What you didn’t know about Gitmo – U.S. Guantanamo Naval Base, Cuba

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A guard is at her post over the Joint Task Force Guantanamo detention facility. (JTF Guantanamo photo by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Gino Reyes) A guard is at her post over the Joint Task Force Guantanamo detention facility. (JTF Guantanamo photo by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Gino Reyes)

After more than 50 years of estrangement, renewed diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba has been celebrated around the world. But one issue still remains a major challenge – the status of the U.S. Guantanamo Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, said on July 20 – the day the Cuban Embassy reopened in Washington – that the United States must respect Cuba by returning Guantanamo Bay. Cubans consider it “occupied territory” since the U.S. laid claim to it more than 100 years ago. The U.S. continues to imprison 116 suspected al-Qaida detainees at the GITMO detention facility. Here are some basic details about the naval base, also known as GITMO, that you may not know:

1. It’s 45 square miles

The base covers land and water on the southeastern end of Cuba and is the oldest overseas U.S. Naval Base. Since January 2002, the base it’s also housed a military prison, the Guantanamo Bay detention camp for combatants captured in Afghanistan, Iraq and other places.

2. How did the U.S. get Guantanamo?

The First Marine Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington, landed on the eastern side of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on 10 June 1898. The next day, an American flag was hoisted above Camp McCalla where it flew during the next eleven days. (United States Marine Corps)

The First Marine Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington, landed on the eastern side of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on 10 June 1898. The next day, an American flag was hoisted above Camp McCalla where it flew during the next eleven days. (United States Marine Corps)

In April 1898, the United States intervened in the Cuban War of Independence against Spain, sparking the Spanish-American War. At the end of the war three months later, the United States was put in control of several overseas territories, including Cuba.

LEARN MORE: The Heat: The future of Guantanamo Bay and Cuban sovereignty

In 1903, the U.S. approved the Platt Amendment (named after Senator Orville Platt of Connecticut) — a treaty between the U.S. and Cuba aimed at protecting Cuba’s independence from foreign intervention. The Amendment allowed for extensive U.S. involvement in Cuban international and domestic affairs for the enforcement of Cuban independence. Cubans reluctantly included the amendment, which virtually made Cuba a U.S. protectorate, in their constitution, according to the National Archives.

3. The U.S. lease to Guantanamo lasts… Forever


The Platt Amendment (above) stipulated the conditions for U.S. intervention in Cuban affairs and permitted the United States to lease or buy lands for the purpose of the establishing naval bases and coaling stations in Cuba, according to research by the National Archives.

Specifically, Article III of the amendment required that the government of Cuba consent to the right of the United States to intervene in Cuban affairs for “the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty, and for discharging the obligations with respect to Cuba imposed by the Treaty of Paris on the United States, now to be assumed and undertaken by the Government of Cuba.”

The Platt Amendment supplied the terms under which the United States intervened in Cuban affairs in 1906, 1912, 1917, and 1920.

By 1934, rising Cuban nationalism and widespread criticism of the Platt Amendment resulted in its repeal as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy toward Latin America. The United States, however, retained its lease on Guantánamo Bay, where a naval base was established.

4. How much is the rent?

Under the The Cuban–American Treaty Guantanamo land was leased for $2,000 a year in U.S. gold coin.

In 1938, that was modified to $4,085 per year. So far, Cuba has not cashed any of the U.S. checks (with the exception of one that was cashed by accident in 1959) because it doesn’t recognize the U.S. lease.

5. How many Cubans call Guantanamo home?

According to United Nations data, 217,365 Cubans live in Guantanamo. There are currently 7,500 Americans stationed at the Guantanamo Bay Navy Base.

6. How many people have been detained at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp?

There have been 779 prisoners held at Guantanamo prison opened on January 11, 2002. Currently 116 remain at the detention camp.

7. What’s next for the base?

In 2009, President Obama issued an executive order to “promptly close detention facilities at Guantanamo” promising it would happen within a year. Now, less than 18 months before he leaves office, Obama and his administration are involved in renewed efforts to close it.


