GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba — When you mention this place, people often think of caged men in orange uniforms and on their knees, the image of opening day in the war prison four months after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
But this military base is more than one big prison. About 6,000 people live at the U.S. Navy outpost, which has the trappings of a small U.S. town and the amenities of a college campus, and functions as a cross between a gated community and a police state.
It has a Department of Defense school system for the children of sailors and contractors, a seaport for Navy and Coast Guard resupply missions, bars, ball courts, neighborhoods with swings, beaches with barbecue grills, and pleasure boats for hire for excursions on the bay. .
It also has a McDonald’s with a drive-through wide enough for tactical vehicles, just below a hilltop church with a white tower. A 10-minute drive in one direction takes you to Nob Hill, a neighborhood of three-bedroom NCO houses based on 700 families.
Drive 10 minutes in another direction, along the rugged nine-hole golf course of the base, and you arrive at a gate to what is essentially a base within the base, the Detention Zone. It is commanded by an Army brigadier general in charge of the Pentagon’s last 39 prisoners of war and a staff of 1,500, mostly National Guard soldiers on nine months’ missions.
The base covers 45 square miles and stretches across Guantánamo Bay, the US-controlled body of water that splits the base in two. A small unit of Marines is responsible for securing the US side of 27.4 miles of fences surrounding the base. Part of the Cuban side has a minefield.
Most days it’s easy to forget that the base is in southeastern Cuba.
Little Spanish is spoken here, except when a unit of the National Guard of Puerto Rico is on duty for a tour of the prison zone. Tagalog and Creole are more common as about a third of the residents are Filipinos and Jamaicans. They are hired by Pentagon contractors and are the backbone of the workforce.
They do the construction, make and serve meals in the restaurants and are cashiers in the commissaires. They change beds at guest houses, cut and color hair in the salon and offer sailing lessons in the marina. No one is allowed to bring relatives and they live in separate residential areas maintained by their employers. Bingo in the base ballroom is a popular approved pastime.
By some measures, the base resembles a college campus – but one with a firing range, barbed wire, hundreds of soldiers and sailors in combat gear, and cars that suddenly stop on the road at 8 a.m. when “The Star-Spangled Banner” is played every morning. broadcast.
Some residents receive meal tickets for the cafeteria-style eatery. Single soldiers and sailors live in dormitories. The base has a gift shop with alumni-style T-shirts, coffee mugs, and shot glasses. “Not a bad day,” says a T-shirt decorated with palm trees with “Good Vibes” and “High Tides” in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. It has a Saturday night scene at the Tiki Bar, a volunteer carpool called Safe Ride so people don’t drink and drive, and Alcoholics Anonymous meets three times a week.
It also has intramural sporting events and a sexual violence awareness campaign.
But it is, after all, a military base. Drones are prohibited. Trick or treat is only allowed at certain neighbors. News photographers must subject every photo they take to military censorship. Banned images include watchtowers, certain barbed wire fencing, and security cameras, as well as critical infrastructure such as the four wind turbines towering over the base and visible out to sea.
Anyone traveling to base needs permission from the Commanding Officer, a stamped entry form that is essentially a visa to the Independent Republic of Guantanamo Bay, and then a seat on an approved flight, usually an East Coast Pentagon charter.
The current commander is Captain Samuel “Smokey” White, who passes by Sam to the few residents on board who do not address him as “sir” or “skipper”.
He has a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol, which means no matter how tall you are, you can’t drink a beer and drive. Get caught driving drunk, and the commander can throw you off the base. Or not.
Usually the skipper is the person at the helm of a ship. But the commendation is especially appropriate because, since the United States cut itself off from Cuba’s infrastructure network in the 1960s, following Fidel Castro’s revolution, Guantánamo is very much like a plane at sea.
The base purifies its own water in a desalination plant and generates its own energy from fossil fuels, solar panels and wind energy. It is supplied by air and sea. A bimonthly ship from Jacksonville, Florida, brings food for the commissioners, new vehicles for the military, construction and building supplies, and household items. A fortnightly refrigerator flight delivers fresh fruits and vegetables and other perishables.
For nearly 20 years, base commanders have described the relationship between the US and Cuba along the fence as benign, without the tensions suggested in “A Few Good Men.” Every June, the base commander reminds his Cuban counterpart in the Frontier Brigade that there will be fireworks on July 4; nobody shoots them.
In 2018, as a wildfire advanced through the Cuban minefield to Nob Hill, troops from both sides dug trenches and fought the blaze. The partnership culminated with a Soviet-era Cuban helicopter making several passes over the naval base, scooping water from the bay, and dumping it on certain hot spots to extinguish them.
The base also has thousands of feral cats, the descendants of felines that made their way to the base through the Cuban minefield or from domestic cats left behind by naval families. A group of concerned cat lovers founded Operation Git-Meow, which seeks a home for the feral cats and tries to persuade the Navy to allow an entirely voluntary program of capture, neuter and release to reduce the feral cat population. .
A small community hospital on the base provides family care and announces the first baby of each new year on its website. It also covers the care of the detainees, however complicated, under a congressional ban on bringing detainees into the United States. Everyone else with a complex medical case is routinely sent to the mainland.
There was a time after the prison opened in 2002 and the inmate population soared to a peak of 660 in 2003 when the base was buzzing with a purpose centered on the detention operation.
Air Force cargo planes regularly delivered detainees brought in from Afghanistan, and residents of the base had to stay inside for the high-security transfer of prisoners from the runway on one side of the bay to cells on the other.
Troops in camouflage crossed the base in Humvees. Members of Congress, senior military personnel, government lawyers, journalists and foreign delegations regularly visited and filled Guantánamo’s hotel-like guest rooms.
Over time, interest waned. There was a flurry of activity after President Barack Obama ordered the prison to be closed, and government officials worked to reduce the prison population. But congressional restrictions, for whatever reason, made it impossible to transfer the last dozen to the United States.
The prison operation that put Guantánamo on the map 20 years ago is mostly out of sight and out of mind—except when a convoy of white, windowless vans passes through McDonald’s to take a few detainees to the Camp Justice courthouse.