Resolution of Issues Regarding Cuba-U.S. Lease of Guantanamo Bay

Since the December 17, 2014, announcement of rapprochement, Cuba has voiced at least three demands or issues regarding its lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. The most serious one is ending the lease and returning this territory to complete Cuban control. The second is the U.S.’ paying for use of the territory since the Cuban Revolution’s takeover of the island in 1959. The third is Cuba’s objection to the U.S.’ establishing and maintaining a prison for detainees after 9/11 and to the U.S.’ alleged mistreatment and torture of those detainees.

Understanding these issues requires an examination of (a) the Cuban war for independence, 1895-1898, and the Spanish-American War of 1898; (b) the terms of seven documents relating to the lease, all of which predate the Cuban Revolution; and (c) the position of the Revolutionary government toward these documents and the lease. [1] In conclusion, this post will discuss methods for resolving these issues.

Before all of that, here are maps and photographs of Guantanamo Bay.

Guant map1

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Gitmo look west

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The Cuban War for Independence and the Spanish-American War [2]

In 1895 Cubans started a revolt or war of independence from Spain, which responded with ferocity, launching its “reconcentrado” campaign that herded 300,000 Cubans into re-concentration camps. Spain’s tactics infuriated many Americans, who began to raise money and even fight on the side of the Cuban nationalists while American businesses with economic interests on the island were worried about the safety of their investments. U.S. President William McKinley wanted an end to the Cuban-Spanish conflict, but demanded that Spain act responsibly and humanely and that any settlement be acceptable to Cuban nationals.

In November 1897, an amicable resolution appeared possible when the Spanish granted the Cubans limited autonomy and closed the re-concentration camps. But after pro-Spanish demonstrators rioted in Havana in January 1898 to protest Spain’s more conciliatory policies, McKinley ordered the U.S. battleship Maine to Havana to protect American citizens and property and to demonstrate that the U.S. still valued Spain’s friendship.

With the Maine safely moored in Spanish waters, the Spanish-American relationship was jolted by the publication in a New York newspaper of a letter by the Spanish minister to the U.S. describing McKinley as “weak and a bidder for the admirations of the crowd” and revealing that the Spanish were not negotiating in good faith with the U.S. Americans saw the letter as an attack on both McKinley’s and the nation’s honor. The American public’s anger only intensified following an explosion on the Maine and its sinking on February 15, 1898, in Havana Harbor, killing 266 crew members. The Navy, on March 21, reported that an external explosion, presumably from a Spanish mine, had destroyed the ship.

With diplomatic initiatives exhausted and the American public wanting an end to the Cuban crisis, McKinley, in mid-April 1898, asked Congress for authority to intervene in Cuba, which it granted. Spain soon broke relations with the U.S., and the U.S. blockaded Cuba’s ports. On April 23, Spain declared war on the U.S. Two days later the U.S. did likewise with the Teller amendment committing the U.S. to the independence of Cuba once the war had ended, disclaiming “any disposition or intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction or control over said island, except for the pacification thereof.”

What became known as the Spanish-American War lasted only a little over three months with U.S. victories in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines ending in a cease fire on August 12, 1898. Under the Paris Peace Treaty of December 10, 1898, the U.S. obtained Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine Islands while Spain renounced its claim to Cuba, which remained under U.S. military occupation until 1902.

Thereafter, Cuba would be a de facto U.S. protectorate until 1934.

The Lease of Guantanamo Bay

The first five of the seven documents relating to the Guantanamo lease were created during the period that Cuba was a de facto protectorate of the U.S.

  1. Act of Congress (March 2, 1901). On this date, President McKinley signed an Act of Congress that included what was called “the Platt Amendment,” which authorized the U.S. President “to leave the government and control of the island of Cuba to its people so soon as a government shall have been established in said island under a constitution which, either as a part thereof or in an ordinance appended thereto, shall define the future relations of the United States with Cuba, [and shall include the following: provisions]:
  • “I. That the government of Cuba shall never enter into any treaty or other compact with any foreign power or powers which will impair or tend to impair the independence of Cuba, nor in any manner authorize or permit any foreign power or powers to obtain by colonization or for military or naval purposes or otherwise, lodgement in or control over any portion of said island.”
  • “III. That the government of Cuba consents that the [U.S.] may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty, and for discharging the obligations with respect to Cuba imposed by the treaty of Paris on the [U.S.], now to be assumed and undertaken by the government of Cuba.”
  • “”VII. That to enable the [U.S.] to maintain the independence of Cuba, and to protect the people thereof, as well as for its own defense, the government of Cuba will sell or lease to the [U.S.] lands necessary for coaling or naval stations at certain specified points to be agreed upon with the President of the United States.”
  1. Constitution of Cuba (May 20, 1902). On this date, the Constitution of the Republic of Cuba was promulgated, and Article VII of its Appendix provided: “To enable the [U.S.] to maintain the independence of Cuba, and to protect the people thereof, as well as for its own defense, the Cuban Government will sell or lease to the [U.S.] the lands necessary for coaling or naval stations, at certain specified points, to be agreed upon with the President of the United States.”
  1. U.S.-Cuba Agreement (February 23, 1903). Pursuant to the just mentioned Cuban constitutional provision, on February 23, 1903, the U.S. and Cuba entered into the “Agreement . . . for the Lease of Lands for Coaling and Naval stations.” Its Article I stated that Cuba “hereby leases to the United States, for the time required for the purposes of coaling and naval stations, the following described areas of land and water [Guantanamo Bay and Bahia Honda] [3] situated in the Island of Cuba”

