Why We Must Close the Guantanamo Gulag
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Travelers to Cuba and music lovers are familiar with the song “Guantanamera”— literally, the girl from Guantánamo. With lyrics by José Martí, the father of Cuban independence, Guantanamera is probably the most widely known Cuban song. But Guantánamo is even more famous now for its U.S. military prison. Where “Guantanamera” is a powerful expression of the beauty of Cuba, “Gitmo” has become a powerful symbol of human rights violations—so much so that Amnesty International described it as "the gulag of our times."
That description can be traced to January 2002, when the base received its first 20 prisoners in shackles. General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned they were "very dangerous people who would gnaw hydraulic lines in the back of a C-17 to bring it down." We now know that a large portion of the 750 plus men and boys held there posed no threat to the United States. In fact, only five percent were captured by the United States; most were picked up by the Northern Alliance, Pakistani intelligence officers, or tribal warlords, and many were sold for cash bounties.
The Guantánamo story starts in 1903, when the U.S. Army occupied Cuba after its war of independence against Spain. The Platt Amendment, which granted the United States the right to intervene in Cuba, was included in the Cuban Constitution as a prerequisite for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the rest of Cuba. That provision provided the basis for the 1903 Agreement on Coaling and Naval Stations, which gave the United States the right to use Guantánamo Bay “exclusively as coaling or naval stations, and for no other purpose.”
In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a new treaty with Cuba that allows the United States to remain in Guantánamo Bay until the U.S. abandons it or until both Cuba and the United States agree to modify their arrangement. According to that treaty, “the stipulations of [the 1903] agreement with regard to the naval station of Guantánamo shall continue in effect.” That means Guantánamo Bay can be used only for coaling or naval stations. Additionally, article III of the 1934 treaty provides that the Republic of Cuba leases Guantánamo Bay to the United States “for coaling and naval stations.” Nowhere in either treaty did Cuba give the U.S. the right to utilize Guantánamo Bay as a prison camp.
It is no accident that President George W. Bush chose Guantánamo Bay as the site for his illegal prison camp. His administration maintained that Guantánamo Bay is not a U.S. territory, and thus, U.S. courts are not available to the prisoners there. But, as the Supreme Court later affirmed, the United States, not Cuba, exercises exclusive jurisdiction over Guantánamo Bay. Amanda Williamson, a spokeswoman in the Red Cross’ Washington office, noted that prisoners at Guantánamo “have been placed in a legal vacuum, a legal black hole.” Amnesty International went further, noting an obvious gap between U.S. rhetoric and practice: "Given the USA's criticism of the human rights record of Cuba, it is deeply ironic that it is violating fundamental rights on Cuban soil, and seeking to rely on the fact that it is on Cuban soil to keep the U.S. courts from examining its conduct."
Although the Convention Against Torture, a treaty the United States has ratified, forbids the use of coercion under any circumstances to obtain information, prisoners released from Guantánamo have detailed assaults, prolonged shackling in uncomfortable positions, sexual abuse, and threats with dogs. Mustafa Ait Idr, an Algerian citizen who was living in Bosnia when he was sent to Guantánamo, charged that U.S. military guards jumped on his head, resulting in a stroke that paralyzed his face. They also broke several of his fingers and nearly drowned him in a toilet. Mohammed Sagheer, a Pakistani cleric, claimed the wardens at Guantánamo used drugs “that made us senseless.” French citizen Mourad Benchellali, released from Guantánamo in July 2004, said, "I cannot describe in just a few lines the suffering and the torture; but the worst aspect of being at the camp was the despair, the feeling that whatever you say, it will never make a difference." Benchellali added, "There is unlimited cruelty in a system that seems to be unable to free the innocent and unable to punish the guilty."