A history of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre

The facility in Cuba has proven a major source of controversy since it was opened in 2002...

A history of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre

File photo. Image: Ben Fox / AP/Press Association Images

With only months left in office, Barack Obama has significantly intensified his efforts to close the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba.

The 15 latest transfers to the United Arab Emirates - the biggest transfer from the facility under President Obama - brings the remaining population down to 61.

Over the last decade and a half, the ‘Gitmo’ camp has been one of the most controversial symbols of the US’ so-called ‘war on terror’ - and a source of almost constant criticism from within the States as well as from the international community.

In January 2009, President Obama ordered the closure of Guantanamo Bay within a year, but is still attempting to achieve that seven years later.


The pertinent history of the Cuban bay begins in 1898, during the Spanish-American War. Guantanamo was used as a key landing site for US marines. The ‘Battle of Guantanamo Bay’ in June 1898 and a number of subsequent battles proved significant strategic successes for US and Cuban forces ahead of the ultimate American victory.

Time magazine explained: “By a treaty signed in 1903 and reaffirmed in 1934, the US recognized Cuba’s 'ultimate sovereignty' over the 45-sq-mi enclave in Oriente province near the island’s southeast end. In return, Cuba yielded the US ‘complete jurisdiction and control’ through a perpetual lease that can be voided only by mutual agreement.”

The site was used as a naval and coaling station by the Americans, with Cuba benefiting thanks to the thousands of Cubans the US employed in the area.

As anybody with a basic knowledge of US and Cuban relations will know, the two neighbours had a less than harmonious relationship throughout the mid and late 20th century - and it is only recently that there have been visible, tangible efforts made to restore more friendly diplomatic relations.

It’s no surprise that Fidel Castro frequently expressed his displeasure at the situation once he became leader of the country. Current president Raul Castro even called for the US to return Guantanamo Bay during the historic summit he held with Barack Obama earlier this year. However, the US continue to retain legal control of the area.

In the early 90s, a refugee camp was set up by the Americans in Guantanamo in response to the refugee crisis sparked by a coup in Haiti. Tens of thousands of Haitians passed through the camp during the first half of the decade.

However, Guantanamo also proved controversial during that period. Almost 300 HIV positive Haitian refugees were held in what some commentators described as a ‘HIV prison camp’. As Lizzy Ratner writes in The Nation, it was the “Alcatraz of refugee camps”, with US authorities holding the refugees “for some eighteen months simply because they, or their loved ones, had HIV”.

The plight of that group of refugees led to high-profile protests in the US - including Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins - calling for their release during the 1993 Oscars ceremony. That camp was ultimately deemed unconstitutional by a US court and shut down.


In the aftermath of the September 11th 2011 attacks in New York, George W Bush and his government commenced the so-called ‘war on terror’. Initially focused on defeating those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, the ‘war’ became a sprawling, complex and in many cases legally dubious series of events that had an almost incalculable impact on global societies, politics and economics. Guantanamo Bay was to become one of the symbols of this often dark period in American and world history (one that still continues to this day).

The ‘Gitmo’ detention camp as we know it came into existence in early 2002. The facility was built and developed in stages - temporary ones at first, but gradually becoming more permanent.

The detainees at the camp were described by then US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld as ‘extremely dangerous’ men.

When quizzed by reporters in January 2002 over whether the men had been actually charged with anything, Mr Rumsfeld said: “The reality is that they have been charged with something. They have been found to be engaging in battle on behalf of the al Qaeda or the Taliban, and have been captured.

"We have decided, as a country, that we prefer not to be attacked and lose thousands of lives here in the United States, and that having those people back out on the street to engage in further terrorist attacks is not our first choice. They are being detained so they don't do that," he added.

However, many of those who have been held at the centre - in some cases for a decade or more - were never charged with a crime. Others have been cleared for release, but are still being held.

