Guantánamo base awaits uncertain future

Marine Pfc. Jacob Gateman lifts a cover April 1, 2009 to show an old trench beneath a road leading toward the elementary school at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The trench was part of old Cold War era defenses established on the 45-square-mile base, where the military reviewed and approved this image for publication.
Marine Pfc. Jacob Gateman lifts a cover April 1, 2009 to show an old trench beneath a road leading toward the elementary school at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The trench was part of old Cold War era defenses established on the 45-square-mile base, where the military reviewed and approved this image for publication. MIAMI HERALD

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- Captives watch in confusion as workers weld fences around new soccer fields, part of the Pentagon's plan to improve prison camp conditions. Around the base, U.S. troops arrive on regular rotations and wonder what comes next.

Everyone here knows that President Barack Obama ordered the prison camps emptied by Jan. 22. But aside from the president's executive order posted at the prison camps, signs of the coming shutdown are hard to find.

These are days of uncertainty at this remote outpost in southeast Cuba.

"Some detainees are saying, `You are still doing construction. Are we leaving or not?' '' says Zaki, an Islamic cultural advisor who doesn't want his last name published for fear of retribution.

The guards have no answers: "We just say, `It's coming.' '' The renovations will continue, he says, "until the last detainee.''

Even as they do, Washington politicians churned this past week with opposition to bringing the men to U.S. soil.

When the detainees do leave, so will the guards and interrogators, commanders and contractors at Joint Task Force Guantánamo, 2,000-plus men and women now on temporary assignment among the 7,000 troops and civilians living here.

The Navy will still need sailors and other workers at the airstrip, port, and base hospital for the Marines on the fenceline and other U.S. forces who come and go.

But there will be trailer parks to dismantle and cells to sweep, shackles to send stateside and brainstorming about what to do with a sprawling, razor-wire-ringed detention facility.

A Washington, D.C., judge has ordered that the prison camps themselves be kept intact as potential evidence in unlawful detention suits being heard in federal court.


Guantánamo Bay, the Navy's oldest overseas base, has long weathered a succession of challenges -- from the Bay of Pigs through the 1994-95 rafter surge to the prison camps that have become the defining image of America's lone military outpost on communist soil.

The uncertainty of the moment is waiting for the Obama administration to decide what to do with the 240 or so remaining prisoners who were swept up in the war on terror, many held here with no charges for more than seven years.

Attorney General Eric Holder, whom President Barack Obama has tasked with determining what to do with the captives, recently appealed to European allies to accept some. For now, prosecutors are studying each detainee's file, deciding which cases to bring to trial. The Holder team is also struggling with how to constitutionally hold others who can't be tried but are too dangerous to release.

Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Johnston, the base public works officer, compares what is coming with "a big auto plant closing in a town.''

With one key difference: There will be no idle workers looking for jobs. The Pentagon controls the flow of mostly foreign contractors, which today number about 2,000 Filipinos and Jamaicans who work between the base and the prison camps. Those with no jobs must go home.


Even before the arrival of al Qaeda suspects, there was an airstrip and seaport here used by the Coast Guard and Navy to search for drugs and rafters in the Caribbean. Marines stood guard over the watchtowers and patrolled on the U.S. side of a Cuban minefield.

Under a 1996 law, the United States cannot give the base back or renegotiate the century-old lease -- the United States pays $4,085 annually -- until there's a democratic Cuba.

On the eastern end of the 45-square-mile base are the prison camps, hundreds of cells spread across a site called Radio Range. On the west, the Department of Homeland Security has staked out space to shelter 10,000 people in tents should the United States decide to provide a haven here from a Caribbean humanitarian crisis.

''Everyone is trying to figure out how fast it'll empty,'' Navy Chief Petty Officer Bill Mesta, the base public affairs officer, said of the base.

But, he says, Guantánamo's ''core mission'' as a Navy seaport and airstrip will remain: "We're going to continue on. We're the only base in the Caribbean. We're the only base in the Fourth Fleet. We're not going anywhere.''

Adding to the uncertainty is this: House Democrats this past week sliced $50 million from a Pentagon budget request, put there provisionally in case it decides to retrofit or build a new prison somewhere else. The Senate has yet to say whether it will also block the funding.

But there's a mounting clamor among both Democrats and Republicans in Congress for the Obama White House to articulate an evacuation and relocation plan.

Meantime, people posted here for long periods often compare Guantánamo with 1950s small-town America, complete with a school system whose graduating class this year has a record 19 seniors.

The long-timers have learned to tolerate the temporary troops on six- to 12-month rotations the way Floridians welcome snowbirds. More people means more flights from the United States, more chances to socialize, better supplies.

