February 23, 1903: What is “Gitmo?” (Guantanamo Bay)

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A Brief History

On February 23, 1903, the United States signed a lease with Cuba for a 45 square mile chunk of land on Guantanamo Bay on that island, a lease for $2000 per year, payable in gold, and lasting in perpetuity (forever). Known by the US military as Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, it is the oldest US naval base outside the United States. Used as a coaling station (when ships were powered by coal) and as a general purpose naval base, the station known as “Gitmo” has since 2002 housed a prison for suspected terrorists captured during the War on Terror.

Digging Deeper

In the wake of the overwhelming US victory over Spain in the Spanish-American War in 1898, the US brokered a treaty with Spain in which Cuba was granted its independence. The US Navy had seized Gitmo during the war, and the US decided the location was an important spot for a naval base in the Caribbean, eventually signing the 1903 treaty with the Cuban government to lease the base forever.

Map of Cuba with location of Guantánamo Bay indicated.

The US promised no restriction on movement of Cuban ships and trade, 2-way extradition, and that while the US exercised sole control over the area while occupied by the US, the land and adjacent harbor ultimately still belongs to Cuba. In 1974, rent went up to just over $4000 per year, but of course, Cuba has long complained about the US presence and has made repeated demands for the US to leave, saying that the treaty/lease was signed under duress by a new and weak Cuban government under pressure from the much larger and more powerful United States. Since the communist regime took over Cuba under Fidel Castro in 1959, free travel back and forth between Gitmo and Cuban territory has stopped, and the presence of the US military in Cuba has been a festering sore to the Cuban government. Since the communist takeover of Cuba, Gitmo has become a fortified camp, protected by fences and mine fields.

About 9500 US Marines and sailors occupy Gitmo, performing a variety of missions in addition to the prison, including (source US Navy):

Marine Corps Security Force Company (MCSFCO)
United States Naval Hospital Guantanamo Bay
Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) Southeast, Public Works Detachment
Defense Media Activity (DMA) Operations Guantanamo Bay
Department of Defense Education Activity (DODEA) – W.T. Sampson Schools
Naval Atlantic Meteorology and Oceanography Command Detachment
Fleet & Industrial Supply Center (FISC), Jacksonville Detachment, Guantanamo Bay
Naval Supply Systems Fleet Logistics Center Jacksonville, Guantanamo Bay Site
Naval Computer and Telecommunications Area Master Station Atlantic (NCTAMS)
Personnel Support Detachment Guantanamo (PSD)
Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO)
Office of Military Commissions (OMC)U. S. Coast Guard Air Station Miami, Aviation Detachment Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (USCG AVDET)

In 2008, Candidate for US President Barack Obama promised to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, as the prison is called, as it had become a source of controversy across the world, with the US accused of keeping people there for years without charges or proof of guilt, and perhaps torturing inmates as well. Although Obama managed to decrease the number of prisoners at Gitmo from 245 to only 41, he was never able to get Congress to agree to completely closing the Detention Camp. President Trump in 2017 ordered the prison to remain open indefinitely. (Note: Some of the former inmates at Gitmo were released to their home country or another country willing to take them, while most were transferred to prisons overseas.) A total of around 779 people have been held captive at Gitmo since 2002, including an unknown number of inmates less than 18 years old (perhaps around 20 or so).

Detainees upon arrival at Camp X-Ray, January 2002

The Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp remains a target of civil rights and human rights activists around the world and has triggered heated debate in the United States. Several lawsuits from prisoners and various other entities have been filed, and the prison has stayed open, garnering the US no end of criticism and enmity from many other nations.

A pair of Canadian demonstrators in 2008.

Should the US keep the prison at Guantanamo Bay open for keeping suspected terrorists? Should those suspects be given trials? Civil or military trials? Should the inmate be moved to the mainland US? (Important legal ramifications if that scenario happened, as habeas corpus and other laws would take effect.) Should we keep these suspects without trials and charges forever? Does the existence of Gitmo create recruiting opportunities for terror organizations? Should the prisoners be moved to a different overseas location? (Such as Afghanistan or an Arab country.)

Please share your thoughts on what we should or should not do about the terrorist prison at Gitmo, and why alternatives would or would not be a better choice.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Cucullu, Gordon. Inside Gitmo. HarperLuxe, 2009.

Dewitt, Don. U.S. Marines at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. iUniverse, 2011.

Rosenberg, Carol. Guantnamo Bay: The Pentagon?s Alcatraz of the Caribbean. Herald Books, 2016.




About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.