Growing Up At Guantanamo Bay
By Keith Edwards
There was this story that all of the American kids who lived on GTMO knew — the Cubans didn’t map their minefields. We’d heard it from someone’s brother, who’d heard it from one of the Marines stationed along the fence line, who’d seen it with their own eyes. Prisoners were marched out of a gate on the Cuban side and into the no-man’s land between one country and another until . . . Boom!
It was an urban legend, of course. But the subtext was apparent, even as a kid: Americans would never be so cruel as to treat our prisoners that way.
The U.S.’s uneasy presence at GTMO traces back to 1898, when the bay, located at the southeastern end of Cuba, served as a beachhead during the Spanish-American War. When Cuba gained independence from Spain after the war, the U.S. began leasing the land that would become the naval station in 1903 (for the prime sum of only a bit more than $3,000 a year). The Cuban government only ever cashed one rent check, refusing to do so after the Revolution in 1959. The landmines went in shortly thereafter.
In the 1960s, Castro threatened to kick the U.S. out, but also recognized that if he did so, it could serve as a pretext for war. Since then, the Cuban government has put up with the U.S. in a manner that can best be described as begrudging.
I was 8 years old when we moved to the naval station at Guantanamo Bay. For three years (1986 to 1988), my parents and I lived and worked on the station, which was then a training facility with a small civilian population. We moved there when my father, who was a civil servant with the Department of Defense, took a job running the Department of Reutilization and Marketing (DRMO) on the base. My mother was, and still is, a teacher, who taught at the elementary school on base. I spent most of my time riding my bike, playing army with the neighbor kids, and fishing for conch in the inlet.
There was one time, though, when we couldn’t ride our bikes — during the annual war games exercise. Every year, in the fall, for three days, there was a curfew. I raced the other kids home on my bike, to hurry up and stay indoors, because the Marines were on the streets, pretending that the Cubans (backed by the Soviets) had invaded the base. We had to remain indoors, lights out, and pretend we were hiding until 6 a.m.
The TV station was shut down, running the same recorded message to stay indoors. We listened to Armed Forces Radio, because there was nothing else to do. As I was made to suffer the cruel indignity of being forbidden from riding my bike, the only thing that kept me sane was Johnny Cash singing about “Folsom Prison.” (Johnny and June came to GTMO and played a concert as part of a USO tour. It remains to this day the single greatest concert experience of my life.)
This mix of existential dread, boredom, and absurdity was just part of life on the base. Go to school, practice air raid drills, feed the iguanas potato chips, wonder if the Cubans will invade, watch second-run movies in the amphitheater.
The 1980s were the Indian Summer of the Cold War. Twenty-five years of overheated rhetoric between the U.S. and the Soviets had made for a sort of bored tension. “Duck and cover” drills had turned from exercises in paranoid futility to ironic jokes. But under the cool bravado of life going on, was the unspoken real fear that comes with living under the umbrella of potential nuclear megadeath. We really thought we might all just wake up dead one day, the sky glowing red while the ashes of a billion innocents rained down on us. You knew it was coming, it was just a matter of when. That it never did left a hole in our understanding of the world. So we filled that hole with fearful daydreams of what those wily “commies” were up to.
When not throwing hypothetical prisoners into the minefield, our Cuban enemies were starving. Those bread lines in Red Square? They had those in Havana too, we were told. They drove old cars because no one would sell them new ones, or only leftover Yugos from behind the Iron Curtain. They were pitiful, the Cubans, but also cunning. They hid their sorrows in patriotic songs and communist work programs, sharing beds and secret plots to sneak across the fence line, or the sea, and kill us in our beds. Or worse, make us eat paia and call each other comrade.
Some Cubans did try to flee, so Castro put up the Cactus Curtain, 8 miles of cactus lining the Northeastern fenceline, to deter refugees. Instead, they took boats or makeshift rafts and paddled through shark-infested waters until they reached what was technically American soil. The ones who made it ashore were put on the first plane to Norfolk Naval Air Station, before the Cubans called looking for them, so we could say, with a straight face, that they weren’t here. “Sharks must’ve got ‘em.” It was the right thing to do, but like most things on GTMO, it came wrapped in several layers of wrong.
We, the children of patriotic service men and women, always knew who was right and who was wrong on this island. It was as obvious and crisp and loud as the air raid siren that rang out every Wednesday at noon.
Except that it wasn’t. It never is. There were a handful of Cuban nationals who crossed the fence every morning and returned home to the other side every night. They were janitors and maids on the base. The communists were our mortal enemies, but we’d hire the poor ones to clean our toilets. This subtle form of exploitation was lost on my 8-year-old self, but the adult me has become all-too-familiar with the many ways we patriotic Americans exploit the poor and the weak.
