On Feb. 23, 2016, President Barack Obama submitted his plan to Congress to finally close Guantanamo Bay prison, which was established in 2002 and holds persons suspected or convicted of terrorism, and is part of the U.S. naval base in Cuba. In 2009, shortly after taking office, President Obama issued an executive order to close the detention center within the year, in an attempt to fulfill one of his initial campaign promises.
Now, seven years later, it remains open and Obama is insisting again on the transfer of detainees and the shutdown of Guantanamo Bay, also known as Gitmo. The Republicans in Congress, however, are still opposed to Obama’s plan as the transfer of terrorists to the U.S. is illegal.
According to a CNN timeline about Gitmo, Cuba initially leased 45 square miles of Southeastern Cuba to the United States in 1903 in order for the U.S. to construct a naval base. In 1934, Cuba and the U.S signed a “perpetual lease.” It was not until after 9/11 that the U.S. began to detain people suspected of terrorism in a detention center within the naval base.
There are currently 91 men remaining at Gitmo. Obama wants to see the portion of this group that is considered too dangerous for international transfer on U.S. soil. According to an organization called Human Rights First, 780 detainees have been incarcerated throughout the entire history of Gitmo, and approximately 680 have been transferred.
The high cost of Gitmo is the central point in Obama’s argument for the transfer of detainees and the closure of the detention center. Obama has also made reference to the negative image of the U.S. due to the alleged mistreatment of inmates and his desire to repair relations with Cuba.
According to Human Rights First, the “annual cost to operate Guantánamo is approximately $445 million.” CNN reported that on Tuesday Feb. 23, U.S. officials said that Obama’s plan to transfer the detainees to the U.S. would save the U.S. government between $65 million and $85 million per year.
Recently, Obama commented that “keeping this facility open is contrary to our values.” Interrogators at Guantanamo have been accused of mistreating detainees, and using unnecessary and cruel means of acquiring information, such as waterboarding.
According to an NBC report on the remaining Gitmo prisoners, one detainee named, Abu Zubaydah, a Pakistani man “suspected of being an al-Qaeda operative and 9/11 plotter,” was subjected to waterboarding, and lost an eye because of this form of torture.
“The plan we’re putting forward today isn’t just about closing the facility at Guantanamo,” Obama explained from the White House. “It’s not just about dealing with the current group of detainees, which is a complex piece of business because of the manner in which they were originally apprehended and what happened. This is about closing a chapter in our history.”
Cuba has never recognized the lease that the U.S. has been paying since 1903, and the fact that Cuba has never cashed one of the U.S. payments for Guantanamo, except an accidental cashing of a check in 1959, attests to this. Cuba’s leader Raul Castro has made it known that “the territory occupied by the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo should be returned to Cuba.” In order to shut down Gitmo and return Guantanamo bay to Cuba, both parties in the lease, Cuba and the U.S., must agree to its closure.
The opposition to Obama’s plan, however, isn’t letting up. The major critique of Obama’s proposal is that it is currently against the law to “transfer terrorist detainees to American soil,” as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan pointed out. Another concern, according to CNN coverage on this debate, is that “released detainees will return to terror.”
U.S. citizens may also have doubts about the American prison system or fear that people convicted of terrorist actions could escape from federal prisons. It is therefore important to note that, according to the organization Human Rights First, the number of people “convicted of terrorism-related charges being held in U.S. prisons is 355,” and that “those convicted of terrorism-related charges who have escaped from any part of the federal prison system is zero.”
Although the odds of success on Obama’s part don’t look good, the American public has also voiced its opinion and is perhaps what prompted Obama to send his Gitmo plan to congress. On Monday Jan. 11, 2016, the 14th anniversary of the creation Guantanamo detention center, 24 protesters stood outside the White House in orange jumpsuits and black hoods over their heads. One of the protesters said, “you can’t blame it on Congress. President Obama, make good on your promise.”