“Gitmo passengers!” the Air Sunshine representative called out, breaking the 5:00 a.m. silence of a largely deserted Fort Lauderdale airport. Miami and Fort Lauderdale are the only two airports that offer commercial flights to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station for anyone with a military entry clearance. My flight left from the city named after forts the U.S. military built around 1835, during wars to displace the Seminole people and other remaining indigenous communities from Florida. Most of the passengers on the flights to “Gitmo” are civilian contractors and family members living on base with Navy personnel.a
Lawyers and journalists representing or writing about people held at the prison can also gain permission to visit. Thanks to this $500 flight, I was joining a group of U.S. and European journalists for a multiday tour.
Responding to the call to board the plane, ten tired passengers quickly got in a line. We had been waiting in front of the Air Sunshine ticket desk since our check-in at 3:30 a.m. sharp,
in the bowels of the airport, where
small commuter airlines offer flights to places like the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. Most of the other passengers in line that morning were civilian base employees returning from vacation. Some were family members, including a young girl carrying a pink and brown camo bag.
A redheaded pilot appeared and told the line to follow him. We passed through a single door and stepped directly onto the tarmac. In front of us was our white thirty-seat, two-propeller plane, decorated only with its tail markings. Suddenly I realized that, while check-in had involved being weighed on a scale to ensure a proper weight balance for the plane, we were flying to the world’s most infamous base without passing through a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security screening.b
Minutes later we were in the air above the bright lights of Fort Lauderdale, heading out over the ocean and into the pitch-black sky toward Cuba.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Guantánamo,” the Air Sunshine pilot announced a little after 8:00 a.m., toward the end of our three-and-a-half-hour trip. The flight felt strangely like riding a school bus, given that everyone shared a single final destination in common. When we stepped off the plane onto the airport’s tarmac, the air was hot and thick with humidity. There was a spotty drizzle in a place that almost never sees rain. From the tarmac about all we could see was a fence about six feet high, topped with another three feet of razor wire, lining the airport’s perimeter. I followed the rest of the plane’s passengers, who seemed like they knew what they were doing, and walked into a large hangar to get in line.
One by one we approached a rickety wooden desk. We showed our passports and security clearance paperwork to a Filipino man wearing a polo shirt emblazoned with the name BREMCOR. The latest in a line of military contractors at Gitmo, BREMCOR was hired to run much of the operations, maintenance work, and daily life in a ten-year Pentagon contract, potentially worth $128,052,773.1
Before we entered the tiny airport terminal next to the hangar, Navy guards finally made us go through a security screening. Inside the terminal
Sgt. Fred Ortiz, a Public Affairs officer, greeted me.c
Sergeant Ortiz was wearing the Navy’s digital-patterned blue camouflage (or BDU, for “battle dress uniform”). He was around six feet tall and two hundred pounds, with a broad head and face. He said to call him Fred. He told me that he or someone else from Public Affairs would be with me every waking hour until “wheels up” on my return flight to Florida. The only exception would be in my room at the Navy lodging hotel. They did this, Fred said, “as a courtesy.” The surveillance didn’t surprise me, given the pages-long list of rules I had to agree to follow to get permission to visit the prison.
While Fred and I waited for a ferry to the other side of the bay, where most of the base is centered, he told me was born on one of Cuba’s neighboring islands, Puerto Rico. Fred noted that Puerto Rico’s seizure by the United States was entirely a “strategic, military decision.” U.S. troops launched their invasion of Puerto Rico from Guantánamo Bay not long after they arrived in 1898. In April of that year, the United States declared war on Spain after the mysterious sinking of the USS Maine
provided a pretext for intervening in the Cuban Revolution. (The explosion that catastrophically damaged the Maine
is now widely assumed to have been an accident, not Spanish sabotage. The Cuban government has long suggested that the U.S. government likely caused the explosion to justify intervention.)2
Planning its invasion, the Navy decided that Guantánamo Bay would make a good coaling station and base for future operations. Others also saw the long-term advantages of Guantánamo. “The fine harbor there will make a good American base,” wrote the New York Times.3
After the U.S. military quickly defeated Spanish troops, U.S. officials offered Cuban leaders thinly disguised U.S. rule in exchange for Cuba’s official independence and the withdrawal of U.S. troops. It was an offer Cuban representatives couldn’t refuse. As part of the deal, the two sides signed a lease giving the U.S. military “complete jurisdiction and control” over forty-five square miles of Guantánamo Bay—more than twice the size of Manhattan. Tellingly, the “lease” had no termination date. Effectively, Cuba was ceding territory. “We regard the [Cuban] coaling stations as ours,” stated President Theodore Roosevelt.4
