Many people think Guantánamo is one big prison. But here are 12 things you probably didn’t known about the U.S. Navy base near the southeastern tip of Cuba that feels more like a small town in America.
1. Close to 6,000 people live there. They include families of American sailors and long-term contractors with about 250 school-aged children who go to a K-12 school system run by the Department of Defense.
2. More than a third of the residents are Jamaican and Filipino workers. They come on Pentagon contracts, and don’t get to bring their families.
3. Sure it has a seaport and airstrip, both run by the Navy. But it also has a McDonald’s, nine-hole golf course, beaches, a bowling alley and a chapel complex with regular Catholic, Muslim, Pentecostal and other services — as well as regular Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
4. Nearly a third of the residents — 1,700 troops and contractors — are assigned to the Detention Center Zone. It’s a base within the base where the Pentagon has 41 war-on-terror prisoners sent there by the George W. Bush administration.
5. Most prison staff do nine-month tours of duty. Many are National Guard troops who come alone but can bring down family members for vacation-style visits.
6. In 2017, 25 babies were born there to base residents at the small community hospital.
7. Base pastimes include softball, fishing or sailing on the bay, concerts, hitting the beaches and bars, fancy-dress balls and watching first-run Hollywood movies for free in the base’s three outdoor cinemas.
8. For years, the most popular base restaurants had a Caribbean flavor. Both the Jamaican Jerk House and Cuban Club closed in recent years. So now perhaps the most Cuban cuisine on base is a ham sandwich at the Irish Pub, O'Kelly's.
9. The U.S. Marines removed the base minefield in 1999. But the Cuban military still has one opposite the base’s 17.4-mile border. U.S. security these days relies more on spotlights and security cameras than Marines in watchtowers.
10. The base covers 45 square miles, straddles Guantánamo Bay and is technically a U.S. rental property. Each year, the State Department cuts a check for $4,085 rent, but Cuba wants the U.S. forces gone and doesn’t cash it.
11. The base commander meets monthly with a Cuban military officer. Those meetings paid off in February, after wildfires from the Cuban side threatened Navy base housing. Cuba dispatched three firetrucks and a helicopter onto the base for two hours to help put it out.
12. That kind of cooperation is rare. Mostly the two officers discuss upcoming events to avoid misunderstandings that might trigger military tensions. An example: Each June, the U.S. officer reminds the Cubans that those will be fireworks on the Fourth of July, nobody’s attacking.