We do it for financial gain, or out of habit. But the prisoners on GTMO today are exploited for the worst reason of all — propaganda.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton ordered the mine field in GTMO to be pulled up. It was obsolete, now that the Cold War was over. Of course, he also tightened travel restrictions and extended the embargo, because the Cubans shot down two military planes. But that was Clinton’s speciality, the triangulation tango.
In place of the minefield, a high-tech array of motion sensors were installed. The Cubans left their mines in place. I don’t know if they bothered to send prisoners out there to check on them after that. If they did, they probably would have set off the motion alarms, like your neighbor’s cat tripping the floodlights.
Maintaining a naval base on Cuba in the ’90s was suddenly redundant. The Navy scaled back operations there, focusing on the Persian Gulf. There was even talk of handing it back over to the Cubans, like we had done with the Panama Canal. But Republicans lamented that idea. “Give up land to the commies? Are you crazy? What if we need that tiny spit of coral and barbed wire?”
But what could we ever need that for? This is where you picture a lightbulb turning on over Donald Rumsfeld’s head. On January 11, 2002, the first 20 prisoners were sent to Camp X-Ray.
When President Obama entered the Oval Office in 2009, 779 prisoners had passed through the gates at GTMO. There are currently 107 prisoners on the former-naval-base-turned-gulag. Sixty-four are on the indefinite detention list. The prisoners in GTMO are collateral damage in the Global War on Terror. We rounded them up, decided they were guilty of being . . . well, we still haven’t figured that part out yet.
Certainly some of them are enemies, like Abd al Malik Abd al Wahab, who was Osama Bin Laden’s bodyguard (and brother-in-law) and who is suspected of helping plan the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He has been in Guantanamo Bay for 14 years, with no trial or even formal charges.
But some were in the wrong place at the wrong time, like Yusef Abbas, a Uighur Muslim from western China. A federal judge recommended he and the the other 16 Uighur prisoners be released, as it “serve[d] no useful purpose to continue to try to prove that any of these 17 men were enemy combatants.” Abbas died in Guantanamo Bay in 2012, before he could be sent home.
The prisoners of GTMO live in their own, more warped, form of absurdity. They can Skype with family members, color, and read The Picture of Dorian Grey. But the barbed wire and armed guards are always there.
Just as real, if less tangible, is their legal state. Neither enemy combatant, convicted terrorist, nor free person, they remain in limbo because our politicians just can’t figure out what to do with them. We can’t let them go because repatriating them would give fresh recruits to ISIS and Al Qaeda. But neither can we transport the prisoners stateside, because then we would have to describe, on paper, why they were in prison in the first place. This would provide them legal recourse to challenge the charges against them, which have as yet to be made.
I was excited when President Obama announced his plan to reverse 50 years of geopolitical bullheadedness and begin to normalize relations with Cuba. Not as excited as the thousands of Cuban nationals and Cuban Americans, of course, but I’m under no delusion that my relationship with that island is anything other than problematic. I was a tourist in one of Pax Americana’s more colorful colonial outposts. And while I lived there for three years as a child, I could never call it my home.
In 1988, a few months before we left Cuba, Hurricane Gilbert rose out of the Caribbean. It thundered across Jamaica and headed, we thought, straight for Cuba. It eventually dawdled out in the ocean for a while before plowing into the Yucatan Peninsula, but for several tense hours, it looked like it might smack Guantanamo Bay, wiping us off the island. Everything, we were told, wanted to do us in.
The civilian population of the base prepared for evacuation. We packed small bags and huddled in designated shelters near the docks, in case we had to to flee to the Naval vessels anchored there. We were prepared for the worst. Living on GTMO, how could we not be?
So we turned it into one big hurricane party. Families and friends gathered in the shelter, playing music and passing around drinks that were smuggled in. The other kids and I ran around in the dark with flashlights, listening to the wind and rain howl outside while we played. It was just another air raid siren, one we’d quickly come to ignore as an empty signal of a doom that would never come.
The hurricane passed us by and we returned to our lives. My family and I returned stateside, back to Virginia, where I attended middle school and high school. But those three years living in Cuba will always stay with me.
One day I will take my son to Cuba. I hope by then, GTMO will be shuttered. Then I can show him where I learned to ride a bike and how to climb a Banyan tree, tell him about the time I went to the beach and stood on the shore just feet from a pair of sharks who had swam in from the Caribbean Sea. And I can show him, too, where the ghosts of those we kept locked away for so long were imprisoned, so he can know, and learn, and do better.
President Obama’s decision to change our relationship with Cuba means more than just offering a new market to our corporations. It’s more than just a political gesture to the Latino community. It will reunite families and offer an opportunity to change how we and Cuba see the world.
We’ve heard the air raid sirens singing doom. We’ve built prisons and damned people to purgatory. But we can change that. We don’t have to be prisoners marching into the unknown, searching for forgotten mines.