Guantanamo Bay: beyond the prison

GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba – Mention this place and people tend to think of men in cages wearing orange uniforms and kneeling, the image of the opening day of the prison of war four months after the 9/11 attacks 2001.

But this military base is more than a big prison. About 6,000 people live at the US Navy outpost, which features the attributes of a small American town and the amenities of a college campus, and functions as a cross between a gated community and a police state.

It has a school system of the Ministry of Defense for the children of sailors and entrepreneurs, a seaport for refueling missions of the Navy and the Coast Guard, bars, ball fields, neighborhoods with swings, beaches with barbecues and pleasure boats for hire for excursions on the bay.

There’s also a McDonald’s with a drive-in wide enough for tactical vehicles, just below a hilltop church with a white steeple. A 10 minute drive in one direction brings you to Nob Hill, a neighborhood of three bedroom houses for junior officers on the base of 700 families.

Drive 10 minutes in another direction, past the base’s nine-hole golf course, and you come to a gate of what is essentially a base inside the base, the detention area. He is under the command of an army brigadier general who is responsible for the last 39 Pentagon prisoners of war and a staff of 1,500, mostly National Guard soldiers on nine-month duty. .

The base covers 45 square miles straddling Guantánamo Bay, the US-controlled body of water that divides the base in two. A small unit of Marines is responsible for security on the US side of the 17.4 miles of fencing that surrounds the base. Part of the Cuban side has a minefield.

Most of the time, it’s easy to forget that the base is in the southeast of Cuba.

Little Spanish is spoken here, except when a unit of the Puerto Rican National Guard is on duty on a tour of duty in the prison area. Tagalog and Creole are more prevalent as around a third of residents are Filipinos and Jamaicans. They are hired by Pentagon contractors and form the backbone of the workforce.

They build, prepare and serve meals in restaurants and are cashiers in the commissary. They change beds in guest rooms, cut and color hair in the living room, and offer sailing lessons at the marina. None are allowed to bring family and they live in separate living areas maintained by their employers. Bingo inside the base ballroom is a popular and approved pastime.

In some ways the base looks like a college campus – but with a shooting range, razor wire, hundreds of soldiers and sailors in riot gear, and cars suddenly pulling up on the road at 8 a.m. morning when “The Star-Spangled Banner” airs each morning.

Some residents receive meal cards for cafeteria-style dining facilities. Single soldiers and sailors live in dormitories. The base has a souvenir shop selling old-style t-shirts, coffee mugs, and shot glasses. “No bad day,” said a T-shirt decorated with palm trees which boasts of “Good Vibes” and “High Tides” in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. There’s a Saturday night scene at the Tiki Bar, a volunteer ride called Safe Ride so people don’t drive while drinking, and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings three times a week.

It also organizes intramural sporting events and a sexual assault awareness campaign.

But it is a military base, after all. Drones are prohibited. Trick or Treat is only allowed in certain areas. News photographers must submit every photo they take for military censorship. Banned footage includes guard towers, some fencing and security cameras with razor wires, as well as critical infrastructure, such as the four wind turbines that dominate the base and can be seen at sea.

Anyone going to the base needs the commander’s permission, a stamped access form which is essentially a visa for the Independent Republic of Guantanamo Bay, and then a seat on an approved flight, usually a charter. of the Pentagon from the east coast.

The current captain is Captain Samuel “Smokey” White, who passes by Sam to the few residents on board who do not call him “sir” or “skipper”.

It has a zero tolerance policy for alcohol, which means no matter how tall you are, you can’t grab a beer and drive. Get caught driving drunk and the commander can throw you out of base. Or not.

Usually the skipper is the person at the helm of a vessel. But the honorary title is particularly apt because, since the United States cut itself off from the Cuban infrastructure network in the 1960s after Fidel Castro’s revolution, Guantánamo looks a lot like an airplane at sea.

The base treats its own water in a desalination plant and generates its own energy from fossil fuels, solar panels and wind power. It is supplied by air and sea. A fortnightly barge from Jacksonville, Fla. Brings food for the commissioner, new military vehicles, building and construction materials, and household items. A bi-weekly refrigerated flight delivers fresh fruit, vegetables and other perishable goods.

For nearly 20 years, base commanders have described US-Cuban relations along the fence as benign, without any of the tensions suggested in “A Few Good Men.” Every June, the base commander reminds his Cuban counterpart in the border brigade that there will be fireworks on July 4; no one shoots them.

In 2018, when a forest fire crossed the Cuban minefield towards Nob Hill, forces on both sides dug ditches and fought the blaze. The collaboration culminated with a Soviet-era Cuban helicopter making several passes over the Navy base, drawing water from the bay and dumping it on some hot spots to suffocate it.

The base is also home to thousands of feral cats, descendants of felines that found their way to the base through the Cuban minefield or domestic cats left behind by Navy families. A group of worried cat lovers have founded Operation Git-Meow, which seeks to find homes for feral cats and tries to persuade the Navy to authorize an all-volunteer capture, sterilization and release program to reduce the feral cat population.

A small community hospital on the base provides care for families and announces the first baby of each new year on its website. It also manages the care of prisoners, complicated as they are, under a congressional ban on bringing prisoners to the United States. All other people with a complex medical case are systematically sent to the continent.

There was a time after the prison opened in 2002 and the inmate population peaked at 660 in 2003, when the base came alive with a focus that revolved around the detention operation.

Air Force cargo planes regularly delivered detainees brought in from Afghanistan, and base residents were ordered to stay indoors for the high-security transfer of prisoners from the airstrip of Afghanistan. ‘one side of the bay to the cells on the other.

Camouflaged troops marched through the Humvee base. Members of Congress, senior military officials, government lawyers, journalists and foreign delegations made regular visits, filling the hotel-style guest quarters of Guantánamo.

Over time, the interest faded. There was a wave of activity after President Barack Obama ordered the prison to be closed, and administration officials worked to reduce the prison population. But congressional restrictions made it impossible to transfer the last dozen to the United States for any reason.

Much of the time, the prison operation that put Guantanamo on the map two decades ago is out of sight and out of mind – except when a convoy of windowless white vans drives past McDonald’s to bring one or two detainees at Camp Justice court.

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