Baseness: On Guantánamo | The Nation


Baseness: On Guantánamo

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It wasn’t long after Batista fled that US officials started wondering aloud how Gitmo might be used to invade Cuba. If Castro could somehow be provoked into attacking the base, the United States would have the perfect pretext for retaliation. This was at least part of the thinking behind the Bay of Pigs invasion. But if Cuba could not be tricked into providing provocation, perhaps provocation could be fabricated. Such was the rationale for a handful of foiled and unimplemented US plots hatched in Castro’s first three years, most of which had the same script: dress up some Cuban exiles like Castro’s militiamen, have them “attack” the base, then “respond” in full force. During the Cuban missile crisis, with Soviet missiles aimed at the base, Robert Kennedy asked “whether there is some other way we can get involved in through, uh, Guantánamo Bay, or something, or whether there’s some ship that, you know, sink the Maine again or something.”

An American History.
By Jonathan M. Hansen.
Buy this book.

About the Author

Peter C. Baker
Peter C. Baker is a writer in DeKalb, Illinois.

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Castro, too, seemed at times more concerned with using the base as a publicity prop than with the base itself. For him, Gitmo and its employment practices were a useful rallying cry: evidence and reminder of the whole system he claimed to stand against. In 1961 he forbade Cubans from accepting new jobs on the base, forcing the United States to ask the Jamaican government to send more workers. But he didn’t force current employees to quit; the economic repercussions would have been too unpopular.

After Castro cut off the base’s water supply in February 1964, President Johnson ordered the firing of some 80 percent of the Cuban employees who commuted to work on the base. In Hansen’s account, when presented with the choice between Cuba and the base, “many commuters” chose to sever all ties with Cuba and defect. “To this day there remain aging Cubans on the base.” This cursory account obscures several fascinating specifics. As Lipman points out, over six waves of layoffs, 448 Cubans chose to come live on the base; 750 others, however, were allowed to continue commuting. As of last March all but two of the commuters had retired, and those two have only one significant responsibility: to hand-deliver pensions to their former co-workers (only those who were not fired, of course).

As for the defectors, most did not stay in Gitmo but instead became US citizens. Some returned to Cuba. As of March, when I stopped by their community center on the base, only thirty-two remained, ensconced in what amounts to an assisted-living community of single-story homes a short drive from Camp X-Ray, an open-air, bare-bones detention center built in the 1990s to house Cuban asylum seekers. Camp X-Ray reopened in 2002 to house alleged terrorists, and now it sits vacant and overgrown with plant life. The remaining Cuban defectors are, in my experience, happy to see visitors and eager to talk about their decades of life in Gitmo. What their existence means I can’t say, but surely they warrant more than a single parenthetical reference in Hansen’s book, which is keen to depict Guantánamo Bay as a palimpsest marked by international history, and contains many scenes of bored Americans getting drunk. (Lipman doesn’t appear to have interviewed any remaining permanent residents either. And none of her many academic reviewers noted this oversight, even though several criticized her for overrelying on her handful of Cuban interviewees.)

* * *

Inattention of this sort affects the last two chapters of Hansen’s book in ways perhaps more obviously vexing. The penultimate chapter details the Gitmo-linked fate of Haitian refugees. It’s an amazing story, and for the most part Hansen tells it well. Though the full saga begins in the 1970s, the most relevant episode involved the detention of Haitian refugees—more than 34,000––on the base between 1991 and 1992. The goal of the George H.W. Bush administration was to deny immigration to as many of the Haitians as possible. And so in numerous courtrooms the argument was advanced that the US Constitution did not extend to Cuban soil, Gitmo included, or to the high seas on which the Haitians were picked up. The vast majority of the Haitians detained at Gitmo were repatriated to the land of their persecutors, where many were murdered by François Duvalier’s militiamen.

