By Frank Gormlie
It’s time that the U.S. give “Gitmo” – or the Guantanamo Bay prison – back to the Cubans.
It’s time to end a shameful period of our history and close down the military prison on the coastal edge of another sovereign country. It’s time that we hand Guantanamo Bay in Cuba – which we’ve held for over a hundred years – since 1903 – back to its rightful owners.
Today the population at Guantanamo is 116, a definite drop from the 242 detainees who were imprisoned when President Obama first took office. It still costs a reported $2.7 million per prisoner to house a Gitmo detainee. And over the last 13 years, the bill to keep open the place that Amnesty International called the “Gulag of our times”has been $4.7 billion.
There is no longer any reason to retain this chamber of horrors that tortured and abused people in our name, and which begot a human rights disaster.
Consider this: 751 people have been detained at Guantanamo since 2002, when the Bush administration opened it. Of those, 602 were released without charges, and of the remaining 149, seven had formal charges and only six have been actually tried on their charges.
The unfortunates who ended up at Guantanamo came mainly from the war in Afghanistan with smaller numbers from Iraq, the Horn of Africa and South Asia.
But what with the joint opening of embassies on Monday, July 20, the US-Cuban rapprochement is sailing ahead – the time is extremely ripe to make good on the moral question involved and to make good on President Obama’s pledges since he took office to close the place.
In fact, last January Cuban President Raul Castro demanded that Guantanamo be closed as a condition for normalizing relations between the countries. At a Latin American summit conference, he told the delegates that the two nations were working toward full diplomatic relations but that normalizing relations –
“will not be possible … while they don’t give back the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo naval base.”
Castro added, “if these problems aren’t resolved, this diplomatic rapprochement wouldn’t make any sense”.
Now, suddenly it looks like all the pieces are moving into place. It appears that Obama is moving on his pledge.
Just Wednesday, July 22nd, the White House announced that a plan is being drafted to close the facility. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest stated that closing the place “is a priority of the President,” and that Obama “believes it’s in our national security interest to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.”
“The Administration is in the final stages of drafting a plan to safely and responsibly close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and to present that plan to Congress.”
It was only last mid-December that Cuba and the US made a surprise announcement that they were moving towards reestablishing full diplomatic relations, and reopening embassies. It took 6 months or so for that to happen.
And now it’s time to begin closing the site of admitted torture.
After he first took office, Obama made a pledge to close Guantanamo during his first year. Now in his sixth year it’s still open.
The main reason is the opposition repeatedly mounted by Congressional Republicans to any transfer or release of prisoners from the site.
When the Bush administration established the prison site in January 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said it was to detain “extraordinarily dangerous persons”, to interrogate them in an optimal setting, and to prosecute them for war crimes.
Time-Line of Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp
Here’s a brief run-down of the significant in’s and out’s of Guantanamo’s sordid history:
- Guantanamo is acquired by the US in 1903, and the small military base was initially used to extend a peaceful military presence in the Caribbean and a docking station for oil ships. The US pays Cuba a little more than a whooping $4000 a year to “lease” the site.
- 1959: corrupt Batista regime – supported by the US – is kicked out by the Cuban Revolution; new government begins demands for the land’s return.
- Bush political appointees at the Department of Justice advised the Bush administration that the Guantanamo Bay detention camp is outside US legal jurisdiction and the detainees were not entitled to any of the protections of the Geneva Conventions.
- January 11, 2002: Military guards take first 20 detainees to Guantanamo.
- 2004: U.S. Supreme Court decisions begin to disagree with Bush administration views of detainees.
- Detainees allege torture and abuse – all denied by the Bush administration.
- 2005: Amnesty International calls the facility the “Gulag of our times,” in report.
- June 26, 2006: Supreme Court rules in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that detainees were entitled to the minimal protections listed under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.
- July 7, 2006: Department of Defense issues internal memo which orders detainees entitled to protection under Common Article 3.
- 2006: the United Nations calls for Guantanamo detention camp to be closed – nothing happens.
- 2008: Presidential candidate John McCain runs on closing Gitmo, joining Obama on this issue.
- January 2009: the first Bush administration official concedes that torture occurred at Guantanamo Bay on one detainee. Susan J. Crawford made the concession after being appointed by Bush to review Guantanamo practices and oversee the military trials.
- December 15, 2009: Obama issues Presidential memorandum ordering a correctional center in Illinois to ready itself to accept transferred Guantanamo prisoners.
- January 29, 2009: Guantanamo military judge rejects White House request in a detainee case effectively blocking bringing more detainee trials.
- January 22, 2009: President Obama signs order to suspend Guantanamo military proceedings for 4 months and to completely close it by the end of the year.
- May 20, 2009: Senate passes amendment to an appropriations bill by a 90–6 vote to block funds for the transfer or release of any prisoners held at Guantanamo.
- January 22, 2010: Final Report of the Guantanamo Review Task Force is published – with results for 240 detainees reviewed. 36 were found to be subjects of active cases or investigations; 30 from Yemen were designated for “conditional detention” because of Yemen’s poor security environment; 126 were approved for transfer; 48 detainees were determined “too dangerous to transfer but not feasible for prosecution”.
- April 2011: Wikileaks publishes 779 secret files relating to Guantanamo prisoners.
- February 2011: U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declares that Guantanamo was unlikely to be closed, due to Congressional opposition in the Congress.
- January 7, 2011: Obama is pressured to sign 2011 Defense Authorization Bill, which placed restrictions on transfers of Guantanamo prisoners to the mainland or to foreign countries.
- February 2013: Despair drives detainees to stage hunger strike – goes on for 3 months.
- December 17, 2014: US and Cuban announce moves to establish diplomatic relations.
Let the next remarkable date be the actual closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison. And then the next date the handing over of the territory to the Cuban government.
Cuban Patriotic Song “Guantanamera” Popular in US
In a little ironic side note of history, the most well known Cuban song in America is “Guantanamera” (a romantic tale about a woman from Guantánamo) made famous by an American vocal group, The Sandpipers, in 1966. Their song – based on an arrangement by Pete Seeger – became an international hit. Seeger had originally recorded the song in 1963 on his album We Shall Overcome, recorded live at Carnegie Hall.
Seeger’s intention was that his version – based on the historic Cuban roots of the lyrics – be used by the peace movement during the Cuban missile crisis, and urged that the song be song by people as a symbol of unity between the American and Cuban peoples. The song is still regarded in Cuban as one of the best known patriotic songs.
We don’t know at this point whether Obama’s plans to close the detention facility at Guantanamo include handing the territory back to the Cubans, but it should.