Most Americans are probably somewhat aware that United States government controls an area of Cuba called Guantanamo Bay. And I would wager that most people reading this article got most of their “GITMO” knowledge thanks to the classic 1992 Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Jack Nicholson movie, “A Few Good Men.” I would further wager that more than a few of you readers think that Guantanamo Bay is a private island off the coast of Cuba that we somehow commandeered 100 years ago. But that’s not correct.
Guantanamo Bay Naval Base is a 46.8 square mile area of land and water located on the far eastern side of Cuba’s mainland. Right across the water from Haiti, a little north of Jamaica. For perspective, that’s the same exact size of San Francisco.
Here’s a map:
Think about how weird that is for a minute. Imagine if America owned a suburb the size of San Francisco in North Korea right now. Or in Moscow during the Cold War. And imagine if we parked thousands of soldiers, missiles, tanks, etc in that suburb and kept them on high alert 24/7/365.
That would be an unfathomable reality, yet that’s the reality that has existed in Cuba for decades.
So, how did it come to be that the United States took control of Guantanamo Bay in the first place?
The History of Guantanamo Bay
The history of Guantanamo Bay predates the United States of America itself. In 1494, Christopher Columbus docked his ship in Guantanamo Bay during his second voyage to the New World. Columbus was on what would turn out to be an unsuccessful search for gold.
The protected bay quickly became first a safe haven for pirates and, much later, for the British Navy.
It wasn’t until over 400 hundred years later, during the Spanish-American war in 1898, when a US Marine battalion, 647 strong, landed at Guantanamo Bay and captured 7,000 Spanish troops. Just like the British Navy before it, the U.S. Navy found the Cuban bay’s protected waters quite useful. During this battle, the U.S. effectively seized the land and water of Guantanamo Bay. A few years later, in the Treaty of 1902, they made it official when the Cuban government agreed to lease areas around Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. for use as a naval base.
The treaty was signed by President Theodore Roosevelt and enabled the U.S. to help defend Cuba through a “coaling and naval station” to be established on the site.
A key element of the treaty was giving the United States “complete jurisdiction and control over and within said areas.” The only restrictions the Cuban government put on the United States in regards to Guantanamo Bay were that the area be used only as a coaling and naval station, and vessels engaged in trade with Cuba would retain free passage through the bay encompassed by the site.
A second agreement was signed by President Roosevelt on October 2, 1903 that expanded on the initial lease. According to the terms that were laid out in this agreement, the United States would pay Cuba a rental fee of two thousand dollars in gold per year. Another stipulation was that all fugitives from Cuban justice who were fleeing to the U.S. Naval base would be returned to Cuban authorities.
The Treaty of 1934 gives the United States a perpetual lease on the base. It can only be ended either by the U.S. leaving the area or by mutual agreement between the two countries.
As you might have guessed, Fidel Castro was not a fan of the rental agreement that he inherited. During his entire life, Fidel never once recognized the treaty that established the base.
Fidel’s love for his American military tenants was certainly not helped by the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. In that operation a CIA paramilitary group attempted to overthrow Castro and his government.
To this day, the Castro government maintains that the perpetual lease provision of the Treaty of 1934 is illegal. Fidel maintains that the land was “illegally usurped” by the US.
So how do they protest?
When Fidel came into power, his government stopped cashing our rent checks! Actually that’s not totally true. Cuba did cash ONE of our checks, back in 1959, but it was a clerical error by an accountant who didn’t know any better.
Cuba hasn’t cashed any of the checks we’ve sent every month over the last several decades, even after we voluntarily increased our own rent to $4,085 per month!!
The checks are sent every month straight from the United States Treasury and are made to the “order of Tesorero General De La Republica De Cuba” (order of Treasurer General of the Republic of Cuba):
GTMO: WWII To The Present
During World War II, Gitmo was used as a base for naval postal operations. The base was also an important distribution point for shipping convoys from New York City and Key West to the Panama Canal, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago.
From the end of World War II through the mid-1990s, Gitmo was used as a Fleet Training Facility for Navy units. The stable acoustic conditions for echo ranging made the sea close to Guantanamo Bay perfect for training the crew of Naval vessels in anti-submarine warfare, and deploying convoys to the Southern Atlantic. Additionally the Bay and its adjacent islands provided excellent amphibious training. This led to the 1st Marine Division at Guantanamo Bay.
Fleet Training Group activities ended and those troops left Cuba in 1995. At this point, the base’s nearly 100 years of usefulness to the U.S. Navy came to an abrupt end. The Navy shifted Gitmo into Minimum Pillar Performance (MPP) which basically meant the base was in a caretaker status, with only the barest of resources to maintain the provisions of the 1934 treaty.
As we all know, the September 11th attacks brought whole new purpose to GITMO. As American forces rounded up “high value detainees”, military leaders realized that a large area was needed to hold everyone. The contenders for this area were Guam, Diego Garcia, Wake Island, and Guantanamo Bay.
Ironically, the problem with the first three areas is that they all have legal treaties with foreign states that would have provided the prisoners basic rights. Both Guam and Wake Island are both pretty much American islands. If you want to get technical, they are “unincorporated territories of the United States, administered by the Office of Insular Affairs and the U.S. Department of the Interior”.
Diego Garcia is a tiny footprint-shaped coral atoll that is administered by the British Indian Ocean Territory. So prisoners housed on these three islands would technically have the same rights afforded to a citizen of the US or Britain.
Even more ironically, because GITMO was not US soil and the US did not have any sort of treaty with CUBA, the legal status of prisoners was very murky. Theoretically, prisoners living on GITMO wouldn’t have the same rights under American laws (most notably the right to legal representation, rights of prisoners, and rights to the American legal system). In fact, a US government official actually referred to the base as the “legal equivalent of outer space.”
On January 4, 2002, U.S. Southern Command took custody of designated detainees for further disposition at Guantanamo Bay. The base was used to secure captured enemy combatants from the war on terrorism and to set up and operate a holding facility for al Qaeda, Taliban and other terrorists. The War on Terrorism of course led the U.S. military to start a an interrogation effort on the detainees in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
In January 2009, President Obama signed executive orders directing the CIA to shut what remains of its network of secret prisons and ordering the closing of the Guantanamo detention camp within a year. But that didn’t happen.
On January 20, 2015, Barack Obama said the following during his State of the Union address:
“As Americans, we have a profound commitment to justice — so it makes no sense to spend three million dollars per prisoner to keep open a prison that the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit. Since I’ve been President, we’ve worked responsibly to cut the population of GTMO in half. Now it’s time to finish the job. And I will not relent in my determination to shut it down. It’s not who we are.“
Fidel Castro died a year later with no change in GITMO’s status.
GITMO remained unchanged during Donald Trump’s presidency and is still active as of this writing.
In February 2021, President Joe Biden announced a launch of a formal review of America’s military prison at Guantanamo.