This Agreement’s Article II stated, “The grant of the foregoing Article shall include the right to use and occupy the waters adjacent to said areas of land and water, and to improve and deepen the entrances thereto and the anchorages therein, and generally to do any and all things necessary to fit the premises for use as coaling or naval stations only, and for no other purpose.” (Emphasis added.)

This Agreement concluded in Article III, whereby the U.S. “recognizes the continuance of the ultimate sovereignty of the Republic of Cuba over the above described areas of land and water, on the other hand the Republic of Cuba consents that during the period of the occupation by the [U.S.] of said areas under the terms of this agreement the [U.S.] shall exercise complete jurisdiction and control over and within said areas.”

Unlike most leases, this agreement did not set forth a set period of time for the lease or the compensation or rent to be paid.

  1. Treaty between the United States of America and Cuba (May 22, 1903). This treaty in Article I states, “The Government of Cuba shall never enter into any treaty or other compact with any foreign power or powers which will impair or tend to impair the independence of Cuba, nor in any manner authorize or permit any foreign power or powers to obtain by colonization or for military or naval purposes, or otherwise, lodgment in or control over any portion of said island.”

Article III provides, “The Government of Cuba consents that the United States may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty, and for discharging the obligations with respect to Cuba imposed by the Treaty of Paris on the United States, now to be assumed and undertaken by the Government of Cuba.”

Article VII adds, “To enable the United States to maintain the independence of Cuba, and to protect the people thereof, as well as for its own defense, the Government of Cuba will sell or lease to the United States lands necessary for coaling or naval stations, at certain specified points, to be agreed upon with the President of the United States.”

  1. Lease of Certain Areas of Land and Water for Naval or Coaling Stations in Guantanamo and Bahia Honda (July 2, 1903). This instrument details additional terms of the lease in seven articles. Its Article I specified the compensation that the U.S. would pay to Cuba for the leased territories: “the annual sum of two thousand dollars, in gold coin of the United States, as long as the former shall occupy and use said areas of land by virtue of said agreement.” Under Article II, the U.S. agreed “that no person, partnership, or corporation shall be permitted to establish or maintain a commercial, industrial or other enterprise within said areas.”

There still was no set period of time for the lease of the territory.

On November 12, 1903, Guantánamo Bay Outer Harbor passed into U.S. hands “without any formality” and was “effected in a quiet manner.”

  1. Treaty between United States of America and Cuba (May 29, 1934)By 1934 there had been changes in the overall relationship between the two countries. The U.S., pursuing President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “good neighbor” policy, proposed to nullify the previously mentioned May 22, 1903, U.S.-Cuba Treaty. Cuba had become increasingly upset with the earlier treaty’s Platt Amendment granting the U.S. the right to intervene in Cuba, and Cuba welcomed the idea of nullifying the 1903 treaty. Negotiations to that end proceeded quickly; and a new Cuban-American Treaty of Relations was signed on May 29, 1934, and after rapid ratifications by both states it entered into force on June 9, 1934. This effectively ended the U.S. de facto protectorate of Cuba.

The 1934 treaty in Article II also stated: “All the acts effected in Cuba by the [U.S.] during its military occupation of the island, up to May 20,1902, the date on which the Republic of Cuba was established, have been ratified and held as valid; and all the rights legally acquired by virtue of those acts shall be maintained and protected.”

Article III added the following language with respect to the naval station at Guantánamo Bay: “The supplementary agreement in regard to naval or coaling station signed between the two Governments on July 2, 1903, also shall continue in effect in the same form and on the same conditions with respect to the naval station at Guantánamo. So long as the United States of America shall not abandon the said naval station of Guantánamo or the two Governments shall not agree to a modification of its present limits, the station shall continue to have the territory it now has, with the limits that it has on the date of the signature of the present Treaty.”

