Early Tuesday morning, Obama announced a four-part plan to ensure the closing of Guantanamo Bay, a goal that has eluded the president since he promised to shutter the facility during his 2008 campaign.
The plan would bring some of the 91 remaining detainees to maximum security prisons in the United States, while others would be transferred to foreigns countries. Although Obama called on Congress to lift a ban barring the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the U.S., the White House has also left open the possibility of unilateral action should Republican lawmakers refuse to cooperate.
“The plan we’re putting forward today isn’t just about closing the facility at Guantanamo,” Obama said to the nation from the Roosevelt Room. “This is about closing a chapter in our history.”
With history in mind, it seems significant that the speech was given on this day, in this venue. Exactly 113 years ago, following the Spanish-American War, Teddy Roosevelt signed an agreement with Cuba to lease parts of Guantanamo Bay to the United States for use as a naval station.
This agreement was actually a follow-up to the Platt Amendment, a 1901 resolution that dictated seven conditions for the withdrawal of United States troops from Cuba, along with an eighth condition stipulating that Cuba include these terms in their new constitution. The amendment gave the United States full control over a 45 square-mile portion of Guantanamo Bay, in order to “enable the United States to maintain the independence of Cuba.” The deal was officiated on behalf of the Cubans by Tomás Estrada Palma, an American citizen who would become the first president of Cuba.
Three decades later, the 1934 Cuban–American Treaty of Relations repealed most provisions of the Platt Amendment as part of FDR’s “good neighbor policy.” The effort, ostensibly intended to give the Cuban government greater sovereignty, made the lease on Guantanamo permanent unless the United States abandoned the base or both countries agreed to terminate the agreement. The new treaty also updated the yearly lease payment from $2000 in U.S. gold coins to $4035 in U.S. dollars. This amount has remained unchanged in the 82 years since.
Since the Cuban revolution of 1959, the Castro government has cashed only one of these checks (this one supposedly by accident), keeping the rest untouched as a means of protest against what they consider an “illegal” occupation. According to the U.S., cashing even one check renders the treaty valid.
The use of Guantanamo as a prison began in 1991, following the overthrow of Haiti’s first democratically-elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. While the CIA secretly leant support to death squads killing Aristide’s supporters, the White House announced that it would be using Guantanamo as a “tent shelter” for those fleeing violence in Haiti. Of the 30,000 refugees interned at Guantanamo, those who presented discipline problems were held on a site that would later become Camp Xray, also known as the Guantanamo detention camp.
Following Bush Sr.’s disputed decision to send the exiles back to war-torn Haiti, the Supreme Court ruled that the Haitians were not entitled to U.S. rights because Guantanamo Bay fell under the sovereignty of Cuba. Interestingly, this rationale for the United States not technically having sovereignty over the land would come up again, twelve years later, as George W. Bush’s administration argued that Guantanamo prisoners should not be constitutionally entitled to habeas review.
This is all to say that, even before it became an international symbol for the War on Terror, the policies leading to and enforcing the U.S. ownership of Guantanamo Bay have been extremely controversial. As renewed attention is focused on the use of Guantanamo as a terrorist detention center, it’s well worth considering how this small Cuban harbor became a U.S.-run prison in the first place.