The Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay is the oldest existing U.S. military base outside U.S. territory, and sits on a 45-square-mile area (117.6 square kilometers), near the northern tip of Cuba, on “the lizard’s heel,” facing Haiti and Jamaica. The bay sits on what was once Oriente Province, the very heart and soul of the independence movement against the Spanish empire. The symbolic importance of Oriente Province (now separated into 5 distinct provinces; Las Tunas, Holguín, Granma, Santiago de Cuba and Guantánamo) seems to amplify with the passing of time.
On April 13, 1494, during his second voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus sailed into Guantánamo and named it Puerto Grande, or “Great Port.” He described it in his diary as “a broad bay with dark water, of unsuspected dimensions.”
Four-hundred years later, on June 10 1898, U.S. marines landed on the bay during the Spanish-American War. Guantánamo “has been under unrivaled U.S. control since the Spanish American war concluded in 1898,” writes Daniel P. Erickson in The Cuba Wars: Fidel Castro, The United States and The Next Revolution.
In 1903 U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt signed an agreement with Cuba’s new government, leasing the bay for 2,000 gold coins per year. The agreement was forced on the new Cuban government, and gave the U.S. navy permission to occupy the bay.
Guantánamo “has been under unrivaled U.S. control since the Spanish American war concluded in 1898,” writes Daniel P. Erickson in The Cuba Wars: Fidel Castro, The United States and The Next Revolution.
After the Platt Amendment was annulled in 1934, a new lease was negotiated between the Roosevelt administration and a Cuban government that included Fulgencio Batista as one of three signatories. Batista emerged as the strong man on the island over the next twenty-five years.
When the Revolution triumphed in 1959, the new Cuban government requested that Guantánamo be returned to Cuba. Instead of returning it, the U.S. banned its soldiers stationed at the bay from entering Cuban territory.
“It’s no secret,” wrote Rafael Hernández Rodriquez in Subject to Solution: Problems in Cuban-U.S. Relations, “that the main mission of the naval bases in this area of the Gulf is to control, police and spy on Cuba.”
“After 1959,” wrote Roger Ricardo in his essay Guantánamo: A Critical History, “the Guantánamo base became a constant source of friction aimed at providing a pretext for possible U.S. armed intervention in Cuba.” (Guantánamo: Why the Illegal U.S. Base Should Be Returned to Cuba. Ocean Press, 2011.)
“Cuba’s call for the return of the area that the United States illegally occupies is based on the principle of sovereignty,” wrote Ricardo. “The US State Department emphasizes that the main reason for the Guantánamo base is political. In its view, the greatest power on earth shouldn’t have to cede to pressure from a small, poor, communist country.”
The issue of returning Guantánamo to Cuba is complicated by the agreement signed by Batista in 1934. The agreement states: “Until the two Contracting Parties agree to the modification or abrogation of the stipulations of the agreement in regard to the lease to the United States of America of lands in Cuba for coaling and naval stations… the stipulations of that Agreement with regard to the naval station of Guantánamo shall continue in effect.”
To the U.S. this means an “open-ended duration” that can only be terminated by mutual agreement (or when the U.S. chooses to do so). To Cuba it means that Guantánamo Bay is “occupied territory.”
In March, 1996, the fate of Guantánamo took another sad turn when it was incorporated into the Helms Burton Law authored by the anti-Castro community and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Section 201 (12) of Chapter II modifies the existing 1903/1934 treaty so that “the duration of the base,” as explained by Olga Miranda in her essay How To Exit the Guantánamo Treaty, “will now depend on whether Cuba has a government that Washington approves of.”
According to Miranda, the Helms-Burton provides “further proof that the continued existence of the naval base in Guantánamo is imposed on Cuba by the United States with no legal backing whatsoever and without consideration for the will of the Cuban people.”
While this paper will not attempt to enumerate the many legal aspects of international law invoked by this “occupation,” it’s important to note that most other “territories held” throughout the world have been returned. The Panama Canal was returned to Panama in January 2000, Hong Kong was returned to China by the United Kingdom in 1997, and Portugal returned Macau Island to China in 1999.