After most Haitians had been cleared out, 233 remained. These were the refugees who, despite having managed against the odds to establish a credible fear of persecution in their home country, had also tested positive for HIV, making them ineligible to enter the United States under the terms of a 1986 law sponsored by Senator Jesse Helms. These men, women and children spent their days in extremely primitive, unhealthy and humiliating conditions. Several were given birth control injections without their consent. For many, Gitmo was the first place they’d learned they had HIV; several didn’t believe their diagnosis, and so refused all medication. Many went on prolonged hunger strikes; at least four attempted suicide. Those who “misbehaved” or refused to confess wrongdoing in impromptu, unregulated courts-martial risked beatings and solitary confinement. Throughout his first presidential campaign, Bill Clinton expressed strong opposition to Bush’s policies toward Haitian migrants, but once in office he made no effort to reverse them. Hansen ends the chapter with two overlapping court cases. In one, advocates for the Haitians went before the Supreme Court to argue that the United States was violating international and domestic laws governing the handling of asylum seekers. Six days later, they argued the more specific case of the HIV-positive detainees in a Brooklyn District Court. The district judge ordered the government to let the detainees go. The Supreme Court, however, sided 8 to 1 with the government: the US laws in question had no bearing outside the United States.

Two pages later the chapter is over, the eerie precedent well established—and the reader has no idea what happened to the HIV-positive Haitians. Hansen never mentions they were released in New York and Miami; a 2003 investigation in this magazine [see “The Legacy of Guantánamo,” July 21, 2003] found that many were still waiting for their asylum applications to be processed. Others had died from AIDS. Some suffered from persistent psychological problems caused by base trauma. Children born in Gitmo were living as stateless people: neither the United States nor Haiti would grant them birth certificates. In Guantánamo these Haitians, like the base’s permanent residents, drop right off the page.

The book’s final chapter, in which Hansen considers Gitmo’s most recent use—as a center for the indefinite detention and torture of foreign Muslims—is the one most flawed. Hansen leans heavily on well-known Gitmo investigations and analyses by Jane Mayer, Philippe Sands, Karen Greenberg, David Cole, Joseph Marguiles and Clive Stafford Smith. Jumping between their books, and a few interviews of his own, Hansen summarizes the sad, familiar story of how hundreds of men—the alleged “worst of the worst”—made their way through the United States’ global network of gulags to Guantánamo Bay. He also retraces the trail of memos in which the Bush administration justified torture.

Hansen does not make use of the books by or interviews with post-9/11 detainees. Had he focused more on the experiences of Gitmo’s victims, he might have written a slightly different ending. “Closing Guantánamo,” he notes in his epilogue, “might inadvertently allow both the administration itself and the American public to sidestep the bigger question of how Guantánamo fits into the nation’s larger detention archipelago….What is happening at Bagram? Where else is the United States detaining people? Under what conditions and for how long?” Good questions all, and ones Hansen might have pushed a little further with regard to Guantánamo Bay, whose geography of detention is not as well understood as he seems to think. Readers of his book will not learn that since 9/11, in addition to the military prisons at Gitmo he discusses, the base has also hosted secret CIA prisons—black sites within the base—about which almost nothing is known. Nor does he mention Camp Seven, a prison used to hold “high value” detainees previously held in black sites around the world. Much about this camp is shrouded in mystery, including its location on the base; what conditions and rules prevail there; and the makeup of Task Force Platinum, the team that runs it. On my visit in March, I asked one of my handlers why Camp Seven wasn’t included in my tour or the information pack I’d been given. “As you know,” I was told, “Camp Seven is a secret. No one knows about it.”

Later that day, I was taken on a tour of the detainee hospital. There it was explained to me that each day some classified number of hunger-striking detainees—about eleven, though in the past it has been well over a 100—are each day forced to consume Ensure nutrition shakes, often through enteral tubes. My guide cracked jokes about the variety of flavors on offer—vanilla, chocolate, butter pecan and strawberries and cream—and how they influenced the flavor of detainees’ belches. President Obama has ordered Gitmo to operate in accordance with Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. That article prohibits force-feeding, because by almost all definitions except for the one adopted in the past decade by the US government, force-feeding is torture. Perhaps it is not “as bad” as waterboarding—or “what happened before,” as it was more than once euphemized by soldiers I met—but it is torture. And yet in the closing pages of Guantánamo we learn that “by all appearances, the torture and systematic abuse of detainees ended at Guantánamo long before Barack Obama took office.” And later on the same page: “A place that has come to symbolize America’s fall from grace post-9/11 now demonstrates the power of symbols themselves to inhibit clear thinking.” Indeed.

Not long after I finished reading Hansen’s book, I checked the online Federal Business Opportunities database to see if the government was seeking bids on new Gitmo-related contracts. Just posted: a call for “two (2) sanitation and decontamination systems for sanitizing equipment such as riot gear.”

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