Henry Srebrnik: Guantanamo remains politically sensitive enclave

Published on July 17, 2017

Henry Srebrnik


Just like islands, enclaves can be useful for countries wishing to house undesirables away from their own shores.

Think of the notorious Devil’s Island, off the coast of French Guiana, which served as a penal colony, or Alcatraz, in San Francisco Bay, the site for a prison.

The most famous site used for that purpose today is the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay, an enclave located on 120 square kilometres at the southeastern edge of Cuba.

The prison made news in Canada on July 4 when it was disclosed that Omar Khadr, who had been imprisoned there for 10 years after being found guilty in the death of an American soldier during a firefight in Afghanistan in 2002, received $10.5 million from Ottawa for the violation of his Charter rights by Canadian officials.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision on June 16 to revoke much of his predecessor’s policies relaxing the restrictive American regulations towards the island has also drawn attention to Guantanamo in the United States.

Long before the base began to be used as a detention centre for terrorists, it has been a source of contention between Cuba and the U.S.

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, when the Spanish-American War ended Spain gave the U.S. control of Cuba

Three years later, Cuba became an independent nation, but with a catch. The new Cuban government was required to lease or sell certain territory to the United States.

By a treaty known as the Platt Amendment, signed in 1903 and reaffirmed in 1934, Cuba granted the U.S. “complete jurisdiction and control” over Guantanamo through a perpetual lease that can be voided only by mutual agreement.

When Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959, he threatened to unilaterally abrogate the treaty, and made it clear he considered the base unlawfully occupied territory. But he feared that Washington would attack and depose him if he followed through.

Havana would continue to regard the presence of an American base on its territory as illegitimate and made that clear - in 1964, for example, Castro cut off the water supply and power grid to the base, forcing the U.S. Navy to build its own water and power plants.

The issues surrounding the base took on a whole new level of intensity following the attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.

The decision to ship al-Qaeda detainees to Guantanamo was reached in 2002, in order to circumvent questions about their status, which would have come up had they been incarcerated on U.S. soil.

The Bush administration detained almost 800 “enemy combatants” in a territory that was under American control but ostensibly beyond the reach of constitutional protections. The legal status of these prisoners, mostly held in the Camp Delta detainment facility, was a source of international condemnation.

Even with the thaw in relations with Cuba after 2014, including the restoration of diplomatic relations and Obama’s visit last year, the base has remained in American hands. Of the 242 captives in Guantanamo when Obama took office, it still houses 41 prisoners.

On Jan. 22, 2009, two days after he became president, Barack Obama issued an executive order designed to “promptly close detention facilities at Guantanamo,” to take place no less than a year from that date. But it never happened. It certainly won’t under Trump.


Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.