Since 1959, the U.S. sends a check for the lease amount every year, but the Cuban government has never cashed them.
What follows is a loose chronological timeline of events and activities surrounding the continuing U.S. occupation of Guantánamo;
February 16, 1903. A Lease Agreement signed on this day grants the U.S. “the right to use and occupy the waters adjacent to said areas of land and water… and generally to do any and all things necessary to fit the premises for use as coaling or naval stations only, and for no other purpose.”
March 3, 1903. U.S. Congress appropriates $100,000 for use at Guantánamo.
December 12, 1903. Official control of Guantánamo Bay is “handed” to the U.S. in a ceremony on the battleship Kearsage. At noon on that day the Cuban flag is lowered and the American flag is raised. Only one Cuban is present at the ceremony.
July 2, 1906. Just prior the 2nd U.S. military intervention, a new lease is signed in Havana for Guantánamo Bay and Bahía Honda, for which the U.S. will pay $2,000 per year.
May 29, 1934. A new “Treaty of Relations between Cuba and the United States” is signed. The new agreement dissolves the 1903 “Permanent Treaty” and includes provisions for U.S. use of Guantánamo Bay.
February 20, 1939. President Franklin D. Roosevelt visits Guantánamo aboard the USS Houston.
July 1, 1940. The new Cuban Constitution establishes that “the territory of the Republic consists of the Island of Cuba, the Isle of Pines and other adjacent islands and keys, which were under the sovereignty of Spain until the ratification of the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898. The Republic of Cuba shall not conclude or ratify pacts or treaties that in any form limit or undermine national sovereignty or the integrity of the territory.”
December 4. 1940. President Roosevelt visits Guantánamo again aboard the USS Tuscaloosa.
February 25, 1948. President Harry S. Truman visits the naval base at Guantánamo.
January 12, 1961. A Cuban employee (for over 3 years) at Guantánamo, Manuel Prieto Gómez, is tortured at the naval base for the crime of “supporting the Revolution.”
October 15, 1961. Naval Base Cuban worker Rubén López Sabariego is tortured and murdered.
June 24, 1962. A fisherman from Caimanera, Rodolfo Rosell Salas, is murdered by base soldiers.
September 3, 1962. U.S. soldiers in Guantánamo fire shots at Cuban sentries.
February 6, 1964. After incidents of kidnapping against local fishermen by anti-Castro Cuban-Americans, Cuba cuts off drinking water to the base.
February 11, 1964. U.S. President Johnson reduces the number of Cuban staff at the Guantánamo Naval Base.
July 19, 1964. Ramón López Peña, a 17-year-old Cuban soldier, is murdered “at close range” while on guard duty on the Cuban side of the Guantánamo fence.
May 21, 1966. Cuban soldier Luis Ramirez Lopez is killed by shots fired from the base.
February 24, 1976. Cuba’s new socialist constitution states in Article 11, Section C: “The Republic of Cuba repudiates and considers as null and illegal those treaties, pacts or concessions signed under conditions of inequality or which disregard or diminish her sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
January 11, 1985. In a speech during a visit to Nicaragua, Castro addresses the potential use of military violence to recover this territory; “What interest can we have in waging a war with our neighbors?” he said. “In our country we have a military base against the will of our people. It has been there throughout the twenty-six years of the revolution, and it is being occupied by force. We have the moral and legal right to demand its return. We have made the claim in the moral and legal way. We do not intend to recover it with the use of arms. It is part of our territory being occupied by a U.S. military base. Never has anyone, a revolutionary cadre, a revolutionary leader, or a fellow citizen, had the idea of recovering the piece of our territory by the use of force. If some day it will be ours, it will not be by the use of force, but the advance of the consciousness of justice in the world.”
October, 1985. In an interview with Soviet journalists, U.S. President Ronald Reagan affirms that the purpose of the base is political: to impose the U.S. presence, even if the Cubans don’t want it.
November, 1991. The Naval Base starts being used as a prison.
October, 1991. During the Fourth Communist Party Congress in Santiago de Cuba, planes and helicopters from Guantánamo Naval Base violate Cuban airspace in a show of force.
