January 2023 marked 21 years since the opening of Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp. A torture site operated by the United States since the start of the so-called “War on Terror,” Guantánamo Bay’s history is riddled with human rights abuses, coverups, false imprisonment and more. It is a device of the Bush era that has been preserved by every president despite widespread public outrage and calls to shut it down by numerous human rights organizations.
Last month, 150 human rights organizations signed onto a letter organized by the Center for Victims of Torture to close Guantánamo Bay.
This letter, sent to President Joe Biden, states: “Among a broad range of human rights violations perpetrated against predominantly Muslim communities over the last two decades, the Guantánamo detention facility — built on the same military base where the United States unconstitutionally detained Haitian refugees in deplorable conditions in the early 1990s — is the iconic example of the abandonment of the rule of law.” The letter also mentions the cost of maintaining the torture camp: “$540 million per year, making Guantánamo the most expensive detention facility in the world.”
The camp is not only a testament to U.S. racism from the “War on Terror” era, but the camp’s entire history is rooted in colonialism and disregard for international law.
Guantánamo Bay, which sits on occupied Cuban soil, was originally invaded and occupied by Spain in the late 15th century. Its bloody occupation started with the very arrival of Christopher Columbus in Cuba. When the Spanish-American War broke out, Spain was forced to hand over control of its occupied territories, which included Cuba, to the United States.
The U.S. government has since maintained an illegal occupation of Guantánamo Bay. In typical fashion, Washington decided to maintain a large military presence in Cuba, consolidating most of its force into Guantánamo Bay. Washington stated its reason for maintaining a military force on the island was to help defend the independence of Cuba.
In reality, the United States helped prop up a puppet regime that would remain loyal to Washington’s interests. This included the installation and political backing of dictator Fulgencio Batista, who was later overthrown by the Cuban Revolution with the leadership of Fidel Castro.
To this day, the Cuban government demands the return of the occupied Guantánamo Bay area. Fidel Castro commented on the base in 2009: “Not respecting Cuba’s will is an arrogant act and an abuse of immense power against a little country.”
Current Cuban President Diaz-Canel has also condemned the failure to shut down Guantánamo. In 2022, he tweeted, “There are already 20 years of scandalous abuses in illegally occupied Cuban territory in the bay of #Guantánamo by the biggest violators of [human rights] in the world.”
Human rights abuses
The United States wasted no time in filling the detention camp. Within weeks of the installation opening, Washington moved scores of illegally detained prisoners from multiple countries into the camp. Prisoners’ ages ranged from as young as 13 to as old as 75. They were wrongfully detained from multiple countries — Pakistan, Yemen, Kenya, Libya, Palestine and more. Many of these prisoners did not have any charges against them. To this day, some of them don’t — and are still detained.
Since the prison camp exists outside the United States, Washington has been able to carry out criminal acts of torture and abuse that violate scores of international laws. This is why it refuses to return this illegally occupied land back to its rightful owner, Cuba. Washington can effectively evade all international laws.
A group of independent human rights experts commented on the conditions at Guantánamo at a United Nations Human Rights Council meeting in 2022: “Guantánamo Bay is a site of unparalleled notoriety, defined by the systematic use of torture, and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment against hundreds of men brought to the site and deprived of their most fundamental rights.”
“Confessions” extracted from prisoners resulting in charges were done so under extreme duress, using torture as the main form of investigation — a method proven to not lead to truthful confessions; rather prisoners just say what they believe the interrogators want them to say to make the torture stop. This allows investigators to make their own conclusions, ones that justify wars under false pretenses.
According to the infamous report on CIA torture methods from the Senate Committee on Intelligence: “The CIA itself determined from its own experience with coercive interrogations, that such techniques ‘do not produce intelligence,’ ‘will probably result in false answers’ and had historically proven to be ineffective. Yet these conclusions were ignored.”
The methods of torture were horrendous. These methods included being waterboarded from unseen interrogators, detainees being forced into small boxes for hours, interrogators beating detainees to the point of severe trauma and brain damage, being forced into uncomfortable positions while being cuffed for extended periods of time and more.
Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was detained for 14 years without charge, wrote a book about his experience. He described how the guards “deprived him of sleep, stuffed his clothing with ice during a nighttime boat ride meant to to convince him he was headed to an even worse place, threatened his life and threatened his mother with rape.”
Abu Zubaydah, another detainee, describes how the sleep-deprivation tactics lasted for days: “Following the period chained to the bed, they sat me on a plastic chair totally naked and chained me very tight …sometimes they would leave me for days on the chair. I was deprived of sleep for a long period. I don’t know how long, maybe two or three weeks or more. It felt like an eternity to the point that I found myself falling asleep despite the water being thrown at me by the guard who constantly shook me to keep me awake. I couldn’t sleep even for a second.”
The targeting of detainees itself was racist from the start. But the racism also appeared in the form of torture: prison guards found ways to humiliate prisoners by desecrating their copies of the Quran, the most sacred book for Muslims. One instance involved a guard urinating on a detainee’s copy, another case involved guards writing profanities on a copy.
Guantánamo Bay has seen more than 780 prisoners, all from Muslim-majority countries. From their targeting, to their torture, to the very acts of war carried out from their forced confessions, Guantánamo Bay serves as not only a vehement mark of shame for the U.S. government, but also a stark reminder about the dehumanizing racism Washington embraces.
New revelations and seeking justice
Twenty-one years later, Guantánamo is still operating, despite multiple organizations, countries and public officials calling for its closure. In 2008, President Obama announced he would close the detention center at the start of his first term in 2009. An executive order was signed, but this action was not carried through, even in Obama’s second term.
The President of Cuba at that time, Raul Castro, said that closing down the torture camp wasn’t enough — the land must be returned to Cuba and the illegal blockade that has been unjustly imposed on Cuba since the revolution must be lifted: “The re-establishment of diplomatic relations is the start of a process of normalizing bilateral relations, but this will not be possible while the blockade still exists, while they don’t give back the territory illegally occupied by the Guantánamo naval base.”
This was at a time when the Obama administration was rolling back harsh restrictions on Cuba, including on travel. Trump then reversed the executive order and returned to the status quo during his presidency. He even added Cuba to the list as a state sponsor of terrorism with no evidence. President Biden, who served as President Obama’s vice president, has yet to take any action to shut down Guantánamo Bay or roll back any Trump era anti-Cuba laws.
There are still many things the public does not yet know about Guantánamo Bay. There are still classified files on torture methods. Equally appalling, no one has yet to face any justice for the numerous human rights violations at the torture camp.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is floating the idea of running for President in 2024, has been revealed to have run torture programs of detainees during his time as a JAG officer. Mansoor Adayfi, a former detainee, recounts his encounter with DeSantis: “Ron DeSantis was there watching us. We were crying, screaming. We were tied to the feeding chair. And that guy was watching that. He was laughing.” He goes onto say, “When I was screaming, I look at him [Ron DeSantis] and he was actually smiling. Like someone who enjoyed it.”
Despite this disturbing revelation, Ron DeSantis has not faced any legal repercussions. The GOP has also not commented on this. Only time will tell which other government officials have had a direct hand in the illegal torture of detainees.
As it stands, there is no plan to close Guantánamo Bay. The Biden administration has released some detainees, but have been mostly silent about the camp’s future. With no plan, Washington is free to continue the illegal capture and detainment of people it considers security threats, subjecting them to torture, humiliation and psychological trauma they will experience for the rest of their lives, even after their release.
There is no question that the camp should be closed and those who had a hand in the detainment and torture should be tried and charged. It is also not enough to just close the detention center. The entire land should be returned to Cuba, as the United States has been illegally occupying it for over a century. Ironically, the United States has constantly accused Cuba of human rights violations, all while running a torture camp that conducts daily atrocities while occupying Cuban soil. There are truly multiple levels to the criminality that is Guantánamo Bay Detention Center.
Everyone that stands for justice and human rights should unite under the demand, shut down Guantánamo Bay and return the land to Cuba!
Feature photo: Detainees upon arrival at Camp X-Ray, Guantánamo Bay, January 2002. Photo credit: Shane T. McCoy, U.S. Navy. Public domain image.