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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base

Globe and Mail Update
Friday, August 23, 2002
From the Field
Paul Knox Paul


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Images from Guantanamo Bay

Prisoners worship at Camp X-ray in this photo taken in December.
Photo: AP

For a detailed view of Cuba, click here.
Map: University of Texas

Pinch yourself hard here and eventually you'll remember you're in Cuba - despite the American flags, the golden arches of McDonald's and the beefy, drawling English spoken on the main street.

Cuba was forced to cede the rights to this dusty 116-square-kilometre patch on its southern coast in 1903, and ever since the U.S. navy has used it to keep an eye on the Caribbean Sea. It's helped protect the Panama Canal, played a part in fighting the drug trade and warehoused desperate boat people from Havana and Haiti.

The occupants of Guantanamo Bay measure it in yards, pounds and gallons - U.S. gallons, to be sure. The U.S. dollar is the only currency. You need a U.S. stamp to mail a postcard. Except for its uniform department, the Navy Exchange store on Sherman Avenue could be a supermarket in Missouri.

But the cactuses and thorn trees of Guantanamo Bay are rooted in Cuban soil - hence the base's latest surge into the headlines.

Under the absolute control of the U.S. military, but not part of the United States, Guantanamo Bay is a jurisdictional conundrum. That makes it the perfect slammer for a roundup of alleged terrorists that's part war, part police action and 100 per cent fuzzy around the legal edges.

In the base's southeast corner, with the bright blue waters of the Caribbean nearby, lies Camp Delta - the prison where 598 captives in the U.S.-led "war on terrorism" captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere are being held.

Another 204 steel-mesh cells and a prison hospital are under construction, suggesting that more alleged members of the al-Qaeda terror network and the former Afghan Taliban government are on the way.

On July 31, a Washington, D.C., judge ruled that U.S. courts have no jurisdiction over the prisoners here because they aren't on U.S. soil. That means the administration of President George W. Bush can continue to treat them as neither criminal suspects nor prisoners of war.

"We refer to them as detainees," says Brigadier-General Rick Baccus, commander of Joint Task Force 160, the military unit guarding the captives.

'Detainees' means no rights, except the ones Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld decides to give them. No court hearings, no lawyers, no rulebook, no formal charges.

And certainly no conversations with reporters, as I found during a tightly controlled tour of this unlikely outpost in Mr. Bush's counter-terrorism campaign.

Even U.S. soldiers and civilians working at the base are off-limits for spontaneous interviews. JTF-160's stolid "public affairs" personnel sit in on all encounters and are supposed to brief them beforehand on what they can and cannot say.

On my tour, which included journalists from Britain, Ecuador, the Netherlands and Sweden, photographers were allowed to shoot Camp Delta from a single location using nothing stronger than a 200-millimetre lens. The shot offered no aerial perspective and consisted mostly of guard towers, razor wire and the fine-meshed green plastic screening that shields the concrete cell blocks. Camera angles that included any part of the coastline were forbidden.

Our escorts said they wanted to avoid giving useful information to anyone aiming to spring the captives, or to silence them forever. "They are part of an organization, they are being questioned and they might be targeted by someone from outside," said army reserve Capt. Annmarie Daneker.

I was on the base for 48 hours, and I think I actually glimpsed suspected terrorists for a couple of seconds. As we drove in an old orange school bus up a slight rise at the rear of the prison, I spied two people wearing orange jumpsuits in an open area. They were probably more than 200 metres away.

Somewhat excited, I told Capt. Daneker I thought I'd just seen prisoners. "Well," she replied, "detainees wear orange jumpsuits, but I can't say for sure whether they were detainees because I didn't see them."

Who else might it have been, I wondered.

"I am not aware of anyone else wearing orange jumpsuits," Capt. Daneker said. "So you very well may have seen some detainees."

"The edge in her voice may have had something to do with the makeup of our group. JTF-160 produces a newsletter, The Wire, and its latest issue contains an article about media visitors.

It describes a writer from the British tabloid The Mirror as "the kind of journalist military public-affairs people tend to keep a close eye on. His paper is aimed at a European audience deemed more critical of the detention operation here than most American news outlets."

When the first Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners were flown here in January, they were housed near the northern boundary of the base in a jail called Camp X-Ray. Pictures of chain-link cages and stooped, shackled inmates shocked the world.

We were taken to Camp X-Ray - now occupied only by the base's ubiquitous iguanas and perhaps the occasional snake, but still ready to receive a sudden influx of prisoners should the occasion arise.

There seemed to be some interest in emphasizing the improvements at Camp Delta, which is a better place for both prisoners and guards. Several times our escorts recited the gestures now being accorded the prisoners - three halal meals a day, sinks with running water, chrome-plated medical attention, unlimited copies of the Koran, prayer calls five times a day and a helpful arrow in each cell indicating the direction in which a Muslim should kneel to pray.

Questions about precise details of prison routine were deflected. Queries about interrogation procedures were referred to Joint Task Force 170, whose members periodically grill the inmates. JTF-170 basically told us it would be easier to discover Dick Cheney's PIN number than to find out what was going on at Camp Delta.

The base shares the name Guantanamo with Cuba's easternmost province and its capital city - a name immortalized in Guantanamera, the world-famous Cuban song. It was here that the Marines first landed in 1898 during the brief Spanish-American War, which led to the establishment of an independent Cuba under U.S. tutelage.

The United States appropriated the bay for itself - a first-class harbour affording naval dominance of the Caribbean. In 1934 Washington agreed to pay $4,085 a year for the base under a lease that could be cancelled only with both sides' agreement.

Guantanamo Bay became a flashpoint of deteriorating U.S.-Cuba relations after Fidel Castro seized power. The Cuban leader asked for the base back and eventually cut off its water and electricity to the base; the United States responded by building a generating station and a desalination plant. Mr. Castro refuses to cash Washington's rent cheques, but nine residents of Cuba still work at the base and a few more who once had jobs there live relatively well in surrounding towns on U.S. pensions.

The base's population swelled to more than 50,000 in the early 1990s. Desperate Haitians fled their country in rickety rafts and boats following a military coup d'etat, and Cuban refugees seeking to reach the United States in flimsy watercraft were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and taken to Guantanamo Bay.

Most were eventually granted asylum or repatriated, and Guantanamo returned to its sleepy and, frankly, rather boring existence - until January. There are currently about 3,270 personnel, including 1,100 foreign civilian workers - mostly Jamaican and Filipino contract employees.

The base is home to abundant wildlife, including sharks in the bay and dozens of bird species. Its signature rodent is the jutia - known locally as the banana rat because, our minders explained, "of the shape of its turds." (In that department, all they told us about the al-Qaeda prisoners - oops, detainees - was that they have flush toilets in their cells, which are fixed on demand if they malfunction.)

Near the little-used airstrip at the entrance to the bay on the eastern side is a small museum with photographs and memorabilia. It contains the only traffic light ever installed on the base, which was removed after a time on the grounds that it caused more accidents than it prevented.

More poignant are artifacts from the Cuban rafters' exodus. There are oars used by the refugees and, outside, a collection of the flimsy watercraft they used to escape. Most arrived by sea but one tiny green vessel, no more than 12 feet long and packed with Styrofoam for buoyancy, is said to have floated down the Guantanamo River and into the base on a flood tide.

I was struck by the wording on the baseball caps and fridge magnets for sale on the base: "Guantanamo Bay, Cuba." The charitable view would be to see the inclusion of the country name as a mark of respect -- an acknowledgement that despite everything, this is still Cuban soil. But denizens of the Caribbean might consider it a not-too-subtle reminder that the United States was godfather and midwife to Cuba's independence, and still is capable of wielding the fabled big stick.

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