GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba – Mention this place and people tend to think of male prisoners in orange uniforms and kneeling in cages – this is a depiction of the wartime prison opening day four months after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
But this military base is not one big prison. About 6,000 people live at the US Navy outpost, which has the trappings of a small American town and college campus facilities and functions as a cross between a gated community and a police state.
It has a Department of Defense school system for children of sailors and contractors, a seaport for Navy and Coast Guard supply missions, bars, ball fields, neighborhoods with swings, beaches with barbecue grills and pleasure boats that can be rented for excursions around the bay. …
There is also a McDonald’s with a driveway wide enough for tactical vehicles just below the hilltop church with a white spire. A 10-minute one-way drive takes you to Nob Hill, a three-bedroom junior officer neighborhood based on 700 families.
Drive 10 minutes in the other direction, past an unkempt nine-hole golf course, and you will find yourself at the gate, which is essentially a base within a base, a detention area. He is under the command of a Brigadier General of the Army who is responsible for the last 39 Pentagon POWs and a staff of 1,500, mostly National Guard soldiers, who have been on duty for nine months.
The base covers an area of 45 square miles, encompassing Guantanamo Bay, a US-controlled body of water that divides the base in two. A small Marine Corps unit is responsible for security on the US side of the 17.4 km long fences surrounding the base. Part of the Cuban side has a minefield.
In most cases, it is easy to forget that the base is in the southeast of Cuba.
Spanish is spoken here, except when the Puerto Rican National Guard is on duty while on duty in the prison area. Tagalog and Creole are more common because about one third of the inhabitants are Filipinos and Jamaicans. They are hired by Pentagon contractors and form the backbone of the workforce.
They work in construction, cook and serve food in restaurants, and work as cashiers in a store. They change beds in guest rooms, cut and dye their hair at the beauty salon, and teach sailing at the marina. No one is allowed to bring family with them, and they live in separate residential areas served by their employers. Ballroom bingo is a popular approved pastime.
In some respects, the base resembles a college campus, but with a shooting range, barbed wire, hundreds of soldiers and sailors in uniform and vehicles that suddenly stop on the road at 8 am when the “Star-Spangled Banner” sounds. broadcast every morning.
Some residents are issued food cards for cafeteria-style canteens. Solitary soldiers and sailors live in hostels. The base has a gift shop selling alumni-style T-shirts, coffee mugs and shot glasses. “No bad day,” says T-shirt decorated with palm trees which boasts “Good Vibes” and “High Tides” in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It has a Saturday night scene at Tiki Bar, a volunteer fleet called Safe Ride to keep people from drinking while driving, and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings three times a week.
It also hosts face-to-face sporting events and a sexual harassment awareness campaign.
But at the end of the day, this is a military base. Drones are prohibited. Tricks and treats are only allowed for certain neighbors. News photographers must submit every photo they take to military censorship. Prohibited images include watchtowers, certain barbed wire fences and security cameras, as well as critical infrastructure such as four wind turbines that tower over the base and can be seen at sea.
Anyone traveling to the base requires permission from the commander, 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 Pentagon charter from the East Coast.
The current commanding officer is Captain Samuel “Smoky White”, who accompanies Sam to several residents on board who do not refer to him as “sir” or “skipper.”
He has a zero-tolerance policy on alcohol, which means that no matter how big you are, you can’t drink beer or drive a car. If you are caught driving drunk, the commander can throw you off the base. Or no.
Usually the skipper is the person at the helm of the ship. But this honorary title is especially apt because since the United States disconnected from Cuban infrastructure in the 1960s following the Fidel Castro revolution, Guantanamo is very much like an airplane at sea.
The base processes its own water in a desalination plant and generates its own energy from fossil fuels, solar panels and wind power. Replenishment is carried out by air and sea. A barge from Jacksonville, Florida, departs twice a month, bringing in groceries for the store, new vehicles for the military, building materials and household goods. The refrigerator delivers fresh fruit, vegetables and other perishable items twice a week.
For nearly 20 years, base commanders have described US-Cuban relations along the fence line as favorable, without any of the tensions suggested in A Few Good Men. Every June, the base commander reminds his Cuban counterpart from the border brigade that there will be fireworks on the 4th of July; no one shoots at them.
In 2018, when a wildfire passed through a Cuban minefield towards Nob Hill, forces on both sides dug ditches and fought the flames. The culmination of the collaboration was that a Soviet-era Cuban helicopter flew several flights over a naval base, scooped up water from the bay and poured it into certain hot spots to extinguish them.
The base is also home to thousands of wild cats, descendants of felines that entered the base through a Cuban minefield, or domestic cats abandoned by the families of the Navy. A group of concerned cat lovers have founded Operation Git-Meow, which seeks to find shelter for feral cats and is trying to convince the Navy to allow a voluntary capture, neutering and release program to reduce the wild cat population.
A small community hospital at the base offers family care and announces the birth of its first child every new year on its website. It also provides care for inmates, however difficult it may be, in line with the congressional ban on prisoners entering the United States. Everyone else with a difficult medical case is usually sent to the mainland.
There was a time after the prison opened in 2002, and in 2003, the prison population rose to 660, as the base was fussed about with the purpose of the detention operation.
Air Force cargo planes regularly airlifted detainees brought in from Afghanistan, and base residents were ordered to remain inside to ensure the strict transport of prisoners from a runway on one side of the bay to cells on the other end.
Troops in camouflage plied around the base in hummers. Members of Congress, senior military leaders, government lawyers, journalists and foreign delegations made regular visits to fill Guantanamo’s hotel-style guest rooms.
Over time, interest faded. After President Barack Obama ordered the jail closed, there has been a surge in activity and administration officials have worked to reduce the number of prisoners. But congressional restrictions made it impossible for the last dozen to be transferred to the United States for any reason.
In most cases, the prison operation that put Guantanamo on the map two decades ago is out of sight and out of sight – except when a convoy of windowless white vans drives past McDonald’s to deliver one or two detainees to the courthouse at Camp Justice.