It also means slower service and longer lines everywhere, from the barber who gives a $6.75 haircut to the lone supermarket, where a pound of salami sells for $2.85.

The McDonald's was here before the prison camps. So was the downtown movie drive-in and bowling alley.

But the war on terror brought more downtime distractions, more first-run movies, mini-golf, Starbucks and Taco Bell.

The hospital got a CAT scan. The Navy added fresh fruit and meat cargo flights to the twice-monthly shipments of food by barge from Jacksonville.

Now old-timers wonder how soon it will be before shops and celebrity visits disappear along with the detainees.

Before the detention center, flights and visitors were rare. It was so sleepy here that the U.S. base commander, a Navy captain, met a Cuban general without fanfare each month over coffee and pastries.

Now, the control tower is staffed around the clock to handle a steady stream of visitors: journalists for package tours; Red Cross delegates to inspect conditions; technicians to fine-tune equipment; Miss Universe, and other entertainers to distract the troops.

Members of Congress come through on day trips to sing the prison camps' praises. Civil liberties lawyers fly in to see detainees and then condemn the camps.

Now, residents wonder, how many guest quarters will Guantánamo really need? How many maids? Will there be a new assignment before services shut down?

It has gotten more crowded at the schools for sailors' kids, and there's suburban-style tract housing, barbecues on the beach, bake sales and holiday parades in this community surrounded by Cuban minefields where national security is part of the fabric of life.

On a recent Friday, members of the Coast Guard stripped a drug boat as they searched for tons of hidden cocaine while sailors' wives drove toddlers to story time at the public library.

A pair of Navy cops set up a checkpoint for speeders near a mini-mart and ticketed two drivers for exceeding the 10-mile-per-hour limit approaching it.

Filipino contract workers served sailors and soldiers in the cafeteria, while Jamaican maids changed sheets at officers' guest quarters.

Navy engineers, Seabees, were building a bridge over the Guantánamo River for Marines who patrol the fence that separates the base from the rest of Cuba.

And Desiree Rivers, a Navy petty officer who works as a career counselor, reenlisted on a bluff overlooking that bay. Her husband, a Marine on temporary duty, wore his dress blues and later produced a saber to slice the celebratory cake.


But absent a new assignment, long-timers imagine a return to the quiet days of downsizing and anonymity that ended when the first 20 men arrived on Jan. 11, 2002 -- to give Guantánamo the at-times unwanted international spotlight.

''It's the kind of place that will be easily forgotten, and easily ignored,'' says Johnston. "Until it's desperately needed again.''

Over time, many came to see Guantánamo as something sinister, especially after the Defense Department distributed early images from Camp X-Ray showing captives in orange jumpsuits -- in shackles on their knees.

''Camp X-Ray is like Kryptonite,'' says Johnston, the public works officer.

Even if a judge eventually allows the Pentagon to dismantle the camps, he says, and "put an orphanage there, everything that happened at that site will cripple it.''

The Pentagon is still offering tours of the camps.

Florida National Guard Lt. Cody Starken, now in charge, read aloud during a slideshow for two visiting photographers recently, reciting talking points fine-tuned through the years. The military spends $3.1 million a year -- $8,500 daily -- to feed 240 or so detainees at ''the most transparent facility in the world,'' he said.

Still off-limits to media: Camp 7, built in secret for former CIA captives who were waterboarded and arrived here more than two years ago.

Since no one is allowed to talk about it, commanders here decline to say what could be its use once the White House moves confessed 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and the other 15 ''high-value detainees'' elsewhere.

Even with the camps' closure on the horizon, the choreography of bitter acrimony continues.

Detainees use their pro-bono lawyers to accuse the guards of continuing abusive behavior, of provoking the prisoners through gratuitous cell shakedowns, or roughly moving hunger strikers to tube-feedings. The Pentagon flatly denies the allegations.

Any notion that guards are getting in their last licks is ''absolutely, unequivocally false,'' says Rear Adm. Dave Thomas, who is leaving to command a Carrier Strike Group before the camps close. "There could not possibly be a more scrutinized performance . . . than my guard and the medical folks go through.''

He swats aside discussion of what the Pentagon might do with the sprawling infrastructure -- cells, trailer parks, snoop-proof command headquarters, wooden cottages -- built for millions of dollars through war on terror funding.

Make it a training center for future detainee operations? Turn it over to the Navy's new Fourth Fleet? Level it? See what the Marines would make of it?

''We still have detainees here. That's the focus,'' says Thomas, who calls the ongoing expansion of prison camp recreation yards and diversions part of "getting it right. Until the last detainee's gone, my focus is on the safe, humane and transparent custody.''

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