  • Montgomery Granger

    Very good piece! I enjoyed it. Thank you for writing about Gitmo. What’s next? Hopefully a short but useful purpose in keeping unlawful combatant Islamists off the battlefield. Maybe they will all surrender, lay down their arms and then promise never to murder again? Until then, Gitmo, the safest, most secure place for detainees in the Global War on Terror, should remain.

    • arcticredriver

      Doctor Granger, once again you shock me. I frankly don’t believe it is credible that you could have worked at Guantanamo and never clued in to the obvious fact that a large fraction of the captives were innocent bystanders, who were unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

      Your continual touting of the hard-line that all the captives were “unlawful combatant Islamists” is not only shamefully unjust — and un-American — it is also very damaging to public safety.

      As a military officer, didn’t you have to swear an oath to defend the US Constitution? Doesn’t that oath put an obligation on you to place public safety before preserving the reputation of your colleagues who were torturers?

      Therefore, I urge you, I urge you, in the very strongest terms — stop pretending that all the captives are dangerous. Stop pretending that they all had some kind of association with terrorism.

      Public safety is much better served if we have an accurate idea of who the captives were — not the fevered imaginings of the incompetent kids who ended up doing the Lion’s share of the analyzing of the interrogation videos.

      • Montgomery Granger

        Dear Arctic (your real name?), Thank you, but I’m not a doctor, just a retired former Medical Service Corps officer (think hospital administrator). Good Lord! I never meant to suggest all detainees who’ve ever been at Gitmo are the worst of the worst. Most were/are. If you read my book (which I call a small piece to a large puzzle that is the enigma we call Gitmo), I describe how I and my colleagues took the very first repatriated detainee to his freedom bird at Gitmo. He was a heroin addict and schizophrenic who when captured went cold turkey and off his meds. It took a while, but eventually we figured all this out and then decided he was not a threat to the U.S. nor of any intelligence value. None of my colleagues, nor the CIA operatives who performed waterboarding on a handful of detainees, which saved many lives (perhaps even yours), tortured anyone, ever. We treated all detainees with dignity and respect, and within the spirit of the Geneva Conventions, even though by the letter of those conventions unlawful combatants are entitled to absolutely ZERO rights of any kind. The only institutionalized abuse at Gitmo was perpetrated by detainees on the Military Police guards there.

        • arcticredriver

          Okay, I’ll read your book.

          You write that /”We treated all detainees with dignity and respect, and within the spirit of the Geneva Conventions, even though by the letter of those conventions unlawful combatants are entitled to absolutely ZERO rights of any kind.”/

          Bzzzt.

          This simply isn’t so. Here is a short history of the Geneva Conventions. The Third Geneva Convention is the one that sets out the criteria someone has to meet to be entitled to POW status. It sets out the protections POWs are entitled to, clean beds, clean food, medical, care, no torture, no humiliation, games and recreation, religious freedom, and freedom from being tried for engaging in hostile acts that met the criteria that defined POWs.

          At the commencement of World War Two, there were only three Geneva Conventions. World War Two showed how deeply inadequate the Geneva Conventions were, because they did not protect civilians, at all. They didn’t protect the Jews and Gypsies the Nazis sent to Concentration Camps, and they didn’t protect the members of the French Resistance, or other resistance groups, from being tortured, when they were captured by the Gestapo.

          So, the FOURTH Geneva Convention, signed by the USA and most other signatories in 1949, explicitly codified protections for civilians. Under the Fourth Geneva Convention every individual in Guantanamo, or in CIA custody, was fully protected against torture, against humiliation. If they were interned, because they were refugees, or some other reason, they too had to be given clean food, clean beds, medical care, freedom to practice their religion. In other words, none of the “dietary manipulations” the US is now infamous for. The restriction of “comfort items”, where a captive was stripped to his underpants and a prayer rug, with no soap, shampoo, toothpaste? Also a violation of the Geneva Conventions, and especially cruel for muslims, who are required to only pray when they can clean themselves.

          So, the only important difference the DoD was allowed to make between those captives recognized as legitimate POWs, and any captives who were regarded as civilians, is that the POWs were protected against prosecution for hostile acts committed on the battlefield.

