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U.S. Naval Base Again In The News —And It's Not Vieques

January 18, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

In 1494, when Christopher Columbus spent the night of April 30th anchored in a bounteous bay on the southeastern coast of Cuba, he called it "Puerto Grande." The tens of thousands of U.S. sailors and marines billeted on its shores over the past century have called their base "Gitmo." But, by whatever name, the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has been controversial for decades and now, as it is becoming an incarceration and interrogation center for selected al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners captured in military operations in Afghanistan, the facility is back in the news.

The U.S Government is outfitting a portion of the 116 sq km (45 sq miles) facility as a holding area for individuals that it considers to be among the most dangerous of its "battlefield detainees." When The Herald asked a Pentagon official why the Guantanamo location was chosen, he repeated what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld earlier told reporters, that it was "the least worst place." At present, over 100 detainees are locked in temporary six-by-eight foot individual open-air cells, with up to 300 more prisoners scheduled to arrive in the coming weeks. A permanent facility that will hold up to 2000 detainees is under construction at the base.

According to the New York Times, soldiers from domestic U.S. military bases are arriving at the facility, known as "Camp X-Ray," to help with construction of the cell blocks and to beef-up the security force. Among the detachments of new troops at or on their way to the facility are military police personnel from the U.S. Naval Station at Roosevelt Roads in Puerto Rico.

The Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba is an anomaly in the inventory of U.S. overseas military bases, in that it is located within the sovereign territory of a country with which the United States presently has no diplomatic relations and, since 1959 when Fidel Castro took power in Havana, has had an adversarial relationship with its leadership, several times drawing host and guest close to the point of armed conflict.

After the Spanish-American War, the United States held sovereignty over Cuba, Puerto Rico and other former Spanish colonies ceded to it by the Treaty of Paris. Cuba became a sovereign power when it ceased to be a territory of the U.S. and became an independent nation. Subsequently, it relinquished jurisdiction over the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base parcel by treaties later described in this article. 

Since Castro took power, he has voiced opposition to a U.S. base on Cuban territory, especially one that surrounds arguably the best natural harbor in the Greater Antilles. He has referred to the base as "a dagger pointed at Cuba’s heart," and has often moved to make life difficult for the Americans billeted there. In the past, he has harassed Cubans on the base’s workforce and interfered with the water supply for the some seven thousand people housed there.

Cuba’s leader has voiced no objection to the present use of the base as a staging area for the detainees but, in reality, his opposition would not likely have deterred American plans since, by treaty, the United States has total jurisdiction over the base and all activities taking place within its confines. The U.S. government did provide details of the operation to Cuban authorities before the first detainees landed, although it was under no obligation to do so.

The Cuban Interests Section at the Swiss Embassy in Washington provided a statement to The Herald reiterating Cuba’s continuing objection to the presence of the base on its territory but saying that "we shall not set any obstacles to the development of the (present) operation." It also stated that Cuba was willing to cooperate in any "useful, constructive and humane way that may arise." For this gesture of cooperation a U.S Department of State source said that the U.S. had thanked Cuba for its offer of medical assistance but indicted that "it was fully prepared to deal with the situation."

How can such an unusual relationship exist? The answer is both simple and complex. The simple answer is that the United States enjoys treaty rights to the base that cannot be unilaterally abrogated by Cuba. It becomes complex in that the final version of the treaty was signed during happier times in the relations between the two countries and, since the rupture in relations in the early days of the Castro regime, the U.S. Navy’s continued presence on the base became strategically important and was a gesture of defiance to a left-leaning and ultimately Communist government so close to its own shores. When Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union was at its peak, Cuba had the presence of military bases of both camps within its sovereign territory.

The original treaty between the two countries was signed in Havana and Washington in February of 1903, designating more territory than that of the present extension of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base for use as a "coaling or naval station". In essence, the pact allowed the United States to do "all that was necessary" to outfit the facility as a navy base. That treaty was abrogated in May of 1934 by a new agreement that pared down the land encompassed by the original pact and contained the following language: "So long as the United States of America shall not abandon the said naval station of Guantanamo or the two governments shall not agree to a modification of its present limits, the station shall continue to have the territorial area that it now has…."

Article III of the treaty speaks to the sovereignty and jurisdictional issues mutually agreed upon. While recognizing the ultimate sovereignty of Cuba over the base’s land and water, the United States is granted "complete jurisdiction and control" over activities occurring within its confines. The Pentagon has stated that it does not rule out the possibility that military tribunals will be held on the base for certain of the detainees but, due to the provisions of the 1934 treaty, the defendants find themselves in a kind of juridical limbo, in that neither the U.S. federal courts or Cuban judges can intervene in their cases. The U.S. Federal Court System has jurisdiction only over areas of U.S. sovereignty, such as the 50 states, Puerto Rico and other U.S. Territories, while the Cuban courts must, by treaty, cede jurisdiction to the United States Government in any matter occurring on the base.

An amusing sidebar to the present tense relationship between "landlord and tenant" is that Cuba refuses to accept the rent due it. The treaty originally called for the U.S. to pay $2,000.00 "in gold coins" annually for the use of the base. This was later doubled and the payment method changed to checks made out to "The Treasurer General of the Republic of Cuba" (an office that no longer exists) but, since 1959, the Government of Cuba has refused to cash them. It takes the position that the base is "illegally occupied territory" that should be returned to Cuba. At the same time, it makes it clear that it does not wish to make an issue of Guantanamo Bay at this time, with so many "grave differences existing between the two nations." Meanwhile, the U.S. Government is taking a "business-as-usual" stance regarding the detainees and refuses to be drawn into any discussion of the ninety-nine year old treaty relationship with Cuba governing "Gitmo."

The Cuba – U.S. tension over the Guantanamo Bay facility stands in contrast with Puerto Rico’s debate over the use of U.S military facilities on that island, notably the Navy’s training base at Vieques. U.S. jurisdiction over Guantanamo Bay is governed by a treaty relationship between two sovereign nations, while Puerto Rico falls under the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  Unlike the present status of the former which can only be altered by the mutual consent of both parties to the treaties, Cuba and the United States, Puerto Rico_s status is subject to the plenary power of the U.S. Congress, that can act unilaterally in all matters relating to that island.

In happier times, as Cuban and American diplomats inked the treaties governing the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, they could not have envisioned uncashed rent checks, the construction of a maximum security prison and the incarceration of suspected terrorists at Columbus’ Puerto Grande. The present tension between the treaty’s parties is but another unresolved issue accruing from Spain’s ceding of its Caribbean and Pacific colonies to the United States at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898.

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