Where the Wild Things Are
Not everyone at Guantanamo is a terrorist.

The Wall Street Journal, Friday, September 15, 2006

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba--What I'm doing here is obvious enough: I've come with a group of journalists to see the detention facility that holds some 450 of America's deadliest enemies. But what is this place doing here? How is it that the U.S. has a military base on sovereign territory of a communist dictatorship with which we have not had diplomatic relations in 45 years?

The U.S. Navy has anticipated the question. Accompanying us for the 20-minute boat ride across the bay, from the airfield to the main base on the windward (east) side, is Capt. Mark Leary, the base commander, who gives us a history lesson.

One of the antiwar crowd's claims about Guantanamo turns out to be true, if taken literally: Not everyone here is a terrorist. In fact, the base has undergone a population boom in the past five years. "Prior to 9/11, there were 2,300 folks on this base, total," Capt. Leary says. "Right now we're about 7,700." This count includes U.S. servicemen from all four military branches and the Coast Guard; their families; civilian workers, many from Jamaica and the Philippines; and 56 "special category residents"--Cubans who lived on the base and decided to stay when the communist regime closed the gates. It doesn't include the detainees.

The base, of course, predates Fidel Castro's rule. In 1903, after the Spanish-American War, the U.S. leased the mouth of the bay and land on either side, a total of 45 square miles, for an annual rent of $2,000 in gold coins. This went up to $4,085, payable by check, in a 1934 treaty, which also affirmed that the lease was perpetual and could not be broken without American consent. The Castro regime denies the legitimacy of the lease and refuses to cash the rent checks.

Even before taking power, Castro had tried to disrupt the operations of the base. In June 1958, guerrillas led by his brother Raul kidnapped 29 sailors and Marines as they returned from leave in Cuba and held them hostage for three weeks. On Jan. 1, 1959, the day he seized power, Fidel Castro banned U.S. personnel from Cuban territory outside the base.

Civilians here evacuated during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and in 1964 Castro cut off the water supply. "We actually dismantled a desalinization plant that was in Point Loma, Calif., and brought it here and reassembled it in about six months," says Capt. Leary. "It was a huge engineering accomplishment."

Today the 17.4-mile base perimeter--the last Cold War frontier outside Korea--is lined with Cuban mines. There is only one land entrance, a gate in the northeastern corner of the base, through which three elderly Cubans commute for their base jobs. "There used to be several hundred," Capt. Leary says. "About two years after [Castro] took over, he said no more commuters. There was a significant uprising on the other side, because they were very good jobs. So he said, OK, no new commuters."

Of the trio who remain, "two of them are in their 80s; the youngest is 75." Technically, "one of them works for the auto-skills center, one works for public works and one works for supply as a logistician." But their main duty is distributing pension benefits to retirees back in Cuba. "They're actually carrying cash across the fence line every two weeks," Capt. Leary says. "All of them would like to retire, and as soon as we can get an electronic means of paying them . . . we'll be able to let those folks retire."

Despite the diplomatic freeze between Washington and Havana, "we do have military-to-military relations with the Cubans, and have had such for the last 10 years," Capt. Leary explains. He meets each month with his Cuban counterpart, also a navy captain, and their negotiations are often productive. "When we first started flying detainees in at night, after very long flights, [pilots] used to have to turn right at the fence line, . . . only about 1.2 miles from the end of the runway--not a problem for small tactical aircraft; a little bit more shaky for larger, cargo-type aircraft." Capt. Leary asked the Cubans for "about a five-mile extension . . . to make a more normal approach," and they agreed. The Cubans have also allowed medical-evacuation aircraft to fly across the width of the island.

As we get off the boat, Rear Adm. Harry Harris, who runs the detention camp, points out one of Guantanamo's most interesting inhabitants, a rock iguana. It stands motionless on the pier, greenish-gray and perhaps 4 feet long. The iguana is the base mascot; later, at the Naval Exchange store, I buy T-shirts depicting a "Slow Iguana Xing" sign, along with a stuffed toy iguana for a young boy of my acquaintance.

In May 2005, according to a Pentagon report, a detainee grabbed an iguana, then struck a guard with its detached tail. He might have run afoul of the Endangered Species Act, under which the iguana is listed as "threatened." That law does not apply beyond the base, where iguanas are hard to find--because, Adm. Harris says, "Cubans eat 'em."

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