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The US Has Long Exploited the Legally Ambiguous Status of Guantanamo Bay

Twenty years ago this month, the military transformed the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, into a detention camp for suspected terrorists. The first arrivals, largely captured in Afghanistan, were shackled, dressed in bright orange jumpsuits and photographed cowering behind barbed wire. The U.S. government claimed it could hold these “enemy combatants” indefinitely without trial, outside the Geneva Conventions protecting prisoners of war. In response, American attorneys launched numerous lawsuits over habeas corpus, human rights and due process.

But long before the United States held detainees on the base, Cuban workers recognized the base’s strained relationship with the law. Indeed, the base’s legal history is rooted in Cuban history. Cuban workers repeatedly petitioned the U.S. government to recognize their rights on the base. It was only after the United States stopped depending on Cuban workers that it could reimagine the base as a refugee camp in the 1990s, and then a detention center in the fight against terrorism. Yet, many of the problems with its use as a detention center echoed the problems exposed by Cuban workers. And these problems remain today.

The history of the base goes back to the Spanish-American War in 1898.

U.S. troops fought Spain for a brief six weeks, although Cubans had been fighting for independence for three decades. Spain surrendered to the United States, and the U.S. military remained on the island, refusing to leave unless Cuban leaders accepted the U.S.-written Platt Amendment in their constitution. The amendment greatly limited Cuba’s sovereignty, and it required Cuba to lease land to the United States for a coaling or naval station.

Cuban leaders balked; this was an affront to their years-long campaign for independence. Ultimately, however, they had little choice but to grudgingly vote to accept the Platt Amendment in return for the end of U.S. occupation.

The 1903 Lease Agreement gave Cuba “ultimate sovereignty” and the United States “complete jurisdiction and control” over the 45 square miles that would become the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay. This set up a clear legal contradiction.

With the Great Depression and the military buildup before World War II, thousands of Cubans sought jobs on the base. The base offered better salaries and more steady work than jobs on sugar plantations. Many Cubans valued these base jobs, but working for the U.S. military raised legal questions.

As journalist Lino Lemes wrote, Cuban workers on the base were “not protected by American social laws or Cuban social laws.” In the 1940s, he was referring broadly to minimum wage, pensions and leave policies. Lemes wrote in a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the U.S. officials applied whichever law “happened to be more convenient.” In other words, did Cuban law or U.S. law govern Cuban workers and U.S. military personnel on the base?

Read entire article at Made By History at the Washington Post