Guantanamo: Where US terror prisoners occupy Cuban soil

Deutsche Welle
6 Min Read

Barack Obama would like to close the US prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba before the end of his term. The Cubans would like to have the entire base back. And the US Congress is opposed to both ideas, Kersten Knipp writes.
Oh the things that Cuba could offer! Pineapples, coconuts, oranges and bananas, as well as potatoes, lettuce and tomatoes. All fresh, and of the highest quality – locally grown fruits and vegetables, instead of containers shipped across the Caribbean Sea every three weeks.

There is no doubt that an end to the fight over the future of the US prison at Guantanamo Bay would be a culinary plus for the military personnel stationed there. Too bad there is no end in sight. Despite the normalizations of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, Guantanamo remains a very tough nut to crack. Speaking with the Spanish daily “El Pais,” Kelly Wirfel, the base’s press secretary, estimated that “it could take two years – but it could also take 20.”

The United States began leasing the base from Cuba in 1903, five years after helping the country win its independence from Spain. For the past half century, the island nation has been an unwilling landlord and has not cashed its tenant’s annual $4,000 rent checks. Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and his brother Raul have long declared that the United States no longer has any right to the base.

Use of the bay was contractually assured to the Americans “for the protection of Cuban independence,” as it had been stated in the Platt Amendment of 1901. Critics in Cuba rightfully say that was long ago. The Cuban newspaper “Escambray,” for instance, recalls some of the many vices that the camp brought to the island: Prior to the 1959 revolution, smuggling, drug dealing and gambling were prevalent around the base. The state newspaper quotes statistics supplied by local historians that claim that there were no less than 27 brothels around the base at the time.

Above all, contemporary critics of the military base say that the Americans are no longer fulfilling the terms of the agreement they had originally signed. The bay was supposed to be a naval harbor: There was never any mention of a prison.

What about detainees?

A prison is exactly what has been at the military base since 2002. Currently, 116 convicted and suspected terrorists are interned at Guantanamo. Recently President Barack Obama reiterated his campaign promise of wanting to close Guantanamo during his presidency. Yet, he is having great difficulty doing so. Congress, now dominated by Republicans, is dead set against the plan, despite the fact that 52 of the detainees – most of whom have never been afforded a trial – have been classified as nonthreatening.

About 30 of the prisoners held at Guantanamo are considered to be extremely dangerous, and a further 23 can count on being charged with terror-related crimes. A proposal to put these prisoners behind bars on US soil was met with fierce resistance, especially among Republicans, who have declared that the United States was attacked in a deadly manner on September 11, 2001, and one does not make concessions to terrorists.

The rise of the “Islamic State” (IS) in Syria and Iraq has not softened that attitude. Last autumn, John Boehner, the speaker of the House of Representatives and the highest-ranking US Republican, accused the Obama administration of endangering the security of the United States with it plans for Guantanamo – “while Islamic terrorists are beheading Americans,” a reference to the killing of journalists by IS.

Wedding bells in Uruguay

The United States has been seeking countries willing to take Guantanamo’s prisoners off its hands, but that search has been in vain for the most part. The “Havana Times” recently picked up on a query by the blogger Circles Robinson when it posed the question: “Why doesn’t someone ask the Cuban government to take the prisoners?”

The government in Havana has yet to react to the suggestion. Though officials might be encouraged by news from Uruguay. Two former Guantanamo detainees who were given asylum and also seem to have found a home there, were married to two Uruguayans in a double ceremony held in Montevideo in early June.

The diplomatic thaw between the United States and Cuba will no doubt have an effect on the future of Guantanamo Bay. “It is time that the United States present a timetable for the return of the property to the Cuban people,” the “Havana Times” wrote.

The closing of the prison remains up in the air. Although, as “El Pais” reports, the prison’s operating officer is in favor of closing the camp in the long term, he recently approved repairs in order to improve and maintain functionality – “until an unspecified time in the future.” That is most likely a significant gesture in light of the US’s continued fight against IS, and in the context of its global “war on terror.” For what is the US to do if it takes prisoners in that fight?

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