Described by Fidel Castro as the dagger in the side of Cuban sovereignty, the US naval base at Guantánamo is approximately 118 square kilometres of leased North American territory, armed to the teeth and planted on Cuba’s southeastern coast.
The history of the naval base here dates back to Cuba’s nominal victory in the Wars of Independence with Spain, whereupon the US government immediately began to erode Cuba’s autonomy. Under the terms of the 1901 Platt Amendment, the US ordered Cuba to sell or lease land necessary for a naval station, declaring without irony that it was “to enable the United States to maintain the independence of Cuba”. Its primary aim, however, was to protect the nascent Panama Canal from any naval attacks. An annual rent was set at two thousand gold coins, and the base was born. In 1934 the Treaty of Reciprocity repealed the Platt Amendment but did not alter the conditions surrounding the lease; and as it’s stipulated that the lease cannot be terminated without both parties’ consent, it seems unlikely that Cuba will regain sovereignty of the land under its present regime. Famously, Fidel Castro has not cashed a single rent cheque from the US government, preferring to preserve them for posterity in a locked desk drawer.
The base’s history took another twist in December 2001 with the decision of the Bush administration to detain Islamic militants captured as part of the “War on Terror”. Prisoners were initially kept in the makeshift Camp X-Ray but in April 2002 were transferred to Camp Delta, a larger, permanent site, which comprises several detention camps, manned by six hundred soldiers as part of the Joint Task Force Guantánamo. Controversy immediately arose around the circumstances under which the men were held. Because they were classed as “illegal combatants” rather than prisoners of war, the US military felt they did not have to uphold the Geneva Convention and that the detainees could be held indefinitely without charge. Some 779 people (including a number of children) representing forty different nationalities have to date been held here, many without access to any court, legal counsel or family visits.
A decision in June 2004 by the US Supreme Court ruled that the detainees should come under the jurisdiction of US courts and that the policy of holding prisoners indefinitely without the right to judicial review was unlawful. Rather than address these charges, the Bush administration passed the Military Commissions Act 2006, which overrode the main objections. In January 2009, as part of a broader aim to restore the international reputation of the US’s justice system and foreign policies, President Obama suspended the Guantánamo Military Commissions and vowed that the detainee camp would be closed by January 2010. Though this promise remains unfulfilled, in February 2016 President Obama approved plans submitted to the US Congress to begin the procedure of closing down the camp. Given that there were immediate objections from both ends of the political spectrum, it remains to be seen how long it’ll be before the final US prisoner leaves Cuban soil.