Guantánamo Bay Naval Base is best known now as home to the controversial military prison housing what the U.S. government claims are some of the most notorious terrorists in the world.
But it’s much more than that.
It’s a 45-square-mile spit of sand on Cuba’s eastern shores that the United States has occupied by treaty since 1903, and now looks a lot like a small American city with a church, golf course, school, hospital, and fast-food restaurants, McDonald’s and Taco Bell. Over the years, the base has fought drug smuggling operations in the Caribbean, housed Cuban laborers since the 1960s, provided temporary shelter to thousands of Haitians and Cubans fleeing their countries to escape repressive regimes, and held the dubious title as the only U.S. military base located in a communist country.
The prison is found on the other end of town.
But the Obama administration, and the Bush administration before it, has so far weathered sustained pressure to lift the veil of secrecy that shrouds daily life for the 149 detainees currently housed at the prison camp. While overtures have been made to close the camp, legal and Congressional maneuvering has put obstacles in place.
On Monday night, the University of Miami’s Office of Civic and Community Engagement hosted a panel discussion about Guantánamo and its future. The discussion kicked off the presentation of the Guantánamo Public Memory Project, a traveling exhibit that aims to bring public awareness to the naval base and the policies it shapes.
Moderated by Miami Herald correspondent Carol Rosenberg, who has covered Guantánamo for years, panelists included School of Law Professor Christina M. Frohock, immigration lawyer Ira Kurzban, Captain Pete Husta of the U.S. Southern Command, and Madhya Husta, an advocate for the Cuban laborers brought to Guantánamo in the 1960s.
“Guantánamo, as we know it today, is shaped by a number of legal decisions,” said Rosenberg.
Inside the College of Arts and Sciences Gallery, huge informational banners adorned the walls, part of the traveling exhibit. The banners, in photos and text, explore the history of GTMO, and the exhibit also includes interactive videos and other multimedia elements. The exhibit will be on display until October 31.
Frohock, who teaches about legal issues in Guantánamo, said she became interested in the naval base “out of curiosity” when the Haitian and Cuban rafters were being detained there.
Constitutional issues have been raised over the years as to whether U.S. laws pertained to the Cuban and Haitian migrants, or to the terrorists who were transported there following 9/11 and during the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When the debate on Capitol Hill centers on closing Guantánamo, the panelists agreed, it refers to the military prison, and not the naval base. The location is a strategic windfall for the U.S.
Pete Husta, who has served at Guantánamo, said that once a month the top U.S. and Cuban military commanders meet at the fence separating Cuba from the naval base. It’s the only legal meeting held between the U.S. and Cuban military.
“They sit at the fence and talk about baseball,” Husta said with a smile.
Peter Howard can be reached at 305-284-8085.