Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp by Angela Caldin
Have you ever wondered, as I have, why the infamous US detention camp is on the island of Cuba in the first place, given that the two nations are enemies? How did the place where the beautiful guantanamera of song originates come to be chosen as the site of the prison for the hundreds of so-called enemy combatants who were picked up by the US in the wake of 9/11? And have you ever wondered why so many of them are still there even though they have been cleared for release?
Why is there an American Base at Guantánamo Bay?
Guantánamo Bay is at the south-eastern end of Cuba, the largest harbour on that side of the island surrounded by steep hills. The US first established a naval base there in 1898 during the Spanish-American War fought over the independence of Cuba from Spain when Cuba and the US were on the same side. In 1903, the US and Cuba signed a lease granting the US permission to use the land as a coaling and naval station. The US view was that a naval base was needed to safeguard Cuba’s independence. Cuba retains ultimate sovereignty while the US has complete jurisdiction and control. In 1934, both nations agreed a perpetual lease in favour of the US. Both must agree on any termination of the lease, effectively making the land US soil since the US shows no inclination to give it up. The agreement granted Cuba and its trading partners free access through the bay and fixed the lease payment at the 1934 equivalent value of US$4,085.
What Happened after the Cuban Revolution?
After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, when the two nations became enemies and Cuba was allied with Russia, President Eisenhower insisted the status of the base remained unchanged, despite Fidel Castro’s objections. Since then, the Cuban government has cashed only one of the rent cheques from the US government, and even then only because of ‘confusion’ in the early days of the revolution, according to Castro. The remaining un-cashed checks were apparently kept in Castro’s office stuffed into a desk drawer. The US argues that the cashing of the single cheque signifies the regime’s ratification of the lease, nullifying any questions about violations of sovereignty and illegal military occupation. The current government of Cuba regards the US presence in Guantánamo Bay as illegal and the people of Cuba detest the fact that the ‘yankee boot’ is on their soil.
The Siting of the Detention Camp
The naval base, nicknamed “GTMO” or “Gitmo”, covers about 45 square miles on the shore of the bay. The detention camp is a detainment and interrogation centre within the naval base, established in January 2002 by the Bush administration to hold detainees it had determined to be connected with opponents in the War on Terror including Afghanistan and later Iraq, the Horn of Africa and south-east Asia. The base’s position and isolation far from the American mainland made it an ideal place to build a camp to keep allegedly dangerous terrorists. The Bush administration originally took the view that the detention camp could be considered outside US legal jurisdiction, and that detainees were not entitled to any of the protections of the Geneva Conventions, though these decisions have since been overruled by the US Supreme Court in several judgements since 2004. Although the Bush administration claimed most of the men had been captured in fighting in Afghanistan and were ‘enemy combatants’, a 2006 report prepared by the Center for Policy and Research, Seton Hall University Law School, established that over 80% of the remaining prisoners were captured not by Americans on the battlefield, but by Pakistanis and Afghans, often in exchange for bounty payments.
Conditions in the Camp
Current and former prisoners have complained of abuse and torture. Some of the stories are harrowing in the extreme: beating, sleep deprivation, prolonged constraint in uncomfortable positions, prolonged hooding, sexual and cultural humiliation, exposure to extreme noise and cold, forced injections and waterboarding. During August 2003, there were 23 suicide attempts after which, the Pentagon reclassified suicides as ‘manipulative self-injurious behaviours’. In a 2005 Amnesty International report, the facility was called the ‘gulag of our times’ and in 2006 the United Nations called for the camp to be closed, but despite international outrage over abuses of human rights and failure to give detainees access to justice, the camp has remained open. One of President Obama’s first acts when he took office in 2009 was to pledge to close the facility within a year. And yet it is still open in 2013 and, although many prisoners have been cleared for release, they are still in detention. Out of 166 inmates held at the prison, 100 are on hunger strike, according to the latest tally. And of those, more than 20 detainees are being fed through nasal tubes. The hunger strike, which has been going on for several weeks, has increased the pressure to shut what US President Barack Obama has called a legal ‘no man’s land’. Recently, he was even more forthright:
‘Instead of serving as a tool to counter terrorism, Guantánamo became a symbol that helped al-Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause. Indeed, the existence of Guantánamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.’
The impasse has been caused by Congress’ bipartisan opposition to the closure and its refusal to authorise funding for the settling of detainees on American soil as well as the restrictions it has placed on their return to their own countries (including, ironically, guarantees that they would not be tortured). There are also difficulties in finding other countries to take them where it can be guaranteed they will not resort to terrorism again.
Will the Camp Ever Close?
Astoundingly, polls show a big majority of Americans don’t want Guantánamo to close, so Congress is in effect reflecting their views. In addition, it appears that the military is spending millions on new infrastructure around the prisons, including a cardiac care unit to accommodate an aging inmate population. Can it be possible that the men who have been cleared for release will not be released, and the men who have so far not had access to justice will continue to be neither charged nor tried in any kind of court? Imagine the desperation and blackness that these situations have brought on and the loss of hope that has led to the hunger strikes and the physical pain associated with force-feeding. What is needed above all is the appointment of a respected senior figure with sufficient finance and enough will, energy, determination and clout to push for judicial process and early resettlement of those cleared. These terrible injustices are happening in the land of the free which prides itself on the rule of law. The US Constitution grants all prisoners the right to know the charges against them and the right to a speedy trial. The courts have said that non-citizens are entitled to these rights as well. National leaders and human rights groups all over the world have protested against the continued existence of this abhorrent institution, while the President dithers in the face of opposition, damaging the US reputation throughout the world. The situation, truly Kafkaesque, is one where hope dies, and despair and desolation rule.
You can sign a petition for the closure of Guantánamo at: