Text & Photos: Julie Schwietert Collazo
If you’d have asked me two months ago whether I agreed that we should close Guantanamo, I would have said “Yes!” without thinking. Like many Americans and citizens of the world, I viewed the US naval base and detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba as a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the current administration and its foreign policy and defense decisions.
I probably knew more about Guantanamo than your ordinary American. I knew that the base was booty my country acquired (or commandeered) in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War. I knew it was the oldest US naval base outside the continental US. I knew about the treaty governing the base’s perpetual lease, that it had temporarily housed both Cuban and Haitian refugees in the mid 1990s, and that Fidel Castro has allegedly never cashed any of the annual $4,085 checks the US drafts to pay rent on this patch of land in southeast Cuba.
I also knew that Guantanamo–American shorthand for the base–is actually a town in Cuba, a dusty, desert town where 30 year olds look a good 20 years older.
Like most Americans, I also knew that my government had used Guantanamo Bay as a legal black hole in the global War on Terror, converting facilities on the base into housing for “detainees” who are considered to be dangerous “enemy combatants,” and, at one point, using those facilities to conduct “interrogations” in which activities like waterboarding, hooding, and extreme sensory deprivation raised questions about what torture really is and whether “civilized” Americans would use it as a policy instrument.
So would I have said “Close Guantanamo” two months ago?
But then I went there.
President-elect Barack Obama, for whom I voted and who I support unequivocally, has articulated his commitment to close Guantanamo Bay as soon as possible. In a November 12 Washington Post article, staff writer Peter Finn reported:
The Obama administration will launch a review of the classified files of the approximately 250 detainees at Guantanamo Bay immediately after taking office, as part of an intensive effort to close the U.S. prison in Cuba, according to people who advised the campaign on detainee issues.
As of late October, when I visited, 255 men were still being held at the US military’s Joint Task Force (JTF) detention facility at Guantanamo.
Many of the men being held–referred to euphemistically as “detainees”–were removed from their home countries and transported to this island, where they have lived in captivity for several years.
They have been awaiting trial and due process (hell, most of them have been awaiting formal charges) ever since, with few ever seeing their day in court. Those who have could legitimately question whether justice was served, as military judges are appointed to panels that hear detainees’ cases.
A good number of the men have actually been cleared for release by an administrative review board. But here’s the problem: They have nowhere to go. According to sources on the base, the men who could leave Guantanamo Bay today can’t go anywhere because no country wants them. It’s too dangerous for them to go home. Yet no other country is stepping up and volunteering to give them temporary or permanent shelter.
There are things we can’t understand unless we see them.
Things we can understand intellectually or emotionally, but fail to grasp entirely until we’re staring them–literally–in the face.
And that’s the case with Guantanamo.
It sounds logical enough.
But as with economic bail outs and battlefront pull outs, closing Guantanamo is only easy if you’re thinking about it from afar.
In the abstract.
When you start to think about the bigger picture, the longer term, the human consequences, and–especially–when you see it… nothing is quite as easy as it seems.
Do I want to see the detention facility closed?
But not unless we have a realistic plan in place to transfer men whose true lives are poorly understood into societies where they have a chance to live. Not unless we’re ready to acknowledge that the complete miscarriage of justice for which President Bush is responsible is likely to have effects that we’re not remotely prepared to handle.
Closing Guantanamo is the easy part. It’s what comes after that is hard… and which no one is talking about.