although U.S. laws were drawn up over the next few years of occupation to allow Cuba some self-determination, it was clear that Cuba lay in the U.S. sphere of influence under the famous Monroe Doctrine of 1823.

The Platt Amendment to a U.S. arms appropriations bill required Cuba to accept all acts of the military government as legitimate, permitted U.S. purchase or lease of Cuban territory for use of coaling and naval stations and legalized the intervention by the United States at any time to preserve Cuban independence. The Cubans had to ratify these restrictions in 1901 as the only alternative to permanent U.S. military occupation. The legacy of the Platt Amendment endures, although Cuba gained its independence in 1902.

Under the Platt Amendment, the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay was leased in 1902, and a treaty reaffirmed the lease in 1934. The site occupies 45 square miles (117 sq. km.) of land and water around the mouth of Guantanamo Bay, which is an excellent deep-water harbor. Much of the land on the base was low and swampy, but the U.S. military’s drainage and filling projects have greatly expanded the useable land.

The United States used the base as a listening post during World War II to protect the Panama Canal. When Fidel Castro and his communist rebels took Cuba from dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, U.S.-Cuban relations became strained. The unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles, supported tacitly by U.S. President John F. Kennedy, and the U.S. stand against the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis was justified by the United States based on the Platt Amendment.

Throughout Castro’s reign in Cuba, he periodically threatened the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, even occasionally turning off the water to the base and harassing the facility and its occupants. The United States, however, has been adamant about maintaining its possession.

The base has had many roles over the years. It has airfields, training, repair, supply and medical facilities, as well as housing for detainees. Surrounded by high fences with concertina, or razor wire, electronic security devices, land mines and constant land and sea patrols, the facility is considered very secure.

A 10-year-old facility called Camp X-Ray was used to house illegal Cuban and Haitian refugees. But with the arrival of the more violent and militant al-Queda detainees, the facility has been up-graded and made even more secure. Now further upgrades, estimated at $200 million will be necessary to continue to house the present internees on the base.

A basic reason for using Guantanamo Bay to detain terrorists is that only American military law is applied there. A location outside the United States proper was critical to using military courts to try the detainees rather than domestic American law. This is the debate that continues within U.S. government affecting the future of Guantanamo.

And that is Geography in the News™. January 25, 2002. #608.

Sources: GITN #608 U.S. Naval Base Becomes Prison for Al-Qaeda, Jan. 25, 2002;; and

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.

Nearly 900 of the 1200, full-length weekly Geography in the News articles (with Spanish translations) are available in the K-12 online education resource, including maps and other supporting materials and critical thinking questions.


About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Neal Lineback
Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..