On January 11th, 2002, twenty inmates arrived at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, becoming the first individuals to be incarcerated inside the notorious military installation. Twenty years later, almost 800 men have been confined at Guantánamo Bay, and at least 39 remain behind bars awaiting eventual prosecution or release.
"Gitmo" has long been the subject of intense political and ethical controversy both at home and abroad, and for good reason. The duplicitous tactics employed to install the facility as well as the treatment of the detainees inside have revealed the harrowing consequences of unrestrained state power and have shed light on the attitudes and actions of the darkest elements of the U.S. government. From its inception outside the boundaries of U.S. and international law, to demonstrable accounts of abuse and torture, to its present use as an extrajudicial holding site, Guantánamo Bay persists among the darkest stains in American history and is an ominous warning sign of what might follow.
Guantánamo Bay, situated on the south coast of Cuba, has been under U.S. jurisdiction since 1898, when the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War. The Spanish empire had captured, colonized, and ruled Cuba since the late 15th century; however, following Spanish surrender to the United States at the end of the 19th century, the United States assumed control of and occupied the island for over three years.
In 1901, the United States agreed to withdraw from Cuba and recognize Cuban independence only under very specific conditions, ensuring that provisos that favored U.S. interests were codified into the new Constitution of Cuba. One of these stipulations was the Platt Amendment, which, among other things, delineated the details of a permanent contract that would ultimately grant Guantánamo Bay to the U.S. government, thus assuring the survival of the U.S. military base that had operated there since 1898. Under the coercive threat of continued U.S. imperialist abuse and colonialist exploitation, the fledgling revolutionary government of Cuba was essentially forced to ratify the Platt Amendment, and thus to eventually cede territory to the United States under a lease that only the U.S. government was empowered to terminate.
In 1934, the U.S. and Cuban governments abrogated the Platt Amendment and repealed the provisions therein. The two parties mutually extended the lease for an indeterminate period of time and under renegotiated terms that specified that U.S. tenure of Guantánamo Bay could be canceled only if both the United States and Cuba consented to its annulment. But these changes were merely symbolic and had no practical impact on the nature of U.S. presence in Guantánamo Bay. Although Cuba was ostensibly afforded equal influence over the lease agreement, the United States was still not required to abandon the region until and unless the U.S. government independently elected to do so. As a result, the Cuban government is still not capable of expelling a foreign power and exercising autonomous authority over its own lands.
The truly impotent nature of the Cuban state in these affairs became evident in 2015, when the U.S. government refused Cuban demands for the unconditional return of Guantánamo Bay. To this day, the United States maintains a naval base in the area over the direct objections of the Cuban government and people: a protraction of the radical imperialism that has defined U.S. foreign policy for several centuries.
Establishment of Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp
In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks and the subsequent launch of the War on Terror in 2001, the U.S. government faced a significant problem. A coalition that included U.S. forces was tearing across the nation of Afghanistan in an effort to topple the Taliban, which had assumed de facto control of Afghanistan in 1996 and had lent significant aid and protections to al Qaeda as the terrorist operatives plotted and coordinated the events of 9/11. As the Taliban retreated before a successful allied invasion, the U.S. military began taking captives, many of whom were suspected of participating in terrorist activities.
But U.S. government officials wanted to minimize the extent of activities in Afghanistan, and they realized that the construction of massive prison complexes would divert vital resources, human effort, and public attention from ongoing military operations. At the same time, they feared that interning captured Afghans in prisons located on U.S. soil would automatically confer the inmates legal rights under the U.S. Constitution.
Their solution to this dilemma was Guantánamo Bay.
Because the terms of the U.S. lease ensure “complete jurisdiction” of the United States over Guantánamo Bay, the U.S. government would be able transfer captives to Cuba without obtaining permission from the Cuban government. And, perhaps more sinister, because Guantánamo Bay is firmly controlled by the United States but does not lie within its national borders, advocates for the proposed detention camp argued that the privileges and immunities guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution did not apply to any captives held on the island.
As they weighed the various options for a new detention camp, officials in the administration of President George W. Bush admitted that one of their primary selection criteria was the external location of a site that would allow them to deny basic constitutional rights and to evade U.S. court oversight and interference. And in ensuing court battles, they referred to Guantánamo Bay as a “legal black hole”: one that they tried to fill with practically unlimited and utterly horrifying executive purvi