Guantanamo: The Guided Tour

Text & Photos: Julie Schwietert Collazo

As President Obama makes good on his promise to close Guantanamo’s detention facility, there’s no better time to help the world understand a bit more about Guantanamo.

To that end, I agreed to an interview with Steven Roll of the Latin American travel blog, Travelojos, which you can read in full here.

And I decided to put together a quick audio slideshow comprised of photos I took while at Guantanamo Bay in October 2008.

Please feel free to share your reactions and ask questions below.

“When I was 31, it was a very good year…”

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo & Julie Schwietert Collazo

As the last two weeks of 2008 spin towards history, I find myself in bitingly cold New York City, where I’m wrapped in at least two layers of clothes by day and sleeping under two comforters at night.

New York has been my home since I moved here in 1999 after graduating from college, accepting an internship, and deciding to stay. It’s a city I love for a thousand reasons at least.

But in 2008, I didn’t spend a lot of time here. It was a very good year for travel–the best yet–and now that I’m finally settling down at home for a period of more than a week, I’m sorting through the year’s (and a 250 GB hard drive’s) photos, stories, and memories.

Here are a few I wanted to share with you….

JANUARY, Cuba/South Carolina, Mexico City, Cuernavaca, Puebla, Tijuana, San Diego, Pacific Coast Highway, and San Francisco:
Francisco and I started the new year apart, he with family in Cuba and I with family in South Carolina.

We met up at our part-time home in Mexico City, made quick trips to Cuernavaca and Puebla, crossed the border, and then drove the Pacific Coast Highway before…

FEBRUARY, New York:
We practiced settling for a while in this city where we met each other and where we both feel at home. We saw a Gonzalo Rubalcaba concert, watched old buildings be demolished and observed the new contour of this city begin to take shape.

MARCH, Mexico City & New York:
A split month, half in el DF and half in New York. In DF, I’m working on an assignment. In NYC, I’m a passionate observer of my own neighborhood.

APRIL, New York, Washington, D.C.:

It’s spring in the city, one of the very best times of year for a New Yorker. But I’m getting restless. I organize a trip to Washington, D.C. for my mom’s birthday.

Francisco and I also meet fellow Matador editor and the amazingly talented photographer, Lola Akinmade. Still, there are stories all around, as there always are, no matter where we are.

MAY, Cuba:

I visit Cuba for the first time since Fidel handed power over to his brother, Raul. Of seven or so visits to Cuba since 2005, this is the most special one, filled with incredible moments.

I interview Chinese Cubans, spend hours with a Cuban musicologist, & work on a documentary about Juan Antonio Picasso.

Francisco’s son and I go to Mariel, where Francisco set off from Cuba in 1980. We visit Cojimar and Hemingway’s home. And I celebrate Mother’s Day with Francisco’s mom and the mother of his son.

JUNE, New Orleans:

Francisco and I meet up in New Orleans to volunteer with the Culinary Corps and write about New Orleans. Seeing the state of New Orleans three years after Hurricane Katrina reminds me why traveling and stories are important & why I believe so passionately in both.

JULY, Colombia:

A full month in Colombia, with the bulk of our time spent in Mompox, where we meet the coolest kids in the world and begin making plans for an after-school program for them.

We also visit Cartagena, Santa Marta, Taganga, and Barranquilla.

AUGUST, Guadalajara, Mexico:
Back home in Mexico, we also visit Guadalajara on assignment. Not only does Sally Rangel and the staff of Villa Ganz set a totally new standard for service and hospitality, we discover that Guadalajara is quite possibly the only city where we’ve enjoyed every single meal we’ve eaten in restaurants. We were also fortunate to participate in and interview others who attended the Iluminemos Mexico march for peace.

SEPTEMBER, Perote and Veracruz, Mexico:

Perote: The town that tourism forgot. Not for long, if we have anything to do with it. Along with our friend, Carmen, we toured the San Carlos prison, visited an ostrich and orchid farm, dreamed about opening a bed and breakfast in an abandoned hacienda in the middle of a corn field at the base of some mountains, and found ancient pottery sherds just littering the side of the road as we drove up into the mountains. We also happened upon a local boxing match.

We drank strong coffee and had my palm read in Veracruz.

OCTOBER, Mexico City & Oaxaca, Mexico; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba:

October was all about connection.

We met Matador member Teresita and her husband, Ibis, at our home in Mexico City, reconnected with my old friend, Arely, and her husband Ivan at an airport restaurant, and visited with weavers at their home and interviewed protesters in Oaxaca.


I also traveled to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to report about the military detention facility there.

I could have spent weeks there. In any event, I have a notebook full of stories that I’d like to write.

NOVEMBER, NYC, Washington, D.C., Chile:

NYC: To vote. Of course.

Washington, D.C.: To blog live from NPR on election night.

Chile: The press trip of a lifetime: 7 days. Santiago, Valparaiso, Punta Arenas, Torres del Paine. Cordero (lamb). But most of all… incredible people: Roberto, Francisco, Andres, Paloma, Carolina… que buenos son!

DECEMBER, Puerto Rico:
Francisco and I moved to Puerto Rico (shuttling back and forth between the island and NYC) in 2005 and left for good last December. While we had no active plans to return for a visit, our friends Wally and Marina asked us if we wanted to take care of their dogs for a couple weeks while they went on a much-needed and deserved vacation.

It was nice to see the sun every morning, to feel it on my skin, to watch as it penetrated just-rained skies and made light shows with rainbows, and to collect the grapefruit it ripened and scattered the ground with.

As visitors, we also went to places we’d never visited as residents, including the small island of Culebra and the town of Guanica, where the US invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War 210 years ago.

*

As I write this, I begin to realize that everything important is left out. It’s the people and the stories, and there’s a hundred folks at least. And for every person, a hundred stories.

I haven’t forgotten a single one of them. The stories are on the way….

Close Guantanamo? Wait Just a Minute.

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?

Yes.

Without hesitation.

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.

Close Guantanamo.

It sounds logical enough.

Easy 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.

Rhetorically.

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?

Yes.

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.

The Happiest Woman at Guantanamo

This week, I’ve been at the US naval base and Joint Task Force Operations command in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

There are dozens of stories to share, and I’ll be writing more about my experiences at Guantanamo both here on CollazoProjects and on the Matador Network in the coming weeks. In fact, you can check out two pieces I’ve already written– Sweet Digs, Harry Potter and the Real Chamber of Secrets, and 5 Things You Should Know About Guantanamo — to start getting a sense of what’s been happening here.

In the meantime, I’d like to introduce you to the happiest woman at Guantanamo.

Sam, the assistant manager of the kitchen responsible for preparing all detainee meals–not to mention galley meals for troopers–is a Korean American contractor who has been working on Guantanamo for five years.

As most terms of service at Guantanamo–military or contractor– are one year or less, Sam definitely has some seniority around here. And though she gets off the base every six months or so for vacation, the island fever that one might expect to set in after so much time here doesn’t seem to affect her in the least.

She’s quite possibly one of the most positive people I’ve met, and the troopers I met confirmed that they’ve never seen her with anything other than a smile. So… meet the happiest woman at Guantanamo, who has no plans to leave any time soon.