Foreign Policy Passport Blog has a good list of articles discussing Fidel Castro's stepping down in a post called After Fidel. An interesting post at the Disinformation Blog (a Myspace blog) entitled, Farewell Fidel! But We Forgot Our Detainees at Guantanamo Bay, reminds us that the ever controversial Cuba is also home to the infamous Navy base. The post features an excerpt from Martin Cohen's new travel book No Holiday: 80 Places You Don't Want To Visit, which I've taken the liberty of republishing below:
NO HOLIDAY 32: Guantánamo Bay, Cuba
The most famous of all the Cuban bays
How to get there
For years and years you used to be able to just wander in and out of the US Navy Camp on the South Eastern tip of Cuba. But that all changed after the Revolution. Nowadays Americans are not even allowed to visit any part of the island—at the risk of a $10,000 fine. Those who really want to see Cuba have to employ a "roundabout route" (like maybe fly to Pakistan and join the Taliban). But for non-Americans, the easiest way to see Camp Delta is still to go to Havana and then down to Guantánamo Town, notable for its French-style architecture. There, for a couple of US dollars, they can hire a driver for the day, and be driven up a steep rough road to the Loma Malones observation point. This is a little rock shelter under a canopy, complete with a tourist-standard public telescope.
What to see
And from the little observation refuge, it should be possible to see far below, set amongst one of the wildest and least hospitable landscapes of Cuba, a kind of Wild West fort, complete with wooden stockades and watchtowers flying the Stars and Stripes. If you're lucky, through the telescope you may also see US soldiers frog-marching prisoners, clad in their famous orangey-red jump-suits, from their cells to the interrogation rooms.
The land surrounding the bay is dry and baked by the sun, and there is a fringe of cacti to the northwest, a relic of Fidel Castro's attempts, in the early 1960s, to discourage Cubans from fleeing to capitalism. The inhabitants of the base call this the Cactus Curtain, a sly reference to the more famous Iron one. Their idea was that on one side there were people living in perpetual fear and misery, whilst on the other was a world of freedom: singing, drinking and laughter in the bright sunshine. (Only it is not clear if they appreciated then which side of the curtain they were living on.)
One American student at the lookout, who had sneaked into the country by her own roundabout route, gives the flavor. "It looks so boring," she complains, "just like Los Alamos."
Boring, yes. But "Guantánamo has become an icon of lawlessness... dangerous to us all," as Amnesty International said in a statement marking the third year of Guantánomo's new role as a concentration camp and torture center. For that reason alone, it is well worth stopping off, if you're in Cuba, for a look.
Guantánamo Bay, a useful haven from the Caribbean hurricanes, served for years as a base for pirates, such as the dreadful Rosario. Columbus discovered it shortly after America, and named it Puerto Grande, but left after just one night, after deciding there was no gold there.
So when the US captured Guantánamo Bay in 1898, it was not from the Cubans, but from the Spanish, and with the assistance of Cuban soldiers. Only in 1958, after the Communist Revolution, was the base segregated from the rest of Cuba.
But the Camp continued to be quite a desirable posting, a friendly little town of more than 10,000 residents, with its own schools and hospitals, and of course clubs. The transition of Cuba from capitalism to communism at the end of the 1950s, the Cuban Missile Crisis and even the Bay of Pigs invasion, all passed it gently by, even if the base lost most of its Cuban employees as US-Cuban relations soured. The official history of the Camp records events like the day in 1948 that "a set of new chimes for the Chapel was installed and dedicated" or the day that a mini-earthquake "left cracks in the pavement." The chimes, it notes incidentally, were purchased with money contributed through good-will offerings from personnel, and as for this earthquake, the "Residents of the Base were badly frightened as their homes shook so hard that small objects fell off the shelves, but there was no panic." Ah! Innocent times!
The Base's history as a prison predates the US War on Terror. It served as a holding camp for would-be refugees from Cuba, captured elsewhere and returned pending a decision on their "final status."
But when the first 20 shackled and blindfolded prisoners arrived at Guantánamo on January 11, 2002, they were kept in open-air pens like animal cages. These however can no longer been seen as they have been replaced by prefabricated cells with steel-mesh doors, and a maximum security block for 100 high value prisoners. Alas, after all this expense, the US Supreme Court ruled that Guantánamo prisoners still had some legal rights and could challenge their detentions in US courts. (Suspects are usually now sent instead to CIA facilities in countries beyond the Court's gaze, like Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Jordan, Egypt, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Diego Garcia—Britain's own Guantánamo Bay.)
The American Civil Liberties Union obtained documents under a Freedom of Information Act request that showed that the United States holds hundreds of suspected al-Qaeda members at Guantánamo, captured in Afghanistan or elsewhere. They also recorded that these prisoners were routinely shackled in a fetal position on the floor for up to 24 hours and left in their own urine and feces. One report described an interrogation in which a prisoner was wrapped in an Israeli flag and bombarded with loud music and a strobe light. Another described a barely conscious prisoner who had torn out his hair after being left overnight in a sweltering room. Altogether, the reports showed that Guantánamo had lost its innocence.
Appropriately enough, the United States' 100-year lease ran out a few years back and now the existence of the base itself is in violation of international law.
Be careful crossing the Cactus Curtain.