          As to whether /”even though by the letter of those conventions unlawful combatants are entitled to absolutely ZERO rights of any kind.”/ This comment too is absolutely incorrect. The Geneva Conventions require a captor to treat every captive AS IF they were entitled to POW status, unless and until a “competent tribunal”, determined they had not measured up to the criteria for being considered a POW.

          Since you were an officer I shouldn’t really have to explain to you what Army Regulation 190-8 says. It is the regulation that applies to all the US Armed Forces that explains in detail how prisoners should be treated. It spells out, in detail, how US officers should conduct the competent tribunals.

          According to the wikipedia: During the 1991 Gulf War, some detainees initially categorized as POWs were found to be innocent civilians who had surrendered to receive free food and lodging. 1,196 tribunals were convened, of which 310 individuals were granted POW status. The remaining 886 detainees “were determined to be displaced civilians and were treated as refugees. No civilian was found to have acted as an unlawful combatant.”
          If you read articles 3, 4, and 5 of the Third Geneva Convention you know they set out three specific criteria, and one general criteria, that an individual has to measure up to to be considered a POW. (1) carry arms openly; (2) be part of a chain of command; (3) wear a fixed distinctive marking, visible from a distance. The fourth, general criteria says the individual has to follow the laws and conventions of war and basically means the individual can’t have engaged in atrocities, like shooting civilians, or shooting prisoners, or shooting enemy soldiers while disguised as a civilian, or wearing the uniform of another nation.

          The trouble with the argument that none of the Guantanamo captives should be treated as POWs because none of them measured up to the criteria to be considered a POW — other than that they were all entitled to be treated as POWs to fulfill the USA’s obligations under the Geneva Conventions is that, when read in detail, the OARDEC documents, and other material make clear this claim is nonsense.

          With regard to whether the Taliban had a chain of command let me quote one of three allegations presented to Khirullah Khairhhwa, that were supposed to justify his continued detention, during his 2004 Combatant Status Review Tribunal:
          Detainee was appointed the governor of Herat Providence [sic] in Afghanistan from 1999 to 2001. Detainee worked for Mullah Omar while serving as governor. The detainee had control over police and military functions in Herat to include administration of the Taliban’s two largest divisions. Detainee was required to route all decisions through Mullah Omar.

          I suggest to you that you couldn’t find a clearer statement describing a chain of command.

          With regard to whether the Taliban wore a fixed distinctive marking, visible from a distance — the Taliban practiced slavery. The Taliban conscripted Afghan citizens, not only into its military, but also into its civil service. And to supplement conscripting Afghan citizens they also employed men from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan who had been kidnapped by jihadist groups in their countries and given to the Taliban. These guys were basically slaves. The Taliban routinely employed them as cooks. Because they were slaves, the Taliban had to feed them, and clothe them.

          These slaves faced the justification for their detention that they had to be members of the Taliban because they had been issued “Taliban uniforms”. This establishes that the DoD acknowledged that the Taliban did wear a uniform. Various other OARDEC transcripts described what the Taliban uniform looked like. They did wear a fixed distinctive marking, visible from a distance.

          I watched Attorney General, on PBS, where he discussed Afghanistan, he acknowledged that, since Afghanistan was a lawless country, where everyone openly carried an AK47 with them, where-ever they went, the criteria that individuals “carry arms openly” was moot.

          That only leaves participation in an atrocity as a reason to have stripped Guantanamo captives of POW status. Of course this stripping is legitimate — but only if it is done on a case by case basis. During the War in Vietnam Lieutenant Calley led his troops to massacre the civilians living in My Lai. That made Calley a war criminal. If his superior officers ordered him to commit atrocities, they too should have faced war crimes charges. But if the platoon commander of the next platoon over, wasn’t involved in the atrocity, wasn’t aware of the atrocity, wasn’t in a position to try and stop the atrocity — then that officer bore no responsibility for the war crime.

