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How Did The U.S. Come To Control Guantanamo Bay, Cuba In The First Place?

Consider how absurd it would be if America currently controlled 50 square miles of North Korea. We have effectively had it in Cuba for many years. How did this get started?



On the far eastern part of Cuba’s mainland, in a region of land and water measuring 46.8 square miles, is the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. A bit to the north of Jamaica, directly across the river from Haiti. For comparison, San Francisco is exactly the same size as that.

This is a map:

Just take a moment to consider how bizarre that is. Imagine that America currently controlled a North Korean suburb the size of San Francisco. or during the Cold War in Moscow. 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 incomprehensible reality, yet Cuba has lived with it for many years.

The History of Guantanamo Bay

Guantanamo Bay’s history goes back before the founding of the United States of America. During his second trip to the New World, Christopher Columbus anchored his ship in Guantanamo Bay in 1494. Columbus embarked on a quest for riches that would prove fruitless.

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. The protected waters of Cuban Bay were very helpful to the U.S. Navy, just like they were to the British Navy before it. The U.S. successfully took control of Guantanamo Bay’s land and water during this conflict. They made it official a few years later, in the Treaty of 1902, when the Cuban government agreed to let the United States lease land near Guantanamo Bay so that it could be used as a naval base.

Rental Agreement

The treaty, which Theodore Roosevelt signed, allowed the United States to assist Cuba in defending itself by establishing a “coaling and naval station” there.

Giving the United States “full jurisdiction and control over and within those lands” was a crucial component of the pact. 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.

On October 2, 1903, President Roosevelt ratified a new lease that went beyond the original. In accordance with the provisions of this agreement, the United States would provide Cuba with a yearly rental payment of $2,000 in gold. Another requirement was that all individuals evading Cuban justice and traveling to the U.S. Naval facility would be handed over to Cuban law enforcement.

The United States is granted a perpetual lease on the base by the Treaty of 1934. It can only be ended either by the U.S. leaving the area or by mutual agreement between the two countries.

The unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 did not exactly enhance Fidel’s affection for his American military renters. In that operation a CIA paramilitary group attempted to overthrow Castro and his government.

Our rent payments were no longer being cashed by Fidel’s government once he took office! Actually, that isn’t entirely accurate. In 1959, Cuba did cash ONE of our cheques, but it was a clerical error made by an inexperienced accountant.

Even after we willingly upped our own rent to $4,085 per month, Cuba hasn’t cashed any of the checks we’ve given every month over the past many years!

The cheques are made payable to the “order of Tesorero General De La Republica De Cuba” (order of Treasurer General of the Republic of Cuba) and are sent directly from the US Treasury each month:

GTMO: WWII To The Present

Gitmo served as a station for naval mail operations during World War II. 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.

In 1995, Fleet Training Group operations came to an end, and the troops departed Cuba. The base’s nearly 100 years of service to the U.S. Navy came to an end at this moment. Gitmo was placed under Minimum Pillar Performance (MPP) by the Navy, thus placing it in a caretaker role with only the bare minimum of resources to uphold the terms of the 1934 treaty.

As we all know, GITMO now has a completely new function as a result of the September 11th attacks. Military leaders in the United States knew that a big space was required to house everyone while their forces picked up “high value detainees.” Wake Island, Guantanamo Bay, Guam, and Diego Garcia were the candidates for this location.

Ironically, the first three regions had legal agreements with other countries that would have given the convicts fundamental rights. Wake Island and Guam are both essentially American islands. They are “unincorporated territories of the United States, governed by the Office of Insular Affairs and the United States Department of the Interior,” if you want to get technical.

Diego Garcia is a tiny coral atoll in the form of a footprint that is under the control of 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.

Ironically, the legal status of inmates was quite hazy because GITMO was not on US land and because the US and Cuba had no formal treaty in place. Theoretically, under American law, inmates held at GITMO wouldn’t have the same rights (most notably the right to legal representation, rights of prisoners, and rights to the American legal system). In fact, a representative of the US administration described the base as the “legal equivalent of outer space.”

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 it didn’t go like that.

Barack Obama said the following on January 20, 2015, during his State of the Union address:

A year later, Fidel Castro passed away, but GITMO remained in place.

President Joe Biden said in February 2021 that a formal review of America’s military prison at Guantanamo had begun.

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