This Day in the Law
February 23

US Obtains "Perpetual Lease" for Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (1903)

On February 23, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt and Cuba’s first President, Tomás Estrada Palma, agreed to the Cuban-American Treaty. The Treaty granted the U.S. government a perpetual lease to use Guantánamo Bay, Cuba for such purposes as naval operations and coal mining. It also gave the U.S. absolute jurisdiction and control over Guantánamo Bay but granted Cuba legal sovereignty over the area.

The United States originally took control of Cuba from Spain at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898. The U.S. then gave up most of its claims over Cuba but retained Guantánamo Bay via a perpetual lease on this day, February 23, 1903, at the price of $2,000 gold pieces per year. Then, in 1934, through another treaty, the U.S. agreed to modify its lease payment to $4,085 US dollars per year and made the lease permanent unless the countries mutually agreed to change it.

Today, Cuba argues that the U.S. obtained the perpetual lease of Guantánamo Bay in violation of international law. However, the U.S. maintains that the two countries entered into a valid treaty and pursuant to international law Cuba cannot rescind the agreement. Cuba argues that it cashed only one of the annual lease checks. But the U.S. maintains that even cashing one check signifies Cuba’s acceptance of the perpetual lease.

At the end of the 20th century, the U.S. began to use Guantánamo Bay as a detention center for refugees. Then, in 2002, the U.S. began using Guantánamo Bay as a prison camp to detain terrorists such as Taliban and Al-Qaida suspects from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many international critics claim that the U.S. has mistreated these prisoners and is illegally holding them without trial, i.e. in violation of the right to habeas corpus. The U.S. maintains that the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay are "illegal combatants," rather than "prisoners of war," which have no right to trial under the international Geneva Conventions.

More recently, President Barack Obama ordered the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay to be closed. However, no American state or community or other country is currently willing to take custody of the prisoners.