Renewed Calls on Capitol Hill to Close Guantánamo Bay

A hundred advocacy groups send an open letter to President Biden asking him to, once again, close the controversial detention center at this American base in Cuba.

A visit by Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, promoted the request. Her department issued a new report on the treatment of current and former detainees. She said she also met with the victims of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Though Ní Aoláin said detainees who have spent years at the facility continue to be saddled with fair trial and due process violations, she acknowledged that conditions at the detention center had improved in recent years and praised the Biden administration for its public vows to close what’s become known as Gitmo.

“The U.S. Government has led by example by being prepared to address the hardest human rights issues,” Ní Aoláin said in a statement. “I affirm the openness of the technical visit, the spirit of positive constructive dialogue that sustained it, and the singular importance of access to all detention sites affirmed by it.”

The report comes as plea talks for the alleged masterminds behind the 9/11 terror attacks remain stuck in limbo and more than two years after Biden officials said they aimed to close Gitmo. Though the administration has transferred several detainees in recent years, the detention facility remains in operation.

Cuba and Guantánamo Bay

Long before it was a black ops prison, Guantánamo Bay was another kind of political tool. It has enabled the U.S. to keep a toehold in Cuba throughout that country’s many changes in government.

In the 1880s, once America had largely finished licking its wounds from the Civil War, its eyes turned toward the decaying Spanish Empire. A century earlier, Spain ruled almost the entire New World. But by 1880, the Spanish Empire was down to a few far-flung islands, including Cuba.

The low-hanging fruit was too tempting for the Americans to resist, but the government needed a pretext to invade. Cuban rebels gave the United States the pretext. However, Washington couldn’t keep Cuba after it ostensibly went to war to free it. So, in the 1898 treaty that ended the Spanish-American War, the Americans settled for Guantánamo Bay, which is on the southwest part of the island. The natural harbor is almost completely surrounded by woods and mountains, making it an ideal place for a naval base.

A 1903 treaty allowed the United States to occupy Guantánamo Bay forever as long as it paid monthly rent and recognized Cuba’s sovereignty. Since the 1959 Communist revolution, Cuba has only cashed one rent check and claims that the American occupation is illegal, as it is a constant affront to the nation’s sovereignty, the Cubans signed over the territory under duress, and the Americans use force, or at least the threat of force, to maintain their toehold.

Why is Guantánamo Bay Still Open?

Immediately after 9/11, this prison held hundreds of suspected violent terrorists who were pressured (some would say tortured) until they cooperated with investigators. As of the end of 2023, only about thirty prisoners remain. A combination of cost concerns, relocation concerns, and, quite frankly, apathy keeps them there.

Dismantling the base, a duty that contractors would probably handle, would be expensive. Furthermore, the service members stationed there must be redeployed. So, the long-term cost savings would be almost nothing. Cost concerns kept the prison open during the Obama years. The failure of this progressive President to close Guathánamo Bay basically created a precedent to keep it open. More on that below.

Relocating current inmates would be expensive as well. These prisoners cannot simply be set free. They must go somewhere.

The release process would be difficult, to say the least. No matter where they are from, most people assume that when authorities arrest people, those people have done something wrong. Furthermore, the government might not have enough evidence to prosecute these individuals, but that does not mean they are “innocent.” So, not many other countries are willing to accept the risk and provide safe haven.

Most politicians in Washington do not have much sympathy for suspected 9/11 terrorists. Even fewer are willing to stick their necks out for these individuals. So, it is easy for decision-makers to use cost and relocation concerns as a reason to avoid the issue.

Contractor Duties and Injuries

Contractors alleviate the cost concerns that plague Guathánamo Bay and other military facilities throughout the world. When regular servicemembers guard prisoners, when the prisoners are released or transferred, the guards must be redeployed. When private military contractors guard prisoners, when the guards are no longer needed, the government sends them home.

This arrangement also offers flexibility. When more troops are needed, contractors put boots on the ground within a few days or even a few hours.

These hazardous deployments often lead to combat and non-combat-related injuries. Defense Base Act benefits are available for both.

Extreme combat injuries, like bullet and shrapnel wounds, are almost impossible to treat in the field or even in a field hospital. At best, medics and field doctors can stabilize these victims for transportation to a larger facility.

Transportation alone could cost tens of thousands of dollars. Most medevac helicopters and other aircraft are basically flying hospitals. Then, because doctors get a late start, they must use more aggressive and expensive treatments.

Non-combat-related injuries include trauma injuries, such as falls, and occupational diseases, such as toxic exposure. Both kinds of injuries are life-changing at best and life-threatening at worst.

Sometimes, the injury claim reimbursement process is simple and straightforward. A few claims are settled at early settlement conferences. A mediator examines the medical records and other paperwork in the case. If insurance company lawyers do not contest the amount of damages, they often issue a check on the spot.

However, there is usually some question about damages. Medical bills are a good example. Insurance companies eagerly approve the cheapest possible treatment. Convincing them to approve reasonably necessary medical bills usually takes some time.

If the initial settlement conference breaks down, a Defense Base Act lawyer usually schedules an appeal hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. ALJs are much like regular judges. ALJs allow lawyers to introduce evidence, challenge evidence, and make legal arguments.

Insurance companies know that a victim has the advantage at an ALJ hearing. Therefore, most DBA claims are settled prior to this hearing and on victim-friendly terms.

For more information about DBA eligibility, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A.