It was January 1996 and I had just landed on the island of Cuba in a U.S. Navy plane, which was strange enough. Now I was riding a launch, bucking low waves, entering bright blue Guantánamo Bay, heading for the naval headquarters on the far shore. No Cuban military or local civilian militia shot at us from the beach, even though we were within range.
Then we rounded a spit of arid, windswept, rocky land, and I saw cacti. In Cuba, the pearl of the Caribbean? Cacti in a country synonymous with the humid heat, verdure and temptations of the tropics? But there it was, a stand of cacti worthy of a John Ford Western. Had it been imported by an imaginative and accommodating Navy commander trying to make ensigns from Arizona feel at home? No, I was later told; it had been cultivated by order of Fidel Castro himself to fence in the U.S. troops stationed there, and keep Cubans out of the base.
It was then that I started to comprehend the thorny issue of the United States Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The arrival at the station six years later, on January 11, 2002, of captured Taliban fighters and operatives of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network is only the latest chapter in the episodic history of "Gitmo," as it is known, transforming, once again, this secluded tropical backwater into a geopolitical hot spot.
According to the captain's log of his second voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus spent the night of April 30, 1494, anchored in what is now Guantánamo Bay. He called the site Puerto Grande, and it proved hospitable: no record exists of trouble befalling the fabled mariner that night. But the history of Gitmo since then is sprinkled with occupations, combat and international confrontations.
The British navy occupied the bay for four months in 1741 when it fought Spain over trade interests in the American colonies. A century and a half later, in 1898, a battalion of American marines became the first U.S. troops to land in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. According to local lore, Spanish guerrillas, who signaled to each other with dovelike coos, closed in on the outpost and killed two of the marines, the first American casualties of that conflict.
But in the end, the United States would win that war, inspired by Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders' charge up San Juan Hill outside the city of Santiago de Cuba. Spain was forced to relinquish Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam, transforming the United States into an emerging global power, and Cuba gained its independence. In 1903, the new Cuban government signed an agreement with Roosevelt, who had since become president, allowing the United States to lease 45 square miles of Cuban territory, on either side of the mouth of Guantánamo Bay, for use as a "U.S. Coaling and Navy Station." The rent was 2,000 gold coins per year, which today is worth $4,085.
The Cubans insist that when their constitution was written in 1901, its framers were forced to include the wording of the Platt Amendment, a law passed unilaterally by the United States that same year that gave Washington the right to intervene in Cuba. Otherwise, the United States would not withdraw its occupation troops. According to the Cubans, the leasing of the land for the naval station was a direct result of that strong-arm tactic.
In 1934, the lease was renegotiated with the stipulation that the outpost would revert to Cuban control only by mutual agreement. No such agreement has ever been reached; American servicemen and servicewomen have been stationed there ever since.
During the first half of the last century, life at Gitmo was generally low-key. In 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt expanded Gitmo into a port for air and sea patrols, but it remained far from the action. Apart from that, during intermittent civil wars and other political turmoil in Cuba, troops stationed at Guantánamo were deployed briefly to protect U.S. economic interests on the island, and sometimes to restore order. But they couldn't head off the Cuban revolution, and in the late 1950s Gitmo, relatively quiet since 1945, was forced to wake like Rip Van Winkle from its drowsy isolation.
On June 27, 1958, rebel forces led by Raul Castro, Fidel's brother and now head of the Cuban armed forces, kidnapped 29 U.S. sailors and marines who were returning from leave inside Cuba. U.S. servicemen regularly roamed the island, especially the nearby city of Guantánamo's bars and brothels, the latter located in the aptly named zona de tolerancia, or zone of tolerance.
The captives were released three weeks later, unharmed. But on January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro assumed power in Havana, and the United States immediately prohibited its forces stationed at Gitmo from entering Cuban territory.
Before the revolution, many Cubans worked on the base in civilian positions. But the United States, afraid of infiltration by spies, stopped hiring locals to staff those jobs. Those already employed at the base were allowed to continue after further background investigation, and today 10 aging Cuban "commuters" still work there, walking through the main gate every day. The other nonmilitary positions were filled by specially recruited foreign nationals. Jamaican stewards, for example, work in the officers quarters, and Filipinos run the ferry that connects the two sides of the base.
On January 4, 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower announced the formal break in relations between the United States and Cuba, but emphasized that the rupture had "no effect on the status of our Naval Station at Guantánamo."
Despite that declaration, the laid-back tenor of life at the base did change. At the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion, in April 1961, Guantánamo was put on high alert, although it was geographically far from the action. Later that year, Castro planted his cactus curtain. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, dependents of the military personnel and other civilians were evacuated. In 1964, after Cuban fishermen were fined for entering Florida waters, Castro cut off fresh water to the base. In response, the United States imported water and then relocated a desalinization plant from the mainland.
Underwater fencing was strung to head off those trying to enter Gitmo from the sea. Both the Cubans and the Americans planted land mines on either side of the 17.4-mile fence that defines the land borders of the base, the United States alone burying some 50,000 of them.
The two sides also constructed watchtowers to oversee that mined "no man's land" and staffed them with guards toting automatic weapons. Occasionally, shots were fired across the fence, and the Cubans claim several of their border guards were killed in the early years. (The United States denies the allegation.) But no one can recall a shot fired in anger since 1972. For the next 20 years or so, Gitmo was visited by balmy breezes and the occasional storm, but not much else—until the Caribbean immigration emergency broke on its shores in the mid-1990s.
The crisis was precipitated by riots in Havana in August 1994, in response to which the Cuban government announced that it would not block attempts by its citizens to leave the island. Tens of thousands shoved off to sea in boats and rafts, trying to reach the United States. Reacting to the human tide, the Clinton administration decreed that it would no longer allow Cuban refugees to automatically enter the United States, but would pick them up at sea and stash them at Guantánamo while it reviewed their asylum applications. Some 20,000 Haitians were already detained there, after having been intercepted at sea trying to escape their ravaged land for the coasts of Florida. Almost all of them were eventually sent back to Haiti.
By 1995, some 51,000 refugees populated Guantánamo. They lived in camps called Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc. and one denominated Camp X-ray, a cell block for those considered dangerous. It is in a new incarnation of Camp X-ray that the captives from the Afghan war were locked up in early 2002.
For the majority of Cuban and Haitian refugees, Guantánamo was a very different experience than it is for the Taliban fighters and suspected Al Qaeda members. The Cubans and Haitians lived in tent cities, which included busy streets, churches, libraries, clinics, playing fields, community centers and a refugee government. They organized dances and staged concerts by such Cuban-American performers as Gloria Estefan.
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.