Sounds crazy? Perhaps, yet it is so—U.S. Naval Base Guantánamo Bay is still a sovereign U.S. territory in Cuba.
U.S. Naval Base in South-East Cuba, occupying approximately 116 km² of land and sea
How Did It Happen?
During the Spanish-American War in 1898, U.S. Marines invaded Guantánamo. American military leadership realized that the area would be suitable to militarily protect the Panama Canal and the U.S. Eastern Southern Coast. And to have all shipping of strategic material, such as coal, under their thumb.
In 1901, the U.S. legislature passed a new law, the Platt Amendment, which made Guantánamo an American protectorate. In the same year, Cuba incorporated this law into the Cuban Constitution. Tomás Estrada Palma, the first Cuban president, then offered the United States to lease Guantánamo in perpetuity. That happened in 1903 when Cuba and the United States signed the Treaty of Relations. For about 4000 U.S. dollars per year, the Cuban Government guaranteed the Americans complete and unrestricted control over Guantánamo forever, while Cuba was guaranteed to keep its sovereignty.
The Treaty conditions may not have been the best deal for Cuba. However, the Cubans knew that only a few years before, the Americans helped them defeat the Spanish in Cuba and to become an independent country. And they wanted to continue as one. They did not want the Spanish colonial rule to return, and they did not want to become a U.S. protectorate either. So Guantánamo perhaps seemed a reasonable price for Cuban independence.
U.S. Base in Cuba
The base first served as a naval center and storage for coal. Coal was then a strategic material. Not only then.
U.S. Marines in Guantánamo in 1911
In 1934 The United States and Cuba signed another Treaty of Relations that only further confirmed the legal status of Guantánamo. Both parties agreed that the U.S. base would be closed only if the governments of both the U.S. and Cuba agreed, or if the U.S. abandoned it.
U.S. Naval Command in Guantánamo in 2010
In 1959 Fidel Castro became the new leader of Cuba. The existence of a U.S. base on Cuban territory bothered him. He refused the lease payments from the Americans, because he felt that by accepting them, he would have recognized the base’s legitimacy. Why didn’t Castro simply evict the Americans from Guantánamo? Perhaps he worried that the Americans would see such a step as an attack on their territory, and a war would follow. A war that would not end up well for anyone. This was probably a wise decision.
Satellite picture of the base
Military Prison at Guantánamo
At the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, the base also served as a detention center for thousands of migrants from Haiti, Dominican Republic, and from other countries in the area. These people were trying to escape their countries by sea, but the U.S. Navy caught them. This was a problem because many of the migrants were HIV positive, and no one really knew what to do with them. Therefore, a military detention center was built at Guantanamo.
Some time ago, a former U.S. sailor explained to me what his service on Guantánamo was like.
“It was nuts,” he said. “One night I was in charge of the quarters together with two other sailors. All of a sudden, two hundred recent detainees, still bearing arms, showed up at my station. The U. S. Navy had dumped them off at my station, and no one had bothered to relieve them of their weapons! I told them they were on U.S. territory. ‘First, put down your weapons here,’ he went on. “And don’t do any stupid shit.”
“They dumped a bunch of pistols, knives, and other weapons on the floor. The pile was taller than me. It was scary. What if they attack us? I was really afraid, but it ended up well.”
“What was the service on base like otherwise?” I asked him.
“It was not bad,” he said. “The base was safe, we had good schools for our kids and good restaurants. Many American servicemen wanted to serve there back then. If it were not for the migrants, it would have been a piece of cake. Well, there was one other problem. Sometimes, I could not get a good night’s sleep.”
“Why was that?” I asked him.
“Because of the minefields all around us. Sometimes explosions would wake me up. Then in the morning, you would see bloody pieces of animals hanging on the trees. When I first saw that, I couldn’t stop puking.”
The Delta Camp, part of the base prison
In 1961, both Americans and Cubans started to install mine fields around the base, in “no one’s land.” These were some of the largest mine fields in the Western world. Cuba and the United States were mortal enemies at the time, and they each wanted distance from each other. Fatal accidents happened. Young U.S. military personnel would get drunk on the base and then step somewhere where they should not have.
In 1996, President Clinton ordered the U.S. military to clear the U.S. mine fields around the base. Mines were replaced by motion and noise detectors, as well as by listening devices. The system of border protection is similar to that of Czechoslovakia’s border protection during the Cold War. The base was, and still is, equipped with watch towers, machine guns, and signal walls. Today, close to 9000 members of U.S. Marines and U.S. Navy serve there. There are signs, “Military area. Do not enter. Deadly force will be used.”
Guantánamo Concentration Camp?
After an American attack on Afghanistan in 2002, a detention center for “enemy combatants” was built on Guantánamo. These prisoners were suspected of Islamic terrorism. First, there were several hundreds of them. The U.S. Government did not consider them Prisoners of War according to Geneva Conventions. Without being formally charged of any crimes, these men spent years in detention. Military police used German shepherds on them. Often, these dogs were bought from the Czech Republic. The breeding stations in Southwestern Czech Republic had supplied the dogs to the Czechoslovak Border Guard only a decade before.
In 2010, the U.S. Government asked the Czech Republic officials if they would take some of the prisoners. The official answer of the Czech government came swiftly, “No, thank you, ladies and gentlemen. We do not have facilities for that. Therefore, unfortunately, we will not be able to take advantage of your otherwise generous offer.” An unofficial answer was, “Guys, these men are your prisoners, so shove it.”
After that, years-long legal battles began concerning the status of Guantánamo military prison. On top of that, someone leaked that the CIA and military investigators tortured the prisoners. A scandal erupted. The U.S. Department of Defense claimed that Guantánamo is under the military and that civilians had no business meddling in that.
Soon, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. The judges basically said, that, “Guantánamo is a sovereign U.S. territory and as such, U.S. laws apply even there.”
In 2009, President Obama promised he would close the prison, but the U.S. Congress refused to fund such an endeavor, even though the maintenance of the prison then cost about 450 million U.S. dollar per year. The cost to close it would have been astronomical, and there would be no place to move the inmates. So, in 2011, President Obama turned around and agreed that the Guantánamo prisoners could be held there indefinitely.
Today, there are about thirty prisoners left. Many were released, because their countries were willing to take them back, a few were sentenced and went to prisons in the United States, and several committed suicide.
The story of Guantánamo goes on and on.
(c) Mirek Katzl
Legal Note: Any and all material in this article, whether text or pictures, has come from Free Domain, and it is therefore not necessary to quote the sources.
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