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Why the United States Controls Guantanamo Bay

Guantanamo Bay
US Marine Corps—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty US Marines raising the American Flag over Guantanamo Bay in 1898

President Obama promised to close the prison there on Jan. 22, 2009

It was six years ago, on Jan. 22, 2009, two days after he became President, that Barack Obama issued an executive order designed to “promptly close detention facilities at Guantanamo.” The closing of that prison at the U.S. naval base at Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay would, he said, take place no less than a year from that date.

Five years after the 2010 deadline passed — and even as relations between the U.S. and Cuba begin to thaw — the detention facilities remain in use. More than 100 prisoners remain there, even though that number is declining and officials have said that Obama would still like to achieve the closure before he leaves office.

But how did the U.S. end up with such a facility in Cuba in the first place?

MORE New York Governor Andrew Cuomo Planning Trade Mission to Cuba

The story of Guantanamo goes back more than a century, to the time of the Spanish-American War. And, during that time, it’s been, as it is now, a source of controversy.

Until 1898, Cuba had belonged to Spain; as the Spanish empire diminished, Cubans fought for their independence. The U.S. joined in to help its neighbor and, though the Spanish-American War ended up focused mainly on the Spanish presence in the Philippines, Cuba was the site of the sinking of the USS Maine, the event that precipitated American military involvement. (Remember “Remember the Maine“? That’s this.) When the war ended, Spain gave the U.S. control of Cuba — among other territories, like Puerto Rico — and, about three years later, Cuba became an independent nation.

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However, that independence was not without a catch: as part of the Platt Amendment, the document that governed the end of the occupation, the new Cuban government was required to lease or sell certain territory to the United States. Here’s how TIME later summarized (with numbers accurate for 1960) what happened next:

The U.S. rights in Guantanamo are clear and indisputable. By a treaty signed in 1903 and reaffirmed in 1934, the U.S. recognized Cuba’s “ultimate sovereignty” over the 45-sq.-mi. enclave in Oriente province near the island’s southeast end. In return, Cuba yielded the U.S. “complete jurisdiction and control” through a perpetual lease that can be voided only by mutual agreement.

For a low rental ($3,386.25 annually), the U.S. Navy gets its best natural harbor south of Charleston, S.C., plus 19,621 acres of land, enough for a complex of 1,400 buildings and two airfields, one of them capable of handling entire squadrons of the Navy’s hottest jets, e.g., 1,000-m.p.h. F8U Crusaders, 700-m.p.h. A4D Skyhawks. In terms of global strategy, Guantanamo has only marginal value. It served as an antisubmarine center in World War II, and could be one again. But its greatest worth is as an isolated, warm-water training base for the fleet. With an anchorage capable of handling 50 warships at once, it is the Navy’s top base for shakedown cruises and refresher training for both sailors and airmen. What Cuba gets out of the deal is 3,700 jobs for the technicians and laborers who help maintain the base, a payroll of $7,000,000 annually for hard-pressed Oriente.

When Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba the 1950s, there was briefly a period during which the fate of Guantanamo seemed in question. As TIME reported in the Sept. 12, 1960, issue, Castro threatened to kick the Navy out if the U.S. continued to interfere with the Cuban economy; however, he also said that he knew that, if he did so, the U.S. could take it as a pretext to attack and get rid of him. Castro would continue to bring up his displeasure at the U.S. presence in Cuba — in 1964, he cut off the water supply, to which the Navy responded by building its own water and power plants — but the lease stayed, as did the military families based there.

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Guantanamo returned to the news in the 1990s when it got a new set of residents. In 1991, in the wake of a coup d’état in Haiti, thousands of Haitians fled by sea for the United States. In December of that year, Guantanamo Bay became the site of a refugee camp built to house those who sought asylum while the Bush administration figured out what to do with them. Throughout the years that followed, the camp became home to thousands of native Cubans, too, who had also attempted to flee to the U.S. for political asylum. In the summer of 1994 alone, TIME wrote the following May, “more than 20,000 Haitians and 30,000 Cubans were intercepted at sea and delivered to hastily erected camps in Guantanamo.” In 1999, during conflict in the Balkans (and after the Haitian and Cuban refugees had been sent home or on to the States), the U.S. agreed to put up 20,000 new refugees at Guantanamo, but that plan ended up scrapped for being too far from their European homelands.

The decision to house al-Qaeda detainees at Guantanamo was reached shortly after 9/11 — and, nearly as immediately, the world began to wonder just what their status would be.

A former Pentagon official told TIME’s Mark Thompson last month that some would like the Guantanamo Bay facility to be closed entirely, although that’s very unlikely to happen. If the long history of Guantanamo Bay proves anything, it’s that, though regimes and requirements may change, the U.S. Navy is likely to stay.

Read next: Why the U.S.-Cuba Thaw Doesn’t Mean Guantanamo Bay Is Closing

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