Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Guantamamo Bay. Now there's a place that has had the spotlight of the world's press and public opinion turned upon its beaches and harbour since 2002. Hardly a day passes without comment end editorial, all voicing and debating the pros and cons of "closing Guantanamo." They know what they mean by using that geographical name (at least I hope they do), but I'm willing to bet my bottom dollar that most members of the reading, listening, watching public do not.
You see, Guantanamo has become synonymous in the vox populi with the prison camp established in 2002, essentially to house suspected terrorists and those accused of being (and here's a pretty thing) "enemy combatants."
And I would like to restore the name and image of Guantanamo, without passing political or legal comment upon the internment facility. Because Guantanamo is more, so much more than that. It is a beautiful place, and strategic within US, British and NATO naval operations.
Guantanamo, properly called Guantanamo Bay (and briefly Cumberland Bay, by the British) is the largest harbour in southern Cuba, and was ceded to the United States of America by the Cuban-American Treaty of 1903. The signatories were Tomes Palma, first president of Cuba, and Theodore "Teddy" (but never to his family or friends!) Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth president of the United States. To quote from the Treaty:
"The Republic of Cuba hereby leases to the United States, for the time required for the purposes of coaling and naval stations, the following description of areas of land and water situated in the Island of Cuba..." And so on. It was a permanent lease.
Currently, and I do not believe that I am spilling secrets here, the base has two primary functions. It provides the Unites States Navy and Coastguard with what is termed a "forward projection platform" into the Caribbean and western Atlantic, and, with strong and constant Royal Navy frigate support, Guantanamo provide a coordinating command centre for anti drug smuggling operations ("interdictions") in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.
It is a most beautiful place. With its mangroves, cacti and incredible list of natural bird and fish species, it falls under the category of "paradise." What is encouraging is the amount of money, effort and energy the US Navy put into keeping it that way.
My first visit to GITMO (as it is referred to in the military) was in 1992, when HMS ACTIVE pulled in for rest and recreation, and propeller repairs. To this day I have four distinct memories of the place: (1) The spectacular scenic location. (2) The excellent facilities for personnel on the base. (3) The gracious hospitality of the US Navy in welcoming me and "taking me in." And (4) the reluctance of the Base Chaplain to greet me and meet with me. Apparently he had "problems of his own making," and was shortly to be relieved. So I had the enormous privilege of celebrating the Naval Base "Anglican" Eucharist one Sunday. And many came.
In my five days in this part of paradise I learned many things: That water-skiing was not my natural gift; that bowling was fun, but only after a beer or three; and that actually it is extremely difficult to make a USN officer relax. (And it normally involved alcohol!)
One warm GITMO afternoon, an unholy trinity of HMS ACTIVE's executive staff (The Captain, the XO and myself) were the guests of the Base Senior Medical Officer. (A delightful chap, whose wife was doing something in Wisconsin, if my memory serves, and who had a certain look for his senior nurse, Cheryl. But come to think of it, so did all of us!) Two hours shallow scuba diving, and then lunch.
The burgers were served. There were three containers on the table: Yellow (mustard), red (ketchup) and one green. I took a small squirt from each one and hungrily bit into my lunch. The Captain, who had been delayed, was about to do the same thing when our host, the doctor, put his hand on his arm and said, "Sir! The green bottle is the bug repellent!"
I simply chewed in silence.
Posted by Tim Lewis at 9:13 PM