Report to Congress on the history of Guantanamo Bay Naval Base

The following is the Congressional Research Service report from August 1, 2022, Naval Station Guantanamo Bay: History and Legal Issues Regarding Its Lease Agreements.

From the report

This report briefly describes the history of the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, its changing relationship with the surrounding community, and its increased importance due to military operations in Afghanistan. The report also explains in detail the legal status of the lease of the land on which the Naval Station is located, the statutory and treaty powers granted to the President with respect to any potential closure of the Naval Station, and the effects of such closure that Cuba could have sanctions laws.

When the Spanish–American War ended in 1898, the Spanish colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines came under United States administration. Of these four territories, only Cuba quickly became an independent republic. However, as a condition of giving up administration, the Cuban government agreed to lease three plots of land from the United States for use as naval or coal stations. The Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba was the only facility established under this agreement. The two subsequent lease agreements signed in 1903 recognized Cuban sovereignty, but granted the United States “complete jurisdiction and control over” the property as long as it remained occupied.

The importance of Naval Station Guantanamo Bay rose briefly during the Haitian refugee and Cuban migrant crises of the early 1990s. At one point in late 1994, the naval station’s migrant population approached 45 000. However, by the end of January 1996, the last of these temporary residents had left.

The naval station’s return to prominence is due to the establishment of facilities to house a number of wartime detainees captured during military operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. This practice began in early 2002 with the renovation of some of the properties formerly used to house refugees and has been extended to more substantial accommodations which are operated by Joint Task Force-Guantanamo, a tenant for which the Naval Station provides a logistical support. Additional temporary facilities were eventually built on a disused naval station airfield for use by the military commissions set up to try detainees.

The 1903 lease agreements between the governments of Cuba and the United States are governed by the wording of a 1934 treaty stipulating that the lease cannot be modified or abrogated except by agreement between the United States and Cuba. The territorial boundaries of the naval station remain as they were in 1934, unless the United States abandons Guantanamo Bay or the two governments reach an agreement to change its boundaries. Although there does not appear to be consensus on whether the president can change the agreement alone, Congress has the authority to change by law the effect of the underlying 1934 treaty. There is no current law that would expressly prohibit negotiating lease modifications with the current government of Cuba, but the House of Representatives has passed a ban on making such a modification without congressional approval under the Leasing Act. National Defense Authorization (NDAA) for FY 2017 (PL 114-328). This ban was extended in subsequent years until fiscal year 2022.

As for the “abandonment” of the naval station, there does not appear to be a legal prohibition against closing a military installation abroad. Nevertheless, Congress imposed practical obstacles to closing the naval base, such as restricting the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to foreign countries and prohibiting their transfer to the United States. The existence of various sanctions imposed on Cuba may also prevent the closure of the Guantanamo Bay naval base by making it difficult to transfer or sell assets to the Cuban government.

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