On this day February 23, 1903

Cuba leases Guantánamo Bay to the United States “in perpetuity”. Guantanamo Bay Naval Base is located at the southeastern end of Cuba and has been used by the United States Navy for more than a century.

Aerial view of Guantánamo Bay

Aerial view of Guantánamo Bay

It is the oldest overseas U.S. Navy Base, and the only one in a country with which the United States does not have diplomatic relations.

The Cuban government opposes the presence of the naval base, claiming that the lease is invalid under international law. The US government claims that the lease is valid.

The bay was originally called Guantánamo by Christopher Columbus, who landed at the location known as Fisherman’s Point in 1494. The bay was briefly renamed Cumberland Bay when the British took it in the first part of the 18th century during the War of Jenkins’ Ear.

During the Spanish-American War, the U.S. fleet attacking Santiago retreated to Guantánamo’s excellent harbor to ride out the summer hurricane season of 1898. The Marines landed with naval support, requiring Cuban scouts to push off Spanish resistance that increased as they moved inland. This area became the location of U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, which covers about 45 square miles (116 km²) and is sometimes abbreviated as “GTMO” or “Gitmo”.

By the war’s end, the U.S. government had obtained control of all of Cuba from Spain. A perpetual lease for the area around Guantánamo Bay was offered February 23, 1903, from Tomás Estrada Palma, an American citizen, who became the first President of Cuba. The Cuban-American Treaty gave, among other things, the Republic of Cuba ultimate sovereignty over Guantánamo Bay while granting the United States “complete jurisdiction and control” of the area for coaling and naval stations.

A 1934 treaty reaffirming the lease granted Cuba and her trading partners free access through the bay, modified the lease payment from $2,000 in U.S. gold coins per year, to the 1934 equivalent value of $4,085 in U.S. dollars, and made the lease permanent unless both governments agreed to break it or the U.S. abandoned the base property.

Since the Cuban Revolution, the government under Fidel Castro has cashed only one of the rent checks from the US government. The Cuban government maintains this was only done because of “confusion” in the heady early days of the revolution, while the US government maintains that the cashing constitutes an official validation of the treaty. The remaining uncashed checks made out to “Treasurer General of the Republic” (a position that has ceased to exist after the revolution) are kept in Castro’s office stuffed into a desk drawer.

The San Francisco Chronicle published an article, on April 22, 2007, about the base, and the conditions under which the treaty would be rendered void. The article states the treaty allows the USA to use the base for “coaling and naval purposes only.”

It states it does not allow the USA to use it for detaining “enemy combatants”, or trying them for war crimes. It further states that the treaty explicitly proscribes “commercial, industrial or other enterprise within said areas.” However, the base sports half a dozen fast-food concessions and a Navy Exchange store, for the sailors and not for commercial relations among the native Cubans.

According to the article, American business, political and cultural figures with regular contact with Cuban leaders say they have the impression that the Cuban government wants the U.S. military off the island but that the issue isn’t a priority now.


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