Al-Qaeda in Cuba

Guantanamo's New Guests Get Little Attention in Havana

Harboring terrorists: U.S. military police watch detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (Photo: Shane T. McCoy/U.S. Department of Defense).

For years, the U.S. government has accused Cuba of harboring terrorists. Today, the U.S. government is harboring terrorists in Cuba.

Approximately 110 fighters captured in Afghanistan, members of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, have been transferred to the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since Jan. 10, 2002. So what does the Cuban press—which has been protesting the U.S. occupation of Guantanamo Bay for decades—have to say about Washington's plans to detain the world's most high-security inmates there? Surprisingly enough, not much.

Cuba's government-owned media barely mentioned the U.S. operation until Jan. 12, when the Cuban Communist Party's daily newspaper Granma ran a front-page official declaration outlining the government's position. Lacking the stinging invective that often features in such statements on U.S. policy, the declaration offered a brief history of the base's existence and its changing role in U.S.-Cuban relations, including its most recent usage as an emergency refugee camp and detention center. In a moderated, somewhat subdued tone, the statement claimed that the hostilities that once characterized U.S.-Cuban discussions about the base have since given way to "a climate of mutual respect" on both sides of Guantanamo's fences. Cuba, the statement declared accordingly, will not object to U.S. plans to hold suspected terrorists there:

"We will not create any obstacles to the development of the [U.S. military] operation, though the transfer of foreign prisoners of war by the U.S. government to the base—located on a space in our territory upon which we have been deprived of any jurisdiction—was not part of the agreement that the base was founded upon," the statement read.

But the government's statement went beyond such reluctant expressions of acquiescence, offering medical assistance and a vow to maintain the sanitary conditions of the areas surrounding the base:

"...Should it become necessary, we're willing to cooperate with any medical assistance, and pledge to maintain the sanitary conditions in the areas surrounding the base under our control against plagues and diseases, in addition to any other useful, constructive, and humanitarian way possible," the Cuban government's statement concluded.

The mention of "plagues" in the statement is most likely a reference to a recent outbreak of dengue fever on the island, and the warlike eradication campaign that the government has since launched against the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, which transmits the disease.

Perhaps distracted by the campaign against mosquitoes, many Cubans weren't even aware that the first groups of Al-Qaeda prisoners had already arrived. Regardless of how they felt about their own government, those Cubans who were willing to be interviewed displayed a unanimous sense of resignation about the fact that the United States would simply do as it pleased with the base.

"The Americans can do whatever they want over there, it's their land now. Why should Cuba make a fuss over something it has no control over?" said Osmani Mendez, a 33-year-old mechanic. "If you sign an agreement with someone, you can't go back later and say 'no, wait, I was drunk when I signed it.'"

As to whether or not they considered the Al-Qaeda prisoners a threat to national security, many Cubans seemed satisfied by their government's repeated assurances that an increase in domestic security forces around the base would not be necessary. Raul Castro, chief of Cuba's armed forces, hosted a press conference overlooking the U.S. base on Saturday, Jan. 19, in which he reiterated much of what was contained in the declaration. He also added a promise that Cuba would immediately return to U.S. custody any prisoners that might escape from the base, but emphasized that Cuba was confident in the tight security at Guantanamo.

In addition to the increased presence of U.S. military guards at Guantanamo Bay, the base is already surrounded by armed soldiers from two countries, a minefield, and a wall of cacti.

"I'm not worried about the prisoners there. The government always keeps us well informed about what we need to know, what's good and bad, or what actions we need to take. We trust that our government is always acting in our best interests," Felicia Valdés Díaz, a 50-year-old office worker, said without irony.

Though few were willing to speculate openly, some Cubans attributed the government's stance to the somewhat schizoid relationship Cuba has had with the United States in recent months. On the one hand, growing food sales and increased support in the U.S. Congress for an easing of the U.S. embargo seem to portend a thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations. But on the other hand, the official line from Washington remains vehemently critical of the Cuban government, and a rapidly growing number of U.S. citizens are being fined for visiting the island without a license from the U.S. Treasury Department.

"The Cuban government is being cautious these days because they're afraid of what the Bush administration is capable of doing, particularly now that they've declared their 'War on Terrorism,'" Yamila Torres Cruz, a 22-year-old university student, theorized. "Cuba's also trying to improve its contacts with U.S. congressional and business leaders and its public image in the United States, so that Americans will stop thinking that Cuba is some kind of enemy."

"That's politics, I try to stay out of that" says a young hustler on a Havana street corner, declining to be interviewed. He winks, then looks nervously from side to side to make sure we're not being watched. "But if you're interested in buying some cigars…"