The implication of Article III is that the U.S. at any time can walk away from the lease at Guantánamo (abandon the base), but the Cubans can never revoke the lease.

  1. Change in Amount of Rent (1938). Although the source document has not been located, secondary sources say the annual rent for Guantanamo was changed in 1938 to $4,085 (U.S. Dollars), which was the 1938 equivalent of $2,000 in U.S. gold coins. That term has never been changed. Indeed, the U.S. documents transmitting the annual rent checks in that amount for 2011, 2012 and 2013 merely refer to the July 2, 1903, Lease while stating the amount of $4,085 was “computed in the manner of which the government of Cuba has been advised in connection with previous rental payments.” [4]

Cuba’s Revolutionary Government’s Positions Regarding the Lease

Soon after the Cuban Revolution took over the government in January 1959, it started calling for the U.S. to get out of Guantanamo. Over time Cuba set out four different, and sometimes contradictory, legal arguments for invalidating the lease. Even though some international law experts thought Cuba had a good argument for such invalidation: rebus sic stantibus (fundamental change of circumstances), [5] Cuba never instituted legal proceedings to that end. In addition, while the U.S.S.R. still existed and was a major Cuban ally, the Soviets argued that the lease was an “unequal treaty,” but that legal theory was not embraced by the U.S. and most Western nations.

In addition, Cuba has refused to cash the annual U.S. checks for $4,085 made out to the “Treasurer General of the Republic” (a position that ceased to exist after the Revolution). One such check, however, was cashed in the early days of the Revolution, Cuba says, due to confusion. (Many years ago during a televised interview, Fidel Castro opened a desk drawer in his office to show the collection of uncashed checks.)

At least by 2004, Cuba accepted the lease as valid while asserting that control over Guantanamo “will eventually revert to Cuba because of the nature of the arrangement, ad defined by its domestic law, which prohibits perpetual leases. For example, in 2004, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry stated the arrangement “does not grant a perpetual right but a temporary one over that part of our territory, by which, in due course, as a just right of our people, the illegally occupied territory of Guantanamo should be returned by peaceful means to Cuba.” In short, said Cuba, the lease is valid, but U.S. occupation of the territory is illegal. This argument is ridiculous, in the opinion of this blogger, a retired U.S. lawyer.

There have been at least two U.S. responses to these Cuban arguments of invalidity of the lease. First, under the international legal principle of pacta sunt servanda (the contract is the law between the parties), the lease remained a valid agreement between the two states and Cuba has a legal obligation to adhere to agreements previously entered into despite a change in governments. [6] Second, the revolutionary government’s acceptance of at least one of the annual rent checks was an admission of the lease’s validity or a waiver of Cuba’s objections thereto.

Conclusion

As a retired U.S. lawyer, without doing any legal research, I see potential issues of lease invalidity due to (a) possible undue influence or coercion by the U.S. in establishing the terms of the original lease in 1903 and the modifications in 1934 and 1938; [7] and (b) the U.S. use of Guantanamo possibly exceeding the uses permitted by the lease. Any such claim, however, would be potentially subject, at least in a domestic legal dispute, to the affirmative defenses of waiver, estoppel, ratification, laches and statute of limitations. [8]

The argument for invalidity based on the U.S. use of Guantanamo has been rejected by Professor Strauss. He notes that the lease permits the use of Guantanamo as a “naval station,” which is a term created by the U.S. to allow its Navy to determine the range of activities that could occur at such a “station” and which has been used for fewer functions than a full naval base and more recently as a full naval base. As a result, says Strauss, the limitation on use is “largely meaningless in a practical sense.”

In any event, if Cuba now were to assert a right to terminate the lease, over U.S. objection, then I suggest that such a claim should be submitted to a panel of three arbitrators at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague under its existing Arbitration Rules. Presumably the U.S. in addition to resisting the claim would have a contingent counterclaim (in the event of an arbitration award of termination) for reimbursement for the value of U.S. improvements to the territory.

Such an arbitration proceeding should also include any Cuban claim for compensation for the U.S. use of Guantanamo for 66 years (1960-2015). If, however, such a claims is only for the $4,085 annual rent established in 1938 for a total of $269,610 (without interest), then the claim should be resolved quickly by the U.S. paying the amount of the claim. If, however, the claim is for a higher amount based upon some theory to void the $4,085 figure and instead use a larger amount of alleged fair market value, then presumably such a claim would be contested by the U.S. and a proper claim for arbitration.

Of course, at any time the two parties could negotiate a new lease of Guantanamo, presumably for a specific term of years, with a right of renewal, at a higher and annually adjustable rent. Such a new lease could also impose limits on U.S. use of the territory such as prohibition of the operation of a prison or detention facility.

