A trip to the U.S. naval base at GuantÃ¡namo Bay, Cuba, introduces you to far more than a notorious prison. It takes you back in time to before the United States was even a country, connecting recent developments in the war on terror to epochal events in the nation's historyâand, indeed, in the history of the Atlantic world. At GuantÃ¡namo, the past comes at you in all colors and from every angle with no chronological formalities and no mercy for the faint of heart.
My odyssey began before I had even left the United States. I first flew to GuantÃ¡namo in October 2005 aboard a rickety charter out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with room for about sixteen passengers. Most of the passengers on my plane were Filipino laborers. Men ranging in age from thirty to forty, they were headed to the bay to help build and maintain the prison in exchange for $2.60 an hour. The Philippines is a long way to go for cheap labor, and I wondered what made Filipinos suitable for such work in the eyes of the U.S. Department of Defense. I wondered, too, if the Filipinos knew how the United States came to occupy GuantÃ¡namo Bay. For Cuba and the Philippines share a common history. Along with Puerto Rico and Guam, they were liberated from Spain by the United States in 1898, only to discover that freedom has its conditions. Cuba would get independence so long as it acknowledged the U.S. right to intervene at will in Cuban affairs and acceded to the leasing of the naval base. The Philippines would undergo a period
of U.S. tutelage until it proved itself ready for self-government. In the Philippines these conditions sparked revolution; in Cuba they spawned resentment that festers to this day. At GuantÃ¡namo, I quickly discovered, past and present confront you in unexpected ways.
Ask a navy official at GuantÃ¡namo Bay to explain how the United States came to occupy this remote corner of Cuba, and he or she will respond with the gripping story of gallant U.S. marines seizing the bay from Spanish regulars in the first pitched battle of the so-called Spanish-American War. But this doesn't really answer the question. How the United States captured the bay and how it has managed to hold on to it are two very different things. On several visits to the naval base, I heard this story repeated over and over again with a zeal bordering on zealotry. It is a story GuantÃ¡namo officials have been telling themselves with little variation for more than a century, which is enough to make a historian suspicious. Every generation rewrites its own history, the saying goesâexcept, apparently, at GuantÃ¡namo Bay.
The story of the taking of GuantÃ¡namo is only the first chapter in a larger myth, remarkable for its constancy and consistency, about America's century-long occupation of the bay. In abridged form, the myth runs something like this: Columbus first discovered GuantÃ¡namo Bay on his second voyage to the new world in April 1494. Centuries later, a newly liberated and infinitely grateful Cuba consented to the U.S. occupation of GuantÃ¡namo at the end of the Spanish-American War. In the ensuing years, U.S. forces based at GuantÃ¡namo repaid Cuba's faith, acting the part of the good neighbor, stimulating Cuba's economy, and gently but firmly intervening in Cuba's volatile eastern provinces to safeguard personal liberty and protect private property. Sadly, Castro's rise put an end to this idyllic situation. The cold war threw up an impenetrable barrier between natural allies and highlighted GuantÃ¡namo's strategic importance as the guarantor of liberty in the region. If some personnel at the base found the closing-off of Cuba stultifying, many more came to regard GuantÃ¡namo as a haven of safety and security from a U.S. society beset by political violence, cultural radicalism, and moral decay. Such a haven it remains to this day. It's not the prison camp so much in the news this past decade that
defines contemporary GuantÃ¡namo, but the hospitable and wholesome community in which everybody knows your name.
Like all creation myths, this one serves the interest of those who espouse it, celebrating certain groups and individuals and inviting certain questions while ignoring or obscuring others. It would have been news, for example, to Cuba's Taino “Indians” to hear that Columbus discovered GuantÃ¡namo Bay, just as it must have been humiliating to Cuban insurgents to read American journalists disparaging their contribution to the defeat of Spain. Moreover, it is inaccurate to suggest that Cuba welcomed the U.S. occupation of GuantÃ¡namo Bay. The GuantÃ¡namo myth is full of such self-serving valorizations that have never been exposed to historical scrutiny. History is often inconvenient to the powerful. Several times on my first visit to GuantÃ¡namo I reached for news clippings about racial discrimination or labor exploitation or gender bias on the base, only to be asked by my host, who had failed to beat me to them, “Why are you interested in that?”
