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The dark stain of Guantanamo

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
June 8, 2006
Baltimore Sun

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“Guantanamo is not a spa, but neither is it an inhumane torture camp. It is a prison, and as prisons go, it is well-run and humane. Before you join the ‘close it down’ chorus, look past the spin to the facts.” So Colleen P. Graffy, America’s deputy assistant secretary for public diplomacy, tried to contain the global backlash over U.S. practices at Guantanamo and other prison camps.

In the days after the Cold War and before 9/11, only Haitian or Cuban migrants picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and plunked down at Guantanamo talked much about conditions at the U.S. base in Cuba. They focused more on why they left home and their anxiety about where they’d go next—almost always the United States, they hoped—and voiced an occasional complaint about bad food and hot sun. The rest of the world saw the base as an American concern, and not a particularly important one.

Those days are over.

There’s a new storyline emanating from Gitmo. Since 2005, the United States has released a slow stream, 290 of at least 759 detainees, imprisoned since their capture in Afghanistan or Pakistan after the 2001 attacks. And they’ve lived to tell the tale.

The British play Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, written by released detainee Moazzam Begg and Guardian journalist Victoria Brittain, has made its rounds beyond London, around the world, and to theaters in New York and Washington. The authors recently signed with an American publisher to release Enemy Combatant: A British Muslim’s Journey to Guantanamo and Back.

The French house Denoel will publish and has sold rights to Germany and Italy for Nizar Sassi’s Prisonnier 325, Delta Camp. It is described by the publisher as a “mind-blowing journey” to the “most secret prison in the world” of a bored twenty-something son of Tunisian parents, rattling around in a Paris suburb. He unwittingly is lured to an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan, purportedly just to blow off steam by playing with guns, not a terrorist bone in his body. The movie rights can’t be far behind.

And it isn’t only the real detainees whose memoirs will tie the words torture and America in the global lexicon. Americans have come to accept their bad rep. Has anyone protested that the hit U.S. television drama Lost depicts Sayid, an Iraqi, as emotionally destroyed because he was ordered by Americans to use torture during the Persian Gulf war?

The torture, abuse, unlawful detention and wholly un-American practices now associated with Guantanamo, Iraq and the war on terror will continue to seep into popular culture.

Even if the released detainees never return to the battlefield, the memoirs of these Guantanamo alumni will deepen a visceral reflex, once confined to places such as Cuba but now gone global, to revile the United States.

Even before the 1959 revolution, Guantanamo was a symbol for Cubans of American imperialism, although it was slowly losing its pungency for Latin Americans and even within Cuba. After the Cold War, Pentagon planners debated whether to mothball the base or otherwise reduce U.S. responsibilities there. America had returned Subic Bay to Philippine sovereignty in 1992. Why, many argued, not Guantanamo?

Such a concession to a communist government was plainly unthinkable. But by the end of the decade, the base had become entirely humanitarian, housing refugees.

Officers from the United States and Cuba met monthly to monitor safety and security procedures at the gate separating the U.S. base from Cuban territory. Both countries routinely cited this cooperation as evidence of possibilities should the United States and Cuba broaden cooperation to other mutual security interests. The base became an opportunity for the two countries to forge a more pragmatic relationship.

When the United States began using Guantanamo in 2002 to interrogate and jail suspected terrorists, the Cuban government showed a wary respect to the Bush administration. In a remarkable display of realpolitik, Defense Minister Raul Castro, after a visit to the Cuban side of the base, offered that his government would return to U.S. custody any detainee caught attempting to escape to Cuban jurisdiction.

But Guantanamo is now permanently a symbol of malignant U.S. power, not only in Latin America but well beyond America’s historic sphere.

In a chapter of history pregnant with irony and meaning that even the most anti-American of observers could not have hoped to invent, a strategically useless military base on a strategically insignificant island in a region of the world that only a few years ago was poised to embrace U.S. leadership and values has become—for Latin Americans, the international community and, increasingly, U.S. citizens—a Jungian archetype of what’s gone wrong with America.

It is now impossible to imagine that the base might again revert to being an innocuous and largely forgotten territorial anomaly. America will have to leave if we want the world to forget what was done in the name of our national security there.

That is the tragedy of the misbegotten war on terror: It has been conducted in such a manifestly un-American way that we must make a territorial concession if we are to encourage the world’s support for us again. How can that be a model of national security?

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