Cuban nationalists began pressing for independence from Spain in the mid-nineteenth century. Cuban guerrilla fighters initiated frequent skirmishes with the Spanish military between 1868 and 1878. Revolutionary activities picked up in the 1890s and Spain imposed martial law in 1896. International tensions came to a head when the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898. The US declared war on Spain on April 25, 1898. US troops quickly defeated Spain, and the two countries signed the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898. The US retained a significant presence in Cuba following independence from Spain, but agreed to lessen its influence over the new nation in exchange for the right to build a US-controlled naval base in Guantanamo Bay under the terms of the 1903 Cuban-American Treaty signed by US President Theodore Roosevelt.
Used exclusively for naval operations until the 1990s, President George H. W. Bush housed over 34,000 Haitian refugees fleeing that nation’s coup d’etat at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in 1991. Between 1994-1995, US President Bill Clinton housed over 55,000 Haitian and Cuban immigrants at the base.
The facilities at Guantanamo Bay have taken on a special significance since 9/11. The Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp was constructed in 2002 and houses individuals captured by the US military during the War on Terror. The first prisoner arrived at Guantanamo Bay on January 11, 2002. As of 2012, experts estimate that over 779 detainees have been held at the site. While approximately 600 have been released, over 170 remain imprisoned and nine detainees have died [PDF].
During his 2008 presidential campaign, President Barack Obama advocated for closure of the detention camp. Obama issued Executive Order 13492 on January 22, 2009, calling for closure of the detention facilities by January 22, 2010. That same day, Obama also issued Executive Order 13493, which called for alternative options for the detention camp.
Obama signed the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2010 in October 2009, allowing for the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to the US for prosecution. Congress resisted Obama’s plan, and in November 2009, the US Senate voted down an amendment to the Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act that would have prevented Guantanamo detainees accused of involvement in 9/11 from being tried in federal courts. Obama defended his stance that detainees charged with violating US criminal law should be tried in federal courts “whenever feasible.”
The Obama administration missed its January 2010 deadline for the closure of Guantanamo Bay. Following the 2010 mid-term congressional election, Congress approved a defense spending bill which blocked Guantanamo detainees from being transferred to the US. In January 2011, the closure of Guantanamo was further delayed when President Obama signed the Ike Skelton National Defense Authorization Act of 2011, which barred the use of funds to transfer Guantanamo detainees into the US. Advocacy groups, such as the ACLU and Amnesty International, as well as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have repeatedly called on the Obama administration to close the detention camp. President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to closing the camp several times, and most recently called for closure during the State of the Union address in January 2014. As of July 2014, however, the Guantanamo Bay detention camp remains open and the prisoners await transfer.