GuantÃ¡namo's climate is comparable to San Diego's. Two short rainy seasons in May and October deliver just over twenty inches of rain per year on average, not enough to alter impressions of a landscape dry, rugged, and unforgivingâif starkly beautiful. On a typical October day, it showers for a few hours in the late afternoon. The autumn of my first visit to the bay, the rains came early and hardly let up. Taking advantage of a break in the weather, I ventured out on the water with the base naturalist. If inconvenient, the rain was transformative. The bay called to mind California's Marin County in the spring. Hillsides glistened in knee-high grass. Palm trees produced new fronds. Cactus and manzanillo bloomed. Mangroves bobbed with pelicans, bitterns, ibis, herons, and hawks. In a region of the world whose resources have been ravaged by poverty, the base presented a striking anomaly. The U.S. Navy describes the base as a wildlife sanctuary, among other things, and I saw nothing to refute that characterization at first glance.
Columbus “discovered” GuantÃ¡namo Bay in May 1494, at the end of one such rainy season. I asked my host to take us out into the open sea, the better to see the bay as the admiral himself might first have glimpsed it. Puerto Grande, Columbus reportedly christened the bay,
and indeed its grandness was the first thing that came to mind. Twelve miles long, six miles wide, and ranging from thirty to sixty feet deep, GuantÃ¡namo is dotted with cays and inlets that make it seem both limitless and inviting. Like San Francisco Bay, it is ringed by hills, in this case the granite escarpment of Cuba's Sierra Maestra, the highest, most picturesque mountains in the land. Columbus was disappointed to find the bay uninhabited. It appears underinhabited to this day. The navy has developed few of the forty-five square miles that comprise the base, and most of the development is tucked behind Windward Point, the peninsula at the southeast entrance of the bay, out of sight to incoming traffic.
European explorers of the new world had very specific ideas about what constituted legitimate land use. Columbus assumed GuantÃ¡namo to be uninhabited because it remained undivided, unalloted, unfenced. And yet evidence suggests that the Taino people who welcomed Columbus to southeast Cuba had been making efficient use of the GuantÃ¡namo basin as a game preserve. I was intrigued to hear that the navy, not known for its environmental and cultural stewardship, carries on Taino traditions to this dayâin its own way. It is true that GuantÃ¡namo remains largely undeveloped, but it is not the pristine place it appears to be. “We can't go there,” my host remarked, pointing to a flooded plain on Leeward Point, at the southwest corner of the bay. “That area's closed on account of unexploded ordnance,” the result of U.S. target practice. What's that? I asked. “A bombing range.” Over there? “More unexploded ordnance.” There? “An old minefield. Strictly off-limits.” And so this wildlife sanctuary is safe from human incursion. But how do the animals fare? Any casualties from unexploded ordnance or unrecovered land mines? I wondered. “Nothing,” my host replied, “besides the occasional deer.”
One afternoon, I toured the fence line that separates the base from Cuba. My tour began at the Northeast Gate, site of countless altercations between U.S. soldiers and their Cuban counterparts over the decades, as well as more constructive meetings between U.S. and Cuban military officials in recent years. The official contact point between the base and Cuba, the Northeast Gate is where a dwindling
number of Cuban “commuters,” as Cuban laborers are called, enter the base each day for work. I was struck by the utter desolation of the place. No hostility. No people to sustain a grudgeâin fact, no people at all. An old barracks that held up to 150 U.S. marines at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis is the solitary reminder of the gate's symbolic importance. Also empty is the U.S. marine observation point, or MOP, that soars over the gate. In fact, very few of the MOPs along the base's seventeen-mile perimeter are still manned, and these less to keep an eye on a hostile enemy than to track the movement of asylum seekers desperate enough to attempt to pick their way though a Cuban minefield onto the U.S. base.
