Guantanamo Bay Prison Anniversary: Cuba's Opposition To Territorial Invasion Long Predates Caribbean Gulag

01/11/2012 07:40 am ET | Updated Jan 11, 2012

The 10th anniversary of the Guantanamo Bay prison will be marked today with demonstrations in London, Washington and other cities throughout the world. And prisoners at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba also plan to stage sit-ins, erect banners and refuse meals.

Cuba, however, has been railing against the American-controlled military base at the easternmost end of the island for decades, long before the establishment of the detention center, arguing that its continued presence on Cuban soil violates international law.

In recent days, Cuba's state-controlled press noted the controversial prison's anniversary with a pair of stories that steered clear of the island's longtime opposition. An article in Juventud Rebelde told of a demonstration outside the White House, another from the Spanish daily La Vanguardia appeared on an official website under the headline "Obama legitimizes prison of shame ten years after its opening."

The Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, also called Gitmo, was built on land permanently leased to the United States from Cuba under terms dating to the 1903 Cuban-American Treaty. Originally intended as a coal fueling station, Guantanamo is the oldest overseas American naval base and the only one in a country with no diplomatic relations with the U.S.

For the Bush administration, a foreign naval base under full American control was the perfect place for holding and interrogating suspected terrorists and combatants captured in Afghanistan and Iraq. And long before the 9/11 attacks, parts of Guantanamo had been used to hold U.S.-bound Cuban rafters intercepted at sea.

The Bush administration flew the first 20 war-related prisoners into Cuba on Jan. 11, 2002. Eventually, nearly 800 men would be held in a series of camps. A decade later, just 171 detainees remain on the base, either in communal blocks on Camp 6 or at a lock-down facility known as Camp 5 for "non-compliant" prisoners, according to The Washington Post.

However, many Guantanamo prisoners reported being beaten and tortured at the hands of the U.S. interrogators.

The reports of torture gave Cuban officials new fuel to criticize their American rival and renew calls for closing the naval base. The communist government has maintained that during its 53-year revolution not a single person had been "disappeared" or tortured.

This week, Amnesty International and other groups are holding events marking Guantanamo's anniversary from Germany to Madrid. In addition, a demonstration outside the White House was planned today, followed by a march to the Supreme Court.

"Guantanamo has infected everything it has touched," Tom Parker, Amnesty International USA policy director for counterterrorism and human rights, told The Washington Post. "We mark this dismal anniversary knowing with a heavy heart that despite President Obama’s election promise to close the facility it will begin its tenth year of operation more deeply entrenched in U.S. life than ever."

But Guantanamo has been deeply entrenched in Cuban life, too -- long before the war on terror.

Until Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, thousands of Cubans traveled to and from the naval base for work.

In late 2009, only three of those Cuban workers were still employed at the base, according to the book "The Cuba Wars" by Daniel Erikson, a Cuba expert formerly with the Washington D.C.-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank. The men were 75, 78 and 83 years old.

"Perhaps their most important function was to carry pensions into Cuba for three hundred retired Cubans," Erikson wrote. "Once a month, the U.S. military sent its three elderly workers across the fence line carrying close to $60,000 in cash for its former employees."

Since the 1959 revolution, Cuban officials have said, the government has cashed only one of the $4,085 rent checks from the U.S. for use of the land. That check was reportedly cashed by error. A few years back, an ailing Fidel Castro wrote in one of his "Reflections" columns that the checks written out to the nonexistent "Treasurer General of the Republic" collect dust in the desk drawer in Havana. The U.S. has long argued that the cashing of the first check by Castro's government represented a ratification of the lease.

Latin American experts and historians have called the naval base a colonial relic and symbol of the United States' perceived domination of Latin American neighbors. At one time, tens of thousands of landmines littered the land separating the naval base from Cuban territory; many of the mines have been disarmed.

The experts have said that lease provisions limiting the use of the land to "coaling and naval purposes only" and prohibiting "commercial, industrial or other enterprise" make the treaty voidable. In addition to the prison complex, the base also houses a McDonald's, two Starbucks and a Subway sandwich shop, among other businesses.

Human rights groups and lawyers for prisoners have criticized Obama for failing to keep his promise to close the prison. Administration plans to close the base have been resisted by congress.

On Dec. 31, Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, with a provision allowing indefinite military detention without trial. In a statement, the president said he did so with reservations about key provisions in the law. The controversial law opens the possibility of detaining citizens in military custody without trial for as long as there is a war on terror.

Whether the new law ensures that Guantanamo remains open for decades is open to debate. What's certain is that Cuba and its neighbors will not stop clamoring for the closure of this haunting colonial-era relic.

Guantanamo Bay Anniversary

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