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[1] An excellent overall discussion of the U.S. lease of Guantanamo is contained in Strauss, Cuba and State Responsibility for Human Rights at Guantanamo, 37 So. Ill. Univ. L.J. 533, 533-36 (2013).  See also Notes on Guantanamo Bay; Wikipedia, Guantanamo Bay Navy Base.

[2] This brief summary of the two wars is based on American President: William McKinley: Foreign Affairs, Miller Center, Univ. Virginia.

[3] Bahia Honda was never used by the U.S. and reverted to Cuban control.

[4] Boadle, Castro: Cuba not cashing US Guantanamo rent checks, Reuters (Aug. 17, 2007); Shiffer, Annual rent for Girmo Naval Base: $4,085, payable to Cuba, StarTribune (Oct. 10, 2014) (contains U.S. transmittal advices for rental checks for 2011, 2012 and 2013).

[5] The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties that entered into force on January 20, 1980, sets forth “the codification and progressive development of the law of treaties,” which are “international agreement[s] concluded between States in written form and governed by international law.” (Preamble & Art. 2(1)(a).) Its Article 62 recognizes a “fundamental change of circumstances” as a ground for “terminating or withdrawing from” a treaty and defines the conditions for such a ground. Cuba is a party to the treaty, and although the U.S. is not, the State Department has said that this Convention “is already generally recognized as the authoritative guide to current treaty law and practice.” (David Weissbrodt, Fionnuala Ni Aolain, Joan Fitzpatrick, Frank Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy, and Process at 127-28 (4th ed. LexisNexis 2009).)

[6] The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties notes that “the principles of free consent and of good faith and pacta sunt servanda are universally recognized” and its Article 26 under the heading “Pacta sunt servanda” states, “Every treaty in force is binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith.”

[7] The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties in Article 52 provides, “A treaty is void if its conclusion has been procured by the threat or use of force in violation of the principles of international law embodied in the Charter of the United Nations.”

[8] The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties provides in Article 45 that a “State may no longer invoke [breach by the other party or fundamental change of circumstances] if, after becoming aware of the facts: (a) it shall have expressly agreed that the treaty is valid or remains in force or continues in operation . . .; or (b) it must by reason of its conduct be considered as having acquiesced in the validity of the treaty or its maintenance in force or in operation . . . .”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Results of U.S. and Cuba’s First Talks About Human Rights

On March 31st the U.S. and Cuba held their first talks about human rights. [1]

Afterwards the head of the Cuban delegation, Foreign Ministry official Pedro Luis Pedroso, said a decision on holding future talks would be reached during traditional diplomatic channels. Another Cuban delegate said the two sides held “a respectful, professional, civilized conversation.” Nevertheless, Anaysansi Rodriguez Camejo, Cuba’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, told Cuban state television that the session underlined “that there are differences” on issues of human rights.

More specifically, Senor Pedroso said Cuba had expressed concern about the U.S. guarantees and protection of human rights and drew attention to alleged persistent patterns of discrimination, racism and police brutality in the U.S. Cuba also raised the issues of alleged U.S. limitations on the exercise of labor rights and trade union freedoms and the alleged U.S. violations of human rights in the so-called fight against terrorism, including torture, extrajudicial executions and the use of drones, spying and offshore surveillance as well as the legal limbo of prisoners at the “illegal” Guantanamo Naval Base.

Pedroso also asserted that human rights are universal and indivisible and no one has more value than another. The realization of social and cultural rights is a fundamental basis for the effective exercise of civil and political rights.

According to the U.S. State Department, the discussion concerned “the methodology, topics, and structure of a future human rights dialogue. The atmosphere of the meeting was professional, and there was broad agreement on the way forward for a future substantive dialogue, the timing and location of which will be determined through diplomatic channels. Each side raised concerns about human rights issues, and both sides expressed willingness to discuss a wide range of topics in future substantive talks.”

“This preliminary meeting reflects our continued focus on human rights and democratic principles in Cuba,” a State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Human rights are a priority.”

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[1] This post is based upon the following sources: Assoc. Press, Cuba Delegate Reports ‘Civilized’ Talks on Rights with US, N.Y. Times (Mar. 31, 2015); Reuters, U.S., Cuba Hold First Formal Talks on Human Rights, N.Y. Times (Mar. 31, 2015); U.S. Dep’t of State, Cuba: Planning Meeting for Human Rights Dialogue (Mar. 31, 2015); Gomez, Cuba expressed concerns about the exercise of human rights in the US, Granma (Mar. 31, 2105); Gomez, Cuba and USA argued civilized conversation on human rights, despite differences, Granma (Mar. 31, 2015); Cuban Foreign Ministry, Press release about the first meeting between Cuba and the US human rights, Granma (Mar. 31, 2015).