Around 780 prisoners have been sent to the detention centre since 2002. A New York Times database shows the number of prisoners detained at any one time peaked in June 2003, when there were 669 detainees at the camp.

There have been repeated allegations of mistreatment of detainees at the detention centre. The full details of interrogation techniques remain somewhat uncertain and in most cases unverified, but allegations include detainees having been subjected to techniques ranging from sleep deprivation to beatings. Images of hooded detainees at the camp became one of the most notorious symbols of the ‘war on terror’.


Holding a single flower each, two protesters wearing black hoods and orange jump suits take part in a demonstration in front of the White House in Washington, Friday, May 24, 2013, calling for the closing of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Image: Jacquelyn Martin / AP/Press Association Images

In 2003, an official with the Red Cross said ''the open-endedness of the situation and its impact on the mental health of the population has become a major problem.” A UN report in 2006 called for the centre’s closure, with investigators saying: “If in individual cases, which were described in interviews, the victim experienced severe pain or suffering, these acts amounted to torture”.

The US dismissed many of the allegations, saying they were "largely without merit".

The methods employed at Guantanamo and US bases elsewhere have provoked heated debates - condemned by human rights groups, but in many cases defended as ‘justified’ by officials. As President Bush wrote in one of a series of infamous "torture memos" signed by US officials: “I determine that the Taliban detainees are unlawful combatants and, therefore, do not qualify as prisoners of war under Article 4 of Geneva. I note that, because Geneva [Convention] does not apply to our conflict with al Qaeda, al Qaeda detainees also do not qualify as prisoners of war.”


During his campaign for the US presidency, Barack Obama pledged to close Gitmo.

"We're going to close Guantanamo,” he said. “And we're going to restore habeas corpus [constitutional protection from unlawful imprisonment]... We're going to lead by example - by not just word but by deed. That's our vision for the future."

One of his first actions in office in January 2009 was signing an executive order to close the facility within one year - a deadline which very obviously was not achieved.

In February of this year, Barack Obama said closing the controversial detention centre is the right decision: "Keeping this facility open is contrary to our values. It undermines our standing in the world. It is viewed as a stain on our broader record of upholding the highest standards of rule of law."

It has been reported on a number of occasions that Obama has considered the possibility of using his executive powers to override the Congressional ban on bringing detainees to the US.

As part of the closure efforts, US diplomats have reached agreements with a number of countries to transfer detainees - the latest of course being the transfer to the UAE.

Republican lawmakers have been vocal and active in their opposition to Obama’s plans - and since the GOP have congressional approval, the president has faced constant challenges whenever he attempts to have legislation related to the prison passed.

In a statement in February, House Speaker Paul Ryan argued: “After seven years, President Obama has yet to convince the American people that moving Guantanamo terrorists to our homeland is smart or safe.

“It is against the law - and it will stay against the law - to transfer terrorist detainees to American soil. We will not jeopardize our national security over a campaign promise,” he added.

Some experts in the US had previously suggested that President Obama was not prioritising closing Guantanamo because he wasn’t willing to use up valuable political capital fighting those who want to see it stay open. However, with only months left in the White House, we could be seeing a renewed effort by the US president to try and achieve his election promise from almost a decade ago.

And what if he doesn’t succeed in his efforts and the camp remains open? Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton explained that she supported Obama’s plan “to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and finally close the door on this chapter of our history”.

Her Republican rival Donald Trump, meanwhile, has suggested he would keep the detention centre open and “load it up with some bad dudes”. He also recently told the Miami Herald that he would consider trying Americans accused of terrorism in tribunals - despite it being currently illegal to try US citizens at military commissions.


Welcoming the release of more Guantanamo prisoners this week, Naureen Shah of Amnesty International USA said: “Many of the remaining detainees have been held without charge for a decade or more. Each detainee must either be charged and face trial in federal court, or be released to countries that will respect their human rights.  

“As long as Guantanamo remains open, the US risks making this ugly stain on its human rights record permanent,” she added.