I went to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO) with no expectations, no preconceived notions and an open mind. Of course, I had heard all the criticisms, opinions, and negative media coverage but as always, I wanted to see it for myself and form my own opinion. So after five days on the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, I feel like I have a pretty good feel for the place and an opinion that may surprise many people.
First, I want to state a few facts to dispel a few common misconceptions and misinformation that people have about Guantanamo Bay. The Naval Station has been around since the turn of the 20th century and was not formed as a result of Fidel Castro, The Cuban Missile Crisis or the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Also, the Bay of Pigs was not at Guantanamo Bay-it was in another part of Cuba.
When President Obama signed an order to close down Guantanamo Bay on his first day in office in 2009; he was attempting to shut down the detention center, not the Naval Station. Guantanamo Bay Naval Station will still be around regardless of whether the detention center is ever shut down or not.
Guantanamo Bay is divided into two parts; Naval Station and JTF or Joint Task Force; meaning all branches of the military working together. In order to get onto the JTF side of the island you need a special badge and clearance. I was able to tour the JTF side of the island and see the camps and detention centers from the outside-not inside-I saw no detainees.
Finally, and probably most important, is that according to multiple people I spoke with, nowadays the detainees at Guantanamo Bay are treated better than most soldiers on island. They receive excellent healthcare, food and are generally treated incredibly well: especially as some detainees are some of the world’s worst people. If they were to be held in federal prison, they would never receive the same treatment. Some detainees that have been transferred have begged to go back to GTMO.
Additionally, the detainees abuse the guards. Almost always unreported, detainees are known to go to the bathroom in their hands and throw it at the guards. They are also known to throw their own waste in other manners and spit at guards. They verbally abuse the guards and the guards are expected to basically take it.
Much of this special treatment is a result of the highly publicized and horrific prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib (Iraq) and GTMO in the past so they are now, seemingly, overcompensating to avoid bad public relations. However, the public doesn’t realize that it goes both ways and again, some of these detainees are accused of and committed the worst crimes ever against America including 9/11 and the USS Cole bombing.
Finally, before I start talking about my actual experience in Guantanamo Bay, I will also state that I worked in One World Trade Center and lost many friends and former colleagues in 9/11. I had hoped to be able to attend some of the 9/11 hearings but the dates didn’t work out.
While I try to be very fair and unbiased in what I am saying here in this article, I have a lot of anger toward the 9/11 terrorists held at GTMO. This is America and everyone is entitled to a fair trial but if they are guilty, I hope they get what they deserve and the families of my fallen friends can finally get some closure.
When you fly into Guantanamo Bay, Cuba there is a feeling of excitement and anticipation that is unlike many places I’ve traveled to. Guantanamo Bay is one of those places that there is so much chatter about that you don’t know what’s what and I was very excited to find out for myself what it’s really like.
You land at the airport on the leeward side of the bay. After clearance, you take a ferry to the windward side of the bay. This is where I met my sponsor, got my rental car and checked into my hotel; which is basically a townhouse called Caravella East located directly across from the elementary school.
I spent most of my first day driving around the island getting my bearings. Guantanamo Bay is not actually an island but everyone on base calls it the island. Obviously, Cuba is an island and GTMO is a bay that is pretty much completely cut off from Cuba and the border is clearly defined by a fortified and monitored fence line.
My sponsor arranged a dinner for me to meet people on the base at O’Kelly’s; which dubs itself as the only Irish pub on communist soil. The food is actually pretty good bar food and the portions are massive. It also acts as a Pizza Hut.
As far as restaurants in Guantanamo Bay, there are a few options. As I mentioned there is a Pizza Hut. There is also a McDonald’s, 2 Subway’s (one in town and one at the airport), a Taco Bell and an Asian place akin to a Panda Express that are both in the bowling alley. There is also a coffee/ice cream place called Caribbean Coffee and Cream or CCC where they serve Starbucks coffee. There are also a few galleys that serve food and a few other restaurants that I didn’t try.
Most local people buy food at the Navy Exchange; which is essentially the downtown. It is also home to a Subway, the bank, credit union, barbershop, and a few stores for clothes, etc. It is the hub of the island and the main lifeline.
Guantanamo Bay is made up of military personnel, civilians and third country nationals or foreign nationals. Foreign nationals, mainly Jamaicans and Filipinos from what I saw and met, do the majority of the menial jobs around the island. They work the stores, restaurants and other jobs equivalent to those. They are housed together and seem to live pretty well on base.
Different groups of the military live in different housing barracks as well. Some are nicer than others and in better locations. Many officers with families and civilian contractors live in pretty nice houses.
I happened to be in Guantanamo Bay during something called the ‘Tour of Homes”. This was actually really cool. Many of the officers, including the base commander opened their homes up for those that bought tickets to come have a look and chat. I personally thought it was a great way to get to know the island and the actual, real people that live there. I really enjoyed it and let me tell you, some of the people on GTMO live very well!
