Nine years ago, a sleepy U.S. naval base tucked into a contested corner [G1] of Fidel Castro’s Cuba became the most controversial prison in the world. Donald Rumsfeld’s “least worst place” was a human rights void and symbol of Bush-administration overreach. At first, Gitmo was ad hoc, with some 660 alleged Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters kept in exposed cages. Few cues marked a day’s passing beyond three meals and five calls to prayer. To entertain themselves, inmates fashioned boats from toilet paper and watched ants on apple cores.
Such improvisations aside, daily life was Tropical Gothic. Amid Caribbean trade winds, the military was using “enhanced interrogation techniques.” By fall 2003, there had been 32 attempted suicides. Since then, six detainees have died in apparent suicides.
To cut tension between detainees and guards, a philosophical shift began to transform base life, minimizing interaction between the two groups and giving cooperative prisoners more freedoms. Guantánamo today, with 171 detainees and around 1,000 guards, has become like a POW camp, according to Carol Rosenberg, the Miami Herald reporter who has owned the Gitmo beat from the beginning.
For guards, families can visit. McDonald’s and KFC have been joined by Taco Bell and A&W counters. Recently, a sailor told Rosenberg he was bummed: An oncoming tropical storm meant he wouldn’t be able to scuba-dive. Detainees, entirely isolated at first, now meet with lawyers. In Camp 6, where most detainees live, soccer can be played on a dirt field and inmates can watch sports, news, and hajjis in Mecca on flat-screen plasma TVs bolted in the rafters. Books are carted to prisoners in different camps. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the planner of 9/11, has read Richard Nixon’s Victory Without War; Omar Khadr, the youngest detainee, has reportedly been given Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. For those approaching release, there has been basic life-skills training, including résumé-making. Said Rosenberg, “We joked that they were going to say, ‘Guantánamo detainee, 2002–present.’ ”
Politically, Guantánamo continues to exist in perpetual existential crisis. Barack Obama campaigned on shutting it down, and notices of his signed presidential closing order were posted for detainees to see. But three years later, the plans have gone nowhere. Only six detainees have been convicted, and trials for KSM and four alleged co-conspirators are expected to finally take place next year. Despite the minor improvements, detainees continue to live in a hazy no-man’s-land where there are no clear rules of engagement, no articulated path to freedom.
From the archives
• 'Little Gitmo' (New York Magazine, July 10, 2011)