GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — As a van passed through a security checkpoint en route to the prison camps of Guantanamo Bay, the sun rose in a tropical sky and the official army radio station blasted Jimmy Buffet's famed song "Margaritaville" over the airwaves.
"Wastin' away again in Margaritaville," the song warbled on Radio GTMO — the naval base's official station, whose maxim is "Rockin' in Fidel's backyard."
The ditty, about laid-back living in a steamy paradise, took on new meaning as a military guard and two public affairs officers attached to Joint Task Force Guantanamo escorted Al Jazeera into Camp 6 to observe prisoners who have spent a decade of their lives locked up in 10-by-7-foot cells here.
The song choice was one of the many sad ironies that surfaced during a weeklong visit to one of the most notorious prisons in the world. Twelve years ago this month, former Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel attorney John Yoo and a colleague wrote a legal memo for the Defense Department’s top lawyer that explained why Guantanamo was the perfect place to hold “enemy combatants” captured in the war on terrorism. Essentially, the move set up the base in a legal limbo — far from the jurisdiction of the mainland — allowing prisoners to be effectively held without charge.
But now, more than a decade later, and with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over or winding down, the detention center at Guantanamo Bay remains open. Though its prison population is much reduced, it remains an international public-relations thorn for President Barack Obama’s White House. Still riven by a hunger strike among its detainees and clouded in secrecy, few people really expect the base to close anytime soon.
On one morning last week, five prisoners in Camp 6 emerged dressed in white-and-brown prison garb. Some wore headphones, a sign that they were watching television. Their skinny physiques and graying beards made them appear old and weak, not like the hardened terrorists that military officials say they are.
Breakfast had just been served on a communal block where the men freely interact with one another and enjoy “luxuries” such as personal DVD players, video games, books, magazines and satellite television that the military believes will make indefinite detention bearable.
Sgt. Joseph Boudreau, a guard in charge of one of the blocks at Camp 6 and one of two military personnel willing to provide his full name, marveled at the prisoners’ culinary skills during an interview.
“They’ll take peanut butter and mix it with cream cheese to make frosting,” he said. “It’s amazing to watch.”
Soon, the prisoners began their morning prayers. But that morning, with the temperature already in the 80s, they decided to take prayer rugs outside into the recreation yard to pray.
The guard, a 20-something male with a thick Spanish accent who was deployed to the prison in October, was closely monitored by the public-affairs officers to ensure he was not asked questions about the prison’s operations, which he is not authorized to answer.
But he was refreshingly blunt on one point: Guantanamo Bay, he conceded, isn’t for him.
“I want to go home,” he said, refusing to disclose where his home is in the U.S. “I’m ready. I want to get out of here.”
This main road is lined with fast food restaurants. Jason Leopold
Visiting Guantanamo is a surreal experience. It has the appearance of a small American town rather than of a notorious prison. A 45-square-mile naval base that the U.S. has leased from Cuba for a century, it is roughly the size of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and is dotted with fast-food restaurants — including McDonald’s, Subway, KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut — and a coffee shop that sells freshly brewed Starbucks. There are movie theaters, a high school, a bar called O’Kelly’s (the “only Irish pub on communist soil”), beaches, single-family homes and town houses. Its radio station boasts one of the biggest vinyl collections (more than 20,000 records) in the American Forces Network.
Several gift shops on the base hock Guantanamo swag, such as mint green “I ♥ GTMO” lip balm, bottle openers, shot glasses and magnets. They also sell T-shirts emblazoned with slogans like “Guantanamo: Like no other place on earth,” “Peace, love, sand & sun: Guantanamo Bay” and “Joint Task Force Guantanamo: Operation Enduring Freedom: Detainee Operations.” For the kids, stuffed turkey vultures, iguanas and banana rats — rodents native to Guantanamo — are for sale.
But amid the souvenirs, the base’s serious side is never far away. It is still an active intelligence-gathering hub, and activities here are highly sensitive. Underscoring that fact is a sticker on one of the telephones inside the media operations center near Camp Justice that reads, “DO NOT DISCUSS CLASSIFIED INFORMATION. This telephone is subject to monitoring at all times. Use of this telephone constitutes consent to monitoring.”