I mentioned I rented a car. A car is pretty much necessary for anyone visiting Guantanamo Bay. While it is a small place at some 45 square miles, it is still big enough where you need to have a car. The speed limit is pretty much 25mph around the island and there are police patrolling the streets.
I felt very free to basically do what I wanted around GTMO. I really had no idea what to expect. I have been on military bases before but again, there is something about Guantanamo Bay. Of course I wasn’t allowed to photograph certain things and there are a few areas that are totally off limits but nothing too crazy.
After my experience, I can say confidently that Guantanamo Bay is a nice place. The military, civilian and foreign nationals that make up the base are all very nice and they live well together in all that I could see. Everyone is exceptionally friendly and was very nice and accommodating to me.
Each morning I woke up early and hiked around the island. There are several hikes or at least variations of the same hikes that you can do. The weather is very hot in GTMO so it’s best to do it early or late. I would always come across people on the trail and we would stop and chat and they’d recommend trails to take, etc.
Guantanamo Bay reminds me of Arizona in a lot of ways. It is very desert-like in that it is surprisingly pretty dry (considering you’re in the tropics); there are a lot of cacti and other dry shrubs plus iguanas all over the place. It honestly looked like Tucson, Arizona in a lot of places. I don’t know what else to say about the weather except it was very pleasant and without a doubt, it was a nice temperature change from Antarctica!
The two highlights for me aside from simply being in Guantanamo Bay were spending a day sailing around the bay and giving a lecture to the high school.
I went out on a small sailboat with my sponsor and some others who had been in GTMO for years and knew the place very well. I say it was a highlight, not for the great sailing because to be honest it wasn’t that great-but for the conversation. I was able to freely ask questions about Guantanamo Bay to honest people who had been there for more than a decade in one case. It was really eye opening and fun at the same time.
It was funny because originally I was supposed to give a lecture to the base that was open to anyone to come and listen and ask questions. I still did that at the Windjammer; which is the events hall on island. However, at the tour of homes, I met a teacher from the high school who asked me to come speak to the high school kids the following day; which was Monday. I happily accepted.
I love talking to kids, both high school and college. I have made no secret that I never traveled as a kid and that study abroad my junior year of college changed the course of my life and opened up my eyes.
I feel like I can really relate to kids and talk their language in a way that makes it interesting to them. It is seriously the most rewarding thing that I do. WT Sampson High School is a unique school, obviously with where it is located in GTMO. The kids are very worldly already in many cases. However, I tried to stress to them how they can do whatever they want and to learn as much as they can and basically showed them that I was no different than them 15 years ago.
In all my wildest dreams, I never thought I would do today what I am doing or have done. It blows my mind to think about it and if I can do extraordinary things then anyone can.
The best thing about it was after I finished talking, the kids had hundreds of questions-literally. I speak to a lot of kids but never have I had a group so engaged and interested. It made me really happy and I was thrilled to stay after and take pictures with several of them and answer personal questions they had but didn’t want to ask in front of the group. It was great and I am grateful for the opportunity.
For me, these will be the lasting memories of Guantanamo Bay: talking to the kids and dispelling a lot of myths and misinformation about GTMO in my own mind and hopefully informing others who read this to form their own informed opinion. People will always have their own opinions about what side of the fence they stand on regarding GTMO. But you must realize this-Guantanamo Bay houses some of the worst people on the planet and does so with the best care possible.
If they were to close the detention center, where else will the detainees go? Nobody wants to take them: nations, states or even their native countries in many cases. Look what happened when President Obama tried to close the detention center back in 2009-no countries would take the detainees. Many detainees don’t even want to leave GTMO for fear of what happens to them after they leave.
So while the idea of GTMO may be controversial or appalling to some people, who are often misinformed-it seems to me to be necessary albeit very expensive for taxpayers. That is part of the dichotomy of Guantanamo Bay.
Disclaimer and Acknowledgements: I have no affiliation with the US military or any US governmental organization. I was invited to Guantanamo Bay and entered legally after a background check. I was not paid and I paid all my own expenses including flights, housing, rental car and food. All statements in this article are my words and I was not coerced in any way by anyone. These are my views based on what I saw, experienced and was told from multiple independent sources I came into contact with in Guantanamo Bay.
This trip to Guantanamo Bay was not an easy thing to arrange and there are many people to thank for making it happen. First and foremost, I want to thank my sponsor. From the bottom of my heart, I appreciate what you did getting me to GTMO, introducing me to everyone, arranging the lecture and everything else. GTMO will miss you and best of luck on your next endeavor!
I also want to thank the Commanding Officer of Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, Captain JR Nettleton for having me at your house, for great conversation and for helping me out with a few contacts. I truly appreciate your kindness and help and I am happy to come back anytime.