February, 1972. The George H.W. Bush administration holds that detainees are not entitled to any U.S. rights because they are being held in Cuban territory.
1994. Thousands of Haitian refugees are detained at Guantánamo.
From: Immigration and Asylum, From 1900 to the Present, Volume 1: Entries A to I, Matthew J. Gibney and Randall Hansen, Editors; “By November (1994) there were some 30,000 Cubans in addition to 20,000 Haitians being held at the base, at an estimated cost of $1 million per day. U.S. policy toward the Cubans was initially that they would have to return to their homes in order to apply for admittance to the United States. Nevertheless, on May 2, 1995, the William Clinton administration announced that the 21,000 Cubans still at Guantanamo would be allowed entry to the United States.”
January 8, 2002. Cuban learns that the U.S. will use Guantánamo base to hold prisoners captured in the war in Afghanistan.
January 11, 2002. The first 20 prisoners arrive at Guantánamo. They are called “unlawful combatants,” and not “prisoners of war,” and their rights under the Geneva Convention are removed.
January 16, 2002. Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, states that the captives at Guantánamo are prisoners of war entitled to rights under the Geneva Convention.
Later, Castro writes; “We could never have imagined at that moment that the U.S. government was preparing to create a horrendous torture center at that base.”
June 14, 2002. At the United Nations General Assembly, Cuba demands that Guantánamo territory be returned to the island.
February – May, 2002. Articles in the Miami Herald, the New York Times and the Washington Post tell of repeated suicide attempts at Guantánamo prison camp. A senior US official is later quoted describing the suicides as a "good public relations move."
January, 2003. From The Cuba Wars, pg. 191: “Specialist Sean Baker of Kentucky dressed as a detainee in an orange jumpsuit for an exercise to practice the forced extraction of an inmate from a cell. Led to believe that Baker was a real detainee, the U.S. soldiers in the drill beat him so badly that he suffered a traumatic brain injury. The seizures still persisted when he was discharged from the military a year later.” (New York Times, June 5, 2004. “Beating Specialist Baker,” by Nicholas D. Kristof.)
January, 2004. The Pentagon releases three children believed to be ten, twelve and thirteen when captured. Others follow. (Erickson, Pg. 11 – See also “Guantanamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power” by Joseph Margulies, Simon & Schuster, 2006)
March 11, 2004. An article in the New York Times tells the story of five British citizens who were held at Guantánamo and released into British custody. The men describe being repeatedly beaten and tortured, and are all released by British prosecutors without charges.
June, 2004. The U.S. Supreme Court rules (Rasul v. Bush) that foreign nationals in captivity at Guantánamo have the right to legal counsel and to challenge the legality of their captivity. Erickson: “More than four hundred detainees have been set free in the first four years since that ruling, and many of the released prisoners have alleged that they suffered torture at the hands of the United States.” (pg. 91)
April 11, 2005. Historian Jane Franklin, writing for HISTORIANS FOR PEACE: “Ever since New Year’s Day of 1959 when the Cuban Revolution took power, Washington has promoted “freedom and democracy” for Cuba. Yet, in the one section of Cuba occupied by U.S. military forces, Washington has instead created a prison that has become notorious around the world.”
June 10, 2006. The Department of Defense reports that three detainees at Guantánamo committed suicide by hanging themselves with nooses made of clothes and sheets.
June 13, 2006. In CNN’s The Situation Room, reporter Wolf Blitzer interviews Shafiq Rasul about his experiences as a prisoner in Guantánamo. (Transcript available at: http://transcripts.cnn.com/transcripts/0606/13/sitroom.02.html)
January 22, 2009. President Barack Obama issues an order to close the prison at the Guantánamo Naval Station.
May 20, 2009. The United States Senate votes to keep the prison at Guantánamo open.
Gibney M.J. and Hansen, R., Editors, “Immigration and Asylum, From 1900 to the Present, Volume 1: Entries A to I.” ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara. (2005).
Castro, F. “Why the Illegal U.S. Base Should Be Returned to Cuba.” Ocean Press. (2001).
Erikson, D.P. “The Cuba Wars; Fidel Castro, The United States and The Next Revolution.” Bloomsbury Press, New York. (2008).