The detention operation at the US Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba has been a lighting rod for criticism since the first enemy combatants captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere touched down there nearly 10 years ago.
But US involvement in this isolated corner of Cuba dates back a lot further than the opening of the notorious prison camp.
Anchor Lisa Mullins speaks with Harvard University professor Jonathan Hansen about his book “Guantánamo: An American History.” The book details America’s centuries-long fascination with Cuba, from the Founding Fathers plans to expand US commerce via control of Guantanamo Bay to today’s notorious prison for enemy combatants.
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Lisa Mullins : I’m Lisa Mullins and this is The World. The detention facility at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba has been the lightening rod for criticism since the first captured enemy combatants touched down there. That was nearly a decade ago, but the US involvement in this isolated corner of Cuba dates back much further than that and there’s a lot more to the base than a high profile military prison. Harvard University professor Jonathan Hansen offers this lesser known fact: Guantanamo is a rich nature preserve.
Jonathan Hansen: There’s an irony to this great nature preserve that is Guantanamo Bay in which that is most of us can’t go to most of those places because there’s all sorts of unexploded ordnance and, in fact, people say that from time to time they hear explosions and everyone says, “So what was that? Was that a Cuban trying to make their way to the base?” And more often it was a deer, so if you have a nature preserve in which not even the deer are safe then you have to wonder how much of a nature preserve is it really, but it truly is a spectacular place just to visit and, as I say, the bird life is remarkable.
Mullins: A remarkable bird life at Guantanamo is just part of the narrative Jonathan Hansen weaves in his book “Guantanamo: An American History”. Hansen describes how Americas interest in Cuba and Guantanamo Bay in particular dates back to the 1700s. He says the founding fathers beleived that if the United States wanted to become a global trading powerhouse, it needed to control access to the Caribbean Sea and the biggest passage into the Caribbean happens to flow through Guantanamo Bay.
Hansen: We seized the bay from Spain in the opening salvo of the Spanish-American war. We retained the bay during the US occupation of Cuba between 1898 and 1902 and then we forced Cuba to lease us the bay as part of the notorious Platt Amendment the brought formal occupation of Cuba to an end in 1902.
Mullins: Does the United States now pay rent on Guantanamo Bay?
Hansen: So we paid rent on Guantanamo Bay for a while, a laughable little amount.
Mullins: It’s like a dollar a year wasn’t it?
Hansen: It was more than that. I think it was two hundred dollars a year, but Fidel Castro famously has stopped cashing the checks because he thinks that it’s an offense.
Mullins: You know, there’s so much history there and you go into great detail in the book which is fascinating, but in pushing forward, after Nine Eleven, Guantanamo Bay was not the the logical, in fact far from the logical place for a US prison camp or for Afghan detainees.
Hansen: Right, so the Bush administration set it’s eyes Guantanamo in about, starting about December 2001.
Mullins: They knew we were going to have prisoners that we had to put someplace, but they were looking where else? Guam and…
Hansen: They knew they had prisoners, so they were looking at Guam, they were looking at some other areas in the Pacific, for instance, other atolls, they were thinking about keeping them on ship board, they were thinking about keeping them in Afghanistan, though Afghanistan was not stable then and so they looked at Guantanamo because in the 1990s the US had detained up to 85,000 Cubans and Haitians behind barbed wire at Guantanamo under the same justification that Guantanamo was sovereign territory of Cubans hence US constitutional protections, in this case, do process the rightful council did not apply. So they thought, “Maybe we could use Guantanamo again.” The thing is there were people at Guantanamo who thought that this would be a disastrous place to have a detention facility.
Mullins: People who worked there?
Hansen: Mainly a public works officer, of someone who had, in fact, had been in Military Intelligence himself and who knew, as Americans don’t like to admit, that Guantanamo was actually, though it’s a great place to have anchorage, it makes a disastrous naval base in the sense that it is surrounded by Cuban highland and Cubans were able to photograph every single thing that happened there.
Mullins: Every visitor that comes in. You were photographed when you were there.
Hansen: Everything that happened at Guantanamo Bay. I was photographed at Guantanamo Bay and the people getting off the planes to come look at Guantanamo as a potential site were photographed. At Guantanamo Bay the detainees were later photographed getting off the bay, so those factors mitigated against putting the prison there in the words of the public works officer, but also Guantanamo is sort of a strange place. The major airfield which is used now is on the so called “Leeward Point” which is across from the main base and across from now where we hold, that housed Guantanamo Prison, so there’s a transportation problem. Not only that, but the most remarkable thing Guantanamo Bay in my mind is that Guantanamo Bay is an American suburb full of up to say ten to twelve thousand American civilians now and to transport the detainees around the base, say to move them now from the prison itself to the courthouse, you have to take them right through the main streets of the neighborhood.
Mullins: Which has what?
Hansen: They consist of everything that a suburb would consist of. It consists of neighborhoods, of schools, of supermarkets, of administrative headquarters. This is really ironic because if you think about one the main arguments that’s preventing Barrack Obama from moving these detainees to the United States is that it would be unsafe to have these so called terrorists in American cities, in towns and here you have one town that’s literally ripped in half by the movement of these prisoners every time they have to go from the prison to courthouse.
Mullins: But it’s not here.
Hansen: But it’s not here. Right. It’s in Cuba and it’s on an island.
Mullins: Well, Donald Rumsfeld, the Defense Secretary at the time said that Guantanamo Bay was the least worst place. Was it just that it was not here in the United States? I mean what made it the least worst place and therefore suitable for a prison camp?
Hansen: Well the major argument, beside the fact that it was in Cuba, that it was highly defense-able and maybe one of, the most defense-able place in the world right now because South-East Cuba is very isolated. Anyway, we have this base, it’s been ours about which Cuba has nothing to say, especially since the rise of Castro. So it’s extremely, I say, and symbolic I think that’s very nice and also it is this place where, as I’ve said, US, Cuban Law, and International Law are thought not to apply and John Yoo, the man worked in George Bush’s Office of Legal Council, insisted that despite the fact that courts had flirted with extending constitutional protections to Guantanamo, he insisted that that would not be the case this time, so that’s the main reason. It was a place where they could do whatever they wanted.
Mullins: So Jonathan, if that’s the case then why is that you think the current detention operation at Guantanamo should remain open.
Hansen: What I have argued is that over the last ten years, humans rights lawyers, excellent journalists have introduced a modicum of transparency and habeas corpus constitutional protection at Guantanamo Bay and that it might be better to keep the detainees in a place where you have that than in other places where we have none of that.
Mullins: Historian Jonathan Hansen, professor at Harvard University. The book is called “Guantanamo: An American History”. Nice to talk to you.
Hansen: Thank you.
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