(Guantanamo Bay, Cuba)—This season the rains have come regularly to Guantanamo, located on the dryer, leeward southeast coast of Cuba. The usually California-brown landscape is an Irish green, and contract landscape crews are losing the battle to keep tropical growth at the lawn level rather than the lush meadow it wants to be.
To the visitor, the pace of activity seems normal. The resident Navy command maintains normal activities, support barges arrive regularly from Mayport outside Jacksonville, Florida, with supplies and goodies. The desalinization plant pumps enough fresh water for 50 gallons per person daily, and Cuban fishing boats ply the waters as they exit from Guantanamo city – part of Cuba proper – and transit the U.S.-leased lower bay on their way into the blue-green Caribbean.
The Joint Task Force-Guantanamo – the unit tasked with holding, caring for, and interrogating approximately 450 al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees – functions normally despite a difficult year. In May, three detainees attempted suicide by drug overdose, swallowing a noxious cocktail of sedatives, psychotherapeutic drugs, and painkillers. They were saved by an alert medical team. Later on that same day, a major riot swept the medium security compound of Camp IV, where supposedly “compliant” detainees are kept in communal living conditions. It was a difficult day.
Things were calm for the next month until the detainees finally succeeded in their attempts at directed suicide and three asphyxiated themselves in the early morning hours of a tropical July day. It was a bitter disappointment for the troopers who had tried extremely hard to prevent the suicides.
But events have progressed. Standard operational procedures, the SOPs upon which the military runs its day-to-day affairs, have been reinforced since the riots and suicides. “We had the right procedures in place,” a high-ranking military official in Guantanamo said. “We just need to make sure that everyone was following them properly.”
Since the suicides certain aspects of detainee life in Camp Delta have changed. The number of detainees living communally has been sharply reduced from a high of approximately 120 in the medium security Camp IV to a present population of 40. Camp IV detainees – trusted to behave – plotted together and attempted to ambush and kill American guards in May 2006. “We tried to reward good behavior with more comfortable living conditions,” the official said. “They took advantage of our good nature, and we came close to losing an American soldier. They won’t have that opportunity to fool us again.”
Meanwhile the command at Guantanamo prepares for what they expect to be changes in the upcoming months, no one here is looking forward to them with particular eagerness. After the change in Congressional leadership that will take place in January the threat of witch-hunting investigations looms large. “We’re prepared to do whatever is necessary to get the word out accurately about the situation here,” an official commented, “and if that includes testifying before Congress, no problem. We’re actually happy to see the truth of what the troops are accomplishing here get told to the American public.”
Those remarks are sincere and speak well of the leadership. But having seen the Roman Circus spectacles of Congressional show hearings in the past, it is difficult to imagine a hearing that won’t be stacked against the operation in Guantanamo. Previously hearings designed to promote a pre-conceived anti-administration, agenda-driven outcome cared little for truth and much more for marketable sound bites aimed at shaping public opinion.
Resigned to do whatever they are directed to do to satisfy both legitimate Congressional oversight and the insatiable Congressional urge to pontificate, the leaders on the ground here shrug off what may come from the political side. After all, as they point out, many members, both Congressmen and U.S. senators, have visited Guantanamo and seen for themselves what the real situation here is. Even such hyperbolic critics as Ted Kennedy and Richard Durbin have seen the facilities and spoken to the troops. That will help, but don’t count on their knowing the facts to deflect them from using Guantanamo as a conduit to attack the president.
Meanwhile, another problem is looming, this one practically unrecognized outside of professional military/foreign policy institutions. It is an issue that could prove overwhelming for the small facility on Cuba’s leeward coast.
What is going to happen, the question asks, once Fidel Castro dies?
Many speculate that Raoul Castro, who will be fighting to replace the Maximum Leader against other factions in the Cuban junta, will crack down even harder on the population.
Will this drive many to seek an opportunity to escape? It certainly could produce that effect. Should Cubans by the thousands take to the sea in boats many can expect to end up in Guantanamo. Some, it anticipated will try to seek refuge at Guantanamo itself, thinking incorrectly that they will be safe if on American leased territory. Some may try to push through the gates calculating (correctly) that the Americans will not condone wholesale killing of civilians. Others may drift ashore and still others may be deposited at Guantanamo base by U.S. Coast Guard vessels intercepting boat people.
What could these numbers look like? “Some say upwards to 100,000 Cuban refugees may end up here,” stated an official involved in contingency planning. In an area of fewer than 45 square miles that relies on desalination for potable water and has limited sanitation capability; that is totally dependent on outside sources for food, medicine, and basic supplies, this influx of numbers would be catastrophic.
Even if most of the refugees were legitimately fleeing life under the Castro dictatorship, how could we possibly be certain that agents from Castro’s intelligence service were not present among them? Could we be sanguine that Islamofascist terrorists posing as Hispanic refugees would not be there in an attempt to disrupt the detention facilities?
These questions are foremost in the minds of the command and its troopers who have often been maligned and regularly unappreciated by American politicians and the public. Yet they continue to serve, to fulfill the mission assigned them to the best of their abilities while out there on the horizon threats loom that can make their lives extremely unpleasant.
This is your American military at its best, defending all of us.
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