The United States agreed to build a fence, prevent commercial or industrial activities within the base, and pay
a meager yearly fee of $2,000 in gold coins. Under Fidel Castro’s rule, Cuba’s government stopped cashing checks, worth around $4,085 each; for years the uncashed checks apparently went directly into Castro’s desk.5
When the two governments updated the Guantánamo Bay agreement in the 1930s, it stipulated that Cuba could never force the United States to leave: the lease can be terminated only if both governments chose to do so or if the U.S. military chooses to leave. Renters everywhere wish they had such eviction-proof leases.6
In other words, the “lease” for Guantánamo Bay is a fig leaf, an attempt to obscure colonial occupation and de facto U.S. sovereignty. In a 1953 history of the base, Gitmo’s then commander, Rear Adm. Marion Emerson Murphy, wrote plainly, “Guantánamo Bay is in effect a bit of American territory, and so it will probably remain as long as we have a Navy, for we have a lease in perpetuity to this Naval Reservation and it is inconceivable that we would abandon it.”7
Once the Gitmo ferry arrived, Sergeant Ortiz and I got on board for the two-mile trip across the bay. On our right the water stretched over the horizon toward Jamaica, as the main part of the base slowly came into view. At the ferry landing the sounds of Filipino Tagalog and the lilt of Jamaican English and Patois carried across the parking lot from some of the hundreds of imported civilian contract workers on base. Sergeant Ortiz’s Public Affairs colleague, Sgt. Jim Green, met us with a large white passenger van. We climbed into the van, its air conditioning on full blast in the Cuban heat, for a tour of the base.
The most well-known and notorious of U.S. bases overseas, the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station makes most people think of its high-security prison created by the George W. Bush/Dick Cheney administration in 2002.d
After the administration launched its so-called global war on terrorism, the prison became an international symbol of the administration’s policies of brutal torture and indefinite detention without trial.
Since the emergence of images of orange jumpsuit–clad prisoners being held in what were initially outdoor prisons, the facility has imprisoned around 780 individuals, aged thirteen to ninety-eight. Most were guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time: more than 85 percent of about 700 detainees transferred out of the prison were not suspected of committing terrorist acts.8
To the surprise of many, the prison occupies a tiny corner of the base. While some may know the base’s undulating fence line walling off the rest of Cuba, as seen in the Jack Nicholson movie A Few Good Men,
few have seen the vast majority of the base. Ironically enough, it offers a good picture of bases worldwide. Like most bases, Gitmo resembles a U.S. town, in this case plopped down on the Cuban coast. Since at least the 1950s, military leaders have designed most bases abroad to look something like idealized versions of suburbia.9
Gitmo, like many other bases, features suburban-style housing developments with names like Deer Point and Villamar. They have wide, looping roads and cul-de-sacs lined with single-family homes featuring driveways, garages, and spacious backyards dotted with grills and play toys. Almost everywhere teams of workers—often low-paid Filipinos—keep expansive lawns meticulously groomed. Using racialized language reflecting the racial hierarchy on base and the racial organization of labor, some military personnel call these men “lawn ninjas.”
Most bases, like Gitmo, have schools, hospitals, movie theaters, gyms, golf courses, yoga studios, bowling alleys, entertainment centers, fast-food and other restaurants, barber and beauty shops, post offices, chapels, and other places of worship. Along the main two-lane road through the center of base known as “downtown,” a sun-bleached set of McDonald’s golden arches stands above most of Gitmo’s landscape. (The McDonald’s, along with the other shops and stores, violates the ban on commercial activities in the original base agreement.) Like many bases, Guantanamo Bay is on prime waterfront property, meaning the base enjoys gorgeous, uncrowded Caribbean beaches.
Military leaders’ hope has been to make it as easy as possible for troops and family members to cycle between bases around the globe and to quickly feel at home. The generous amenities are also a kind of costly taxpayer-funded employment benefit, in addition to salaries, free universal health care, GI Bill educational benefits, pensions, and an array of
other benefits designed to keep people in the military. The on-base perks have become especially important since the end of the draft in 1973, after which Pentagon leaders have had to work harder to ensure a labor supply. (People in the U.S. armed services are laborers, even if their work is usually obscured with the language of “service.”)
The amenity-rich lifestyle is particularly pronounced at Guantanamo Bay because military personnel and their family members can’t leave—that is, they can leave only by flying back to the U.S. mainland. Since the Cuban Revolution of 1959, military personnel have...