The $4,085 check is delivered each year in April, addressed to the Treasurer General of the Republic of Cuba. That position ceased to exist decades ago. The Cuban government last cashed it in 1959.
Yet by submitting that paltry payment year after year, knowing it won’t be accepted, the United States continues to feel entitled to its oldest overseas naval base, a 45-square-mile sliver of prime coastline in southeast Cuba that is unlike any other military installation in the world.
On Friday, the Trump administration announced a partial rollback of the Obama administration’s opening with Cuba — limiting travel and business interactions. President Donald Trump is once again recasting the relationship between the two neighbors as one of subjugation. Few issues exemplify this toxic dynamic as starkly as the convoluted history of how the United States came to open a naval base in this part of Cuba.
Guantánamo is best known today for the legal travesty it enabled in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, as the Bush administration deemed it the ideal locale to detain hundreds suspected of being terrorists in a territory that was under American control but ostensibly beyond the reach of constitutional protections. Since the prison was established in 2002, the legal status of the detainees has been at the heart of a contentious debate and a source of international condemnation.
What to do about the remaining Guantánamo prisoners remains a vexing, unresolved question. There are bigger ones, though, that American politicians have opted to ignore: Is it legally defensible to hold on to the territory in perpetuity? Have we become squatters in paradise?
During the presidential campaign, Trump vowed to keep Guantánamo open and “load it up with some bad dudes.” Since then, though, there has been no word from the White House or from Congress about the future of the prison, where only 41 detainees remain in a facility built to hold several hundred, or of the base, which is home to more than 5,000 service members and civilians. I visited Guantánamo for a few days this year hoping to get a sense of what the next phase for this bizarre base will entail.
To understand what should happen next, a bit of history is in order.
The United States formally acquired Guantánamo after it supported Cuba’s revolt against Spanish colonial rule. In 1901, the United States forced newly independent Cuba to agree to a set of conditions before withdrawing U.S. troops from the island. The terms gave the United States the right to intervene in Cuba whenever it saw fit and to buy or lease lands “necessary for coaling or naval stations.” The initial lease for Guantánamo was set at $2,000 per year, paid in gold coins. The deal can be rescinded only by mutual consent.
Shortly after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, the Cuban government demanded the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Guantánamo and over the years has inserted increasingly explicit language in its constitution to make clear it considers the base unlawfully occupied territory.
Is the continued U.S. presence at Guantánamo sound under international law? The short answer is no.
“It amounts to a belligerent occupation,” said Alfred-Maurice de Zayas, an international law scholar who believes the base runs afoul of principles laid out in the Vienna Convention. Yet, he added, there’s no expectation of resolving the clash over Guantánamo mainly because “Cuba is not in a position to throw the United States in the water.”
Even if the base’s legal standing were sound, do we need it? Senior military officials argue that we do. Beyond the prison, they say, the base serves as a transit point for Cuban refugees who are intercepted at sea and manage to articulate a credible fear that they would be in danger if they were to return home. It has also served as a logistics hub to respond to natural disasters.
Adm. Kurt Tidd, who heads the Southern Command, told me that Guantánamo could once again come in handy in the event of a mass migration crisis, a scenario his troops routinely plan for through weekslong simulated drills that cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
Sticking around to triage a future refugee crisis might sound laudable. But as of early March, there were 28 Cuban migrants on base, waiting to be resettled to a country other than the United States. Between direct employees and contractors, the International Organization for Migration employs about 18 people to oversee the migrants’ care. Given the severity of refugee crises elsewhere, and reasonable alternatives for what has become a trickle of Cuban refugees, is this a fiscally responsible endeavor?
Before Sept. 11, Guantánamo had become a sleepy facility run by a skeleton crew. It now includes more than 1,400 buildings, according to the Navy. That makes Guantánamo larger than the naval base in Bahrain, home to the 5th Fleet, and the naval base in Rota, Spain, which are among the Pentagon’s most strategically valuable overseas hubs.
While rent is certainly a bargain, running a base on territory deemed by the host to be illegally occupied is costly. The Cubans cut off the base from the power grid and water supply decades ago, so Guantánamo has to desalinate its water supply and generate its own power. Since hiring Cuban laborers is not an option, menial jobs are outsourced to Jamaican and Filipino contractors.
The detention task force in Guantánamo costs roughly $80 million per year, according to a spokesman. Separately, Congress appropriated $181 million for the current fiscal year for base operations. The latter figure is just slightly lower than the $195 million allocated for operations in Turkey, one of the primary hubs for the military campaign against the Islamic State. If one assumes the prison continues to be the primary reason to keep the base open, its current budget works out to $6.3 million per detainee. (The average yearly cost of a federal detainee in 2015 was just under $32,000.)
As the detainee population decreased during the final years of the Obama administration — which sought, and failed, to shut down the prison and transfer the remaining detainees to a U.S. facility — the Pentagon has embarked on a building spree at the base. In July it issued a callout for construction contracts worth $240 million. The month before, the Pentagon awarded a $66 million contract to a firm owned by a Cuban-American family to build a new school on the base for the children of people posted there for long periods.
Congress has not seriously questioned the merits of this buildup. During a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in March 2016, only one lawmaker argued that the United States should rethink its claim to the land. “This is in my mind something that could be well characterized as colonialism,” Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., who is no longer in Congress, said during the hearing.
Might the Cubans be willing to allow the U.S. military to remain on the base under a new agreement similar to those that regulate the presence of U.S. service members on foreign soil across the world? David Kohner, chairman of the Maritime History Center at the U.S. Naval War College, thinks this is the right time to be raising that question, considering President Raúl Castro of Cuba is expected to step down next year.
“This is a difficult history, but history is what it is,” he said, emphasizing the need to move on from the terms of a lease signed in 1903.
Since the Obama administration began normalizing relations with Cuba in late 2014, the two governments have begun cooperating more closely on maritime security, migration flows, counternarcotics and law enforcement matters. Trump’s shift on Cuba, ostensibly on human rights grounds, is an aberration for an administration that coddles brutal autocrats abroad and contradicts the foreign policy philosophy Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined during a recent Senate hearing. “We are motivated by the conviction that the more we engage with other nations on issues of security and prosperity, the more we will have opportunities to shape the human rights conditions in those nations,” Tillerson said.
The U.S. presence in Guantánamo has long been a thorn in the Cuban psyche, a reminder of an era of U.S. domination that is taught early and often in Cuban schools.
Carlos Alzugaray, a scholar who served as a Cuban diplomat from 1961 until the mid-1990s, told me there had been discussions during his time in government about what the Cuban government could do to challenge Washington’s claim on the territory. For instance, Havana could seek an opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legality of the U.S. presence in Guantánamo or submit a detailed diplomatic note demanding the return of the territory.
“It could be presented constructively,” said Alzugaray, who lives in Havana. “It would be sensible if they asked us for 10 years to leave.”
Alzugaray said the prospect of negotiating a permanent U.S. presence in Guantánamo is dim but not impossible.
“It would require finding a solution in which Cuban sovereignty is respected,” he said, noting that whatever happens, it shouldn’t continue as it is forever. “Here, it is something everyone feels hurt by.”