          Crazed GI Steven Green raped a beautiful 14 year old Iraqi girl, and then murdered her, and her family. No one suggests considering any GIs responsible for war crimes, unless they actually committed the war crime, ordered the commission of the war crime, helped make the war crime possible, or helped try to cover it up, afterwards. I suggest the same should hold true for the Guantanamo captives. When you apply this principle to the Guantanamo captives only a tiny fraction can be considered realistic war crimes suspects.

          Let me return to what you said about schizophrenic Abdul Razzaq, captive 356, who arrived at Guantanamo on January 21, 2002, and was repatriated on September 15, 2002. You wrote you and your colleagues /”decided he was not a threat to the U.S. nor of any intelligence value.“/

          Your comment illustrates a terrible, terrible problem with Guantanamo.

          Under the usual international agreements, nations are allowed to arrest, and charge, the citizens of other nations, when they think they committed a crime in their territory, provided they then give them a fair trial, in their justice system. Nations are not allowed to indefinitely detain the citizens of other nations, merely because they might have “intelligence value”.

          The Geneva Conventions provide an exemption. The Geneva Conventions allow hostile nations to intern the citizens of other nations, without having to lay charges against them, “until hostilities cease”. But both you, and President Bush, voiced the opinion that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to the Guantanamo captives. If the Geneva Conventions really didn’t apply to these individuals the USA had no legitimate justification to hold them, if there was no evidence to lay charges against them, and give the a speedy fair trial.

          Normally, only terrible totalitarian dictatorships hold people solely because they might have “intelligence value”.

  • arcticredriver

    You wrote that 779 individuals have been held in Guantanamo. Here are two reasons to doubt this official figure.

    First, we now know the CIA held captives at Guantanamo. The DoD didn’t list them when it was forced to publish its first full official list, on May 15, 2006. But they were there, up until shortly before the SCOTUS ruling in Rasul v. Bush in mid 2004. The Senate report on the CIA’s use of torture confirmed that the CIA operated at least two small camps in Guantanamo

    Second, the DoD never anticipated being forced to make the identity of the captives public. It was less than a month after the DoD published its full official list that the DoD had to acknowledge three deaths at Guantanamo. Deaths prior to the publication of an official list could simply be erase, as if they never happened, those captives never existed.

    We’ve seen one or two deaths per year, since then. It is true that the captives ARE older now. But there were far more captives at the camp during the dark years, when the identity of the captives was a secret, and a significant fraction of them arrived at the camp with serious wounds.

    I frankly don’t believe that there were no deaths between the camp’s opening on January 11, 2002, and the publication of that official list, on May 15, 2006.

    What is the real number? It wouldn’t surprise me if the real number were more than 800.

    • Montgomery Granger

      You are an answer searching for a question. We all know WAY too much about Gitmo, and I worked there during the opening six months. We only need to know what we need to know. DoD has ZERO authority over CIA. Bottom line, are we safer with detainees IN or OUT of Gitmo?

      • arcticredriver

        In my opinion public safety would be greatly enhanced if all the Guantanamo captives, with the exception of those who could be tried in a fair court of law.

        Why?

        Because the Guantanamo detentions, and the CIA detentions mainly served as a factory for manufacturing incredibly wasteful wild goose chases.

        Major Granger, your comments really disturb me, because you routinely make claims you really should know aren’t true. In other threads you have made the false assertion that no one was tortured at Guantanamo — even though Susan Crawford, the Convening Authority for the Guantanamo Military Commissions explicitly acknowledged two men and and boy who the Prosecution wanted to charge, had been tortured — in Guantanamo.

        The Guantanamo Intelligence analysts showed great cowardice and incompetence. GIs are generally brave enough to risk their lives to rescue comrades during battle. But when it came to performing sensible sanity checking of the conclusions of other analysts they showed incredible cowardice, incredible lack of initiative.

        The result was that every confession and every dennciation wrung out of the captives through torture or threat of torture was taken at face value, and followed up on, at incredible great cost.

        If you are going to keep writing about Guantanamo you really owe it to your readers to make sure you know what you are talking about.

  • arcticredriver

    372460, divided by 4085, equals about 91.
    Haven’t the Castro brothers only been in power for 56 years? Unless I made a math error, Cuba didn’t cash $224,675 in checks — not $372,460