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America's Cuban Territory

Long before the arrival of al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners, the U.S. base at Guantánamo Bay has been a source of tension and controversy
John Lantigua
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Spy Scandal, May/Jun 02

(continued from page 2)

Those camps also suffered some of the problems of cities—thefts, fighting, and even alleged brutality by military police. In September 1994, Cuban detainees staged protests, demanding to know when they would be released; they were forced back into their camps by Gitmo military guards. Later, the United States and Cuba reached immigration accords, and refugees picked up at sea have since been transported back to Cuba, where they can apply for one of the 20,000 American visas available annually. Only those who prove they will suffer political persecution if returned to Cuba proper are taken to Gitmo, where they stay until they are granted asylum by third-party countries.

In January 1996, I arrived at the base to interview the last of the 30,000 Cubans who had been housed there. A day later, the last of the camps were dismantled and Gitmo resembled a ghost town. The Americans eventually dug up the mines on their territory. The Cuban mines are aging and sensitive to the point that they are sometimes detonated by slithering iguanas or scampering banana rats.

By January 2002, Gitmo was the home to a handful of asylum applicants and also some 2,700 resident personnel, both military and civilian. Those residents live mostly in suburban-like, duplex-style housing. The base has a bowling alley, an outdoor theater that shows first-run films, schools, a church, even a McDonald's. Every year, a Cuban-American Friendship Day celebration is staged to honor the diminishing number of Cuban employees. An annual chili cook-off is one of the base's big events and fund-raisers.

The arrival on January 11 of the captives from the war on terrorism shattered that strangely middle-American idyll. Soon an international controversy shook the camp: a photograph of recently arrived detainees kneeling outside their chain-link cells in orange jumpsuits, blindfolds and shackles drew accusations of inhumane treatment by the U.S. military. President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denied the accusations. But they also insisted that the internees would not be treated as prisoners of war, which would have insured them certain legal protections, because they did not meet key stipulations of the Geneva Convention, including, among other things, the fact that they didn't wear uniforms. A global outcry made them change their minds about the Taliban fighters, but the Bush administration wouldn't budge on the al Qaeda captives.

As more detainees arrived on flights from Kandahar, in Afghanistan and were questioned, it was determined that they came from at least 32 countries, including Britain, Sweden, France, Russia, Australia, Denmark, Kuwait, Pakistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Three hundred had arrived by late February. The importation of these men from faraway lands brought new phenomena to Gitmo. A handful were Christians, but the majority were Muslims. They were issued copies of the Koran, and a Navy chaplain of the Muslim faith intoned a lilting summons five times per day, calling the men to prayer. On February 23, the Muslim prisoners celebrated Eid-al-Adha, The Feast of the Sacrifice, the most important holy day in the Islamic year. The camp was suffused with the smell of lamb stew prepared for the prisoners by camp cooks. But their life at Gitmo was not all prayer and hospitality. At least five interrogation huts were constructed, and U.S. military sources said that certain captives were chosen to be sent to Guantánamo because they might possess valuable information about terrorist organizations. The base suddenly found itself on the very front lines of intelligence gathering in the war against terrorism. In that role, Gitmo apparently yielded results. The alert issued by the FBI in mid-February that Yemeni terrorists might strike in the United States or against American interests in Yemen reportedly was based in part on information obtained from interrogations at Guantánamo.

How did the government of Fidel Castro react to the use of a corner of Cuba to house not refugees, but alleged terrorists? Although it was expected that Cuba would protest, it did not. The Castro government, which condemned the attacks on the World Trade Center and on the Pentagon, offered medical personnel to work at Camp X-ray, an offer rejected by the United States. This does not mean that Cuba condones the U.S. presence at Guantánamo Bay. The treaty signed in 1903 and again in 1934 was forced on Cuba, the Castro government insists, and the yearly check for the rent of the base has not been cashed in more than 40 years.

Still, the Cubans say an atmosphere of détente has developed over the years between the forces stationed on either side of the fence. That spirit of cooperation was forged during the quiet years of the 1970s and 1980s. Even today, the respective military commanders sometimes meet to discuss concerns of common interest. Among other things, they are alerting each other to air traffic, which has suddenly picked up with the arrival of the captives and more U.S. troops.

It is not yet clear how long Camp X-ray will serve as a cell block for Muslim fighters, but the United States has raised the possibility that it will send most back to their countries after they are interrogated. What will happen with the others has not been stipulated, but it is likely that before too long the cells will be dismantled and Gitmo will be returned to its habitual state—an outpost off the beaten track, a sleepy backwater on a windswept tip of Cuba, planted with cactus.

John Lantigua, a journalist and novelist, is the author of The Ultimate Havana (Signet, 2001), a novel about cigar counterfeiting.

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