By Anthony Boadle | Reuters
American anti-torture activists who marched through southeastern Cuba to protest the detention of terror suspects at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay had to settle last week for a prayer vigil five miles (8 km) away.
Cuba’s Communist government did not allow the 25 members of the Catholic Worker movement to march to the gates of the U.S. military enclave and demand access to the prisoners.
Instead of jumping at the chance to embarrass its foe, Cuba preferred to avoid an incident in the no-man’s land of barbed wire and mines surrounding the 45-square-mile (117-sq-km) base.
“It’s a very sensitive zone where two enemy armies have faced each other for four decades,” a Cuban official said.
The United States has come under international criticism for abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the Guantanamo detention camp, where some 500 suspected al Qaeda and Taliban fighters have been held for more than three years without trial.
Amnesty International called the Guantanamo prison “the gulag of our time” and said it should be closed. Washington says the prisoners at Guantanamo are dangerous “unlawful combatants” and are treated humanely.
Billboards in Havana denounce the abuses at Abu Ghraib as the work of “fascists,” and President Fidel Castro, who has long railed against the U.S. presence in Guantanamo, accused the Bush administration of turning the naval base into a “concentration camp.”
But on the ground, the Cuban and American military cooperate through daily telephone contacts in securing the perimeter of the base.
“The Cuban military is just loath to have any kind of incidents on that trench line that could result in a heated event,” said Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst for Latin America. “They do not want to challenge the United States military.”
ONLY MCDONALD’s IN CUBA
Cuban tour guides take tourists to a hilltop restaurant overlooking Guantanamo Bay where they can sip mojitos and view the sprawling American base through binoculars.
It is home to more than 9,500 Americans, and the only McDonald’s fast-food restaurant on Cuban territory.
Guantanamo Bay is the oldest U.S. military base on foreign soil, and the only one in a Communist country.
The United States has controlled the entrance to Guantanamo Bay since U.S. troops landed there during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Washington pays Cuba $4,085 a year in rent, but Castro refuses to cash the checks, saying the land was stolen.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, the base was used to house prisoners captured mainly in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon announced in June that defence contractor Halliburton will build a new detention facility and security fence around the base for $30 million.
When Washington announced that the base would be used as a prison camp, Havana did not protest, and remained silent when the first detainees arrived, chained at the feet and manacled.
In “After Fidel,” Latell said Cuba was told in advance that the base was being prepared for detained Islamist militants.
Castro’s younger brother and designated successor, Defence Minister Raul Castro, has said Cuba would return any detainees who escaped.
Cuba allows U.S. military transport planes to use Cuban airspace to avoid accidents when wind directions change, the deputy commander of Cuba’s Eastern Army, Brig. Gen. Jose Solar, said in 2002. Cuba also helped the base by spraying the perimeter against mosquitoes to prevent diseases, he said.
Latell said the cooperation indicated that Raul Castro and senior Cuban military officers may favour improved relations with the United States.
“Where Fidel’s instincts would be to confront and antagonise the United States, Raul’s instinct is to reduce tensions,” Latell said in a telephone interview. “We don’t hear Raul and the generals talking about a concentration camp in Guantanamo.”