`Gitmo' readies for new mission

SUN JOURNAL

Cuba: Designed to prevent intrusion, Guantanamo Bay now prepares to contain prisoners taken during the war on terrorism.

January 01, 2002|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

The perimeter of the Guantanamo Bay naval base is littered with enough razor wire and land mines to deter an invasion. The facilities inside, with a little work, can house and feed thousands of people for months.

But before the United States' military outpost in southern Cuba can become a prison for Taliban and al-Qaida captives, it must be outfitted for a mission that it has rarely been called on to perform in its 98-year history - preventing escape. Keeping people from getting into Guantanamo Bay has always been the challenge in the past.

"It's a very interesting, even fascinating, place down there, and I doubt anyone's had to think real hard before about keeping people inside," says Patrick Moore, a historian at the University of West Florida who led a research trip to Cuba in August and is compiling a history of the naval base.

"You would think that being right on the other side of communism would be very tense, but it's not. It's a warm, tight-knit community with no crime in an absolutely beautiful environment. Water, wildlife, snorkeling - it's a remarkable place."

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said last week that the Pentagon had selected Guantanamo Bay to house prisoners from the war in Afghanistan, calling it the "least worst place we could have selected." Preparations will take "a number of weeks," he said, because of "the kinds of people that we would very likely place there."

The kinds of people are enemies, possibly violent, fanatical ones. And despite Hollywood's insistence that Guantanamo Bay is a violent place (such as when Jack Nicholson, playing the base commander in the 1992 film A Few Good Men, claimed to eat breakfast "300 yards from 4,000 Cubans who are trained to kill me") enemies have been scarce the past decade or more.

The Marines are still in Guantanamo Bay, watching the fence-line between the base and communist Cuba. But the diplomats get much of the action these days, processing refugees and asylum seekers.

The base's mission today is one more of symbol than sentry, Moore says. Camps used recently only for refugees will need to be reinforced for prisoners.

"It makes sense as a place to put prisoners - it's secure, it's remote and it's outside the jurisdiction of the United States court system," says Moore. "But it's not the kind of place that I think everyone thinks it is. It's not a battlefield."

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 might nudge Guantanamo Bay back into the history books, but it was another famous act of apparent terrorism that began the tropical enclave's history as an American territory. The battleship USS Maine, anchored in Havana harbor on the opposite side of the island, blew up and sank Feb. 15, 1898 - an incident whose cause is still uncertain, but which vaulted the nation into war with Spain.

The United States seized Guantanamo Bay from Spanish forces early during the Spanish-American War, and the U.S. government signed a lease with the Republic of Cuba five years later in 1903. That contract, later extended indefinitely, can be broken only by mutual agreement.

"Gitmo" was a quiet, peaceful Caribbean way station before the Cuban revolution, serving as a staging area for overseas deployments during both world wars. But with the rise of Fidel Castro in 1959, Guantanamo Bay became a strategic and symbolic stand against communism - and one used repeatedly to thumb the nose of democracy at its communist neighbor.

American presidents used the base several times to flex military might at the Soviet Union. During the Cuban missile crisis, President John F. Kennedy sent ground troops to reinforce the base's boundaries against an invasion. President Jimmy Carter staged a mammoth Marine-landing exercise there in 1979, in response to a Soviet brigade that was moved into Cuba.

The base's most conspicuous mission the past decade has been to serve as a camp for thousands of Haitian and Cuban refugees. Human rights groups criticized the government for treating the refugee families more like criminals than guests, including a quarantine of HIV-infected refugees that was likened to an "AIDS Prison."

Bill Frelick, director of policy for the U.S. Committee for Refugees who visited the base's refugee camps before they were disbanded in 1996, says plans to use Guantanamo Bay as a prison are more appropriate.

"Seeing the guard towers there, and the concertina wire, I remember thinking, `Gee, this looks more like a POW camp than a refugee camp,'" Frelick says. "It looks like now it's being put to a use that it's more suited for."

The 45-square-mile base is entirely self-sufficient, and has been since Castro cut off its water supply in 1964. It is home to more than 3,000 government, military and civilian employees and their families. The base has its own schools, three desalinization plants, gas stations, traffic lights and a McDonald's. Cargo planes restock the grocery store every Thursday.

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