In the several years before 9/11, the base functioned at “minimum pillar,” navy parlance for maintaining just enough U.S. presence at the bay to prevent Castro from claiming that the base had been abandoned. From an outsider's perspective, minimum pillar persists. The perimeter road on the U.S. side of the fence has all but eroded, quite a contrast to the pristine Castro Bay Area Road on the other side. The base's general state of disrepair became starker still in contrast to the new prison camp, where on my three visits to the bay everything appeared amply funded. We cruised by the so-called playground where “good prisoners” are allowed to take fresh air. “Fifteen million dollars,” muttered my host. “That's the site of the new twenty-five-million-dollar permanent prison â¦ There, the twenty-million-dollar mental health clinic.” Navy people console themselves that without the base you couldn't have the prison, but from a visitor's perspective it seems that the prison has all but become the base.
“An Eisenhower-era community perched alongside an Eisenhower-era country.” These are the words of the public works officer who took me on a drive around the base's residential neighborhoods. With stucco homes, pristine lawns, scattered toys, SUVs, and the odd boat trailer, the U.S. enclave at GuantÃ¡namo redefines the term “gated community”âwith Subway, McDonald's, Starbucks, and the Navy Exchange just down the street. I found it odd that a place notorious for abusing prisoners could feel so familiar, so safe. But
is the buzzword in these suburbs, where “there is no traffic, no drugs, no crime,
and where you can go out alone at night without having to lock your doors.”
The prison camp lies along the Cuban coastline, separated from the hub of naval activity by a range of hills. Navy folks like to think of their side of the hills as the “real GuantÃ¡namo” (sometimes the “good GuantÃ¡namo”), leaving the visitor to conclude what he or she may about the prison. But the prison wouldn't be here without the navy. And the navy wouldn't be here without the U.S. government's decision to retain the bay at the end of the war with Spain. Finally, none of this would be here today without the tacit consent of the American people, whose standard of living the U.S. government and military is sworn to protect. Up close, a chasm seems to separate Americans who, apparently for the first time in the nation's history, tried to write torture into U.S. law from those who reject torture unconditionally. But through the lens of history, the differences blur and Americans become one people, just as GuantÃ¡namo becomes one bay.
This book is a story of nation making and empire building. It is a U.S. story, to be sure, but it is also a chronicle of Cuba, and of Cuba's attempt to realize its independence with an imperial juggernaut on its back. Besides Americans and Cubans, the cast includes Ciboney and Taino Indians, Spaniards and Englishmen, Italians and Portuguese, Chinese and subcontinental Indians, Jamaicans and Haitians, as well as countless peoples known to the modern world as the “stateless,” from pirates and refugees to enemy combatants. This story features world-historical figuresâColumbus, Castro, and Kennedy, to name a fewâand many the world has long forgotten: the sailors, saloonkeep-ers, and prostitutes; planters and farmers; stevedores, janitors, and maids who built, occupied, lubricated, and maintained the base for more than a century. This is a story of the transformation of a bay into a naval base, and of that base into a prison. But it is also the history of an immense drainage basin and body of water and of the myriad flora and fauna it continues to support. This is on balance a twentieth-century tale, but one that begins in the geological upheaval of the Mesozoic era, some 180 million years ago, and gathers pace in the social dislocation of the sixth century CE and thereafter, which peopled
the islands of the Greater Antilles with, first, “Indians,” and then Europeans, Africans, and Asians.
This is, in short, a history of a once treasured, recently ignored, now notorious place, a natural and juridical wonder that sits athwart the social and political fault lines of the modern world. GuantÃ¡namo has much to teach us about the character and contours of that world,
world, foremost perhaps that liberty and empire make awkward bedfellows at best.