Even though the provincial capital of GUANTÁNAMO is only on the tourist map because of its proximity to the US Guantánamo naval station, 22km southeast, the base plays a very small part in the everyday life of the town itself. For the most part, this is a slow-paced place marked by a few ornate buildings, attractive but largely featureless streets and an easy-going populace. Most visitors bypass it altogether, and those who don’t tend to use it simply as a stepping-stone to the naval base and attractions further afield. However, it’s worth visiting the Casa del Changüí, where changüí genre (a country music which predates son) is nurtured and performed, or taking in a performance by the Tumba Francesa Pompadour, an Afro–Haitian cultural and dance group.
Many visitors come to the Guantánamo area just to see the US base, but although you can get to the lookout point in Caimanera with a little groundwork, there really isn’t a lot to see, as you cannot enter the base itself – or barely see it at all from Cuban territory. Venturing into the countryside around Guantánamo town is more rewarding, with bizarre contrasts between lush valleys and the weird desert scenery of sun-bleached barren trees. Just north of town is the offbeat Zoológico de Piedras, a “zoo” entirely populated by sculpted stone animals.Read More
Bordered by salt flats that score the ground with deep cracks and lend a haunting wildness, CAIMANERA, 23km south of Guantánamo, takes its name from the giant caiman lizards that used to roam here, although today it’s far more notable as the closest point in Cuba to the US naval base. Prior to the Revolution, Caimanera was the site of carousing between the naval-base officers and the townswomen: its main streets were lined with bars, and rampant prostitution, gambling and drugs were the order of the day. Little evidence of that remains in today’s sleepy and parochial town.
The village is a restricted area, with the ground between it and the base one of the most heavily mined areas in the world, though the US removed their mines in 1999. This hasn’t stopped many Cubans from braving it in the slim hope of reaching foreign soil and escaping to America. Visitors, meanwhile, have to have a permit to enter. The village is entered via a checkpoint at which guards scrutinize your passport and permit before waving you through; note that taking pictures en route is not permitted.
The lookout in the grounds of the Caimanera hotel has a view over the bay and mountains to the base – though even with binoculars you only see a sliver of it. Inside the hotel is a small museum (opened on demand), with a history of the base, a floor model and photos.
Zoológico de Piedras
Zoológico de Piedras
Roughly 20km north of Guantánamo, in the foothills of the Sierra Cristal and set in a private coffee farm, the whimsical and slightly surreal sculpture park known as the Zoológico de Piedras was created in 1977 by local artist Angel Iñigo Blanco, who carved the stone in situ. Cool and fresh, dotted with lime and breadfruit trees, hanging vines and coffee plants, the park centres on a path that weaves around the mountainside, with stone animals peeking out from the undergrowth at every turn. Slightly cartoonish in form, the creatures bear little relationship to their real-life counterparts: a giant tortoise towers over a hippo the size of a modest guinea pig. Needless to say, it’s a hit with children.
The US at Guantánamo
The US at Guantánamo
Described by Fidel Castro as the dagger in the side of Cuban sovereignty, the US naval base at Guantánamo is approximately 118 square kilometres of leased North American territory, armed to the teeth and planted on Cuba’s southeastern coast.
The history of the naval base here dates back to Cuba’s nominal victory in the Wars of Independence with Spain, whereupon the US government immediately began to erode Cuba’s autonomy. Under the terms of the 1901 Platt Amendment, the US ordered Cuba to sell or lease land necessary for a naval station, declaring without irony that it was “to enable the United States to maintain the independence of Cuba”. Its primary aim, however, was to protect the nascent Panama Canal from any naval attacks. An annual rent was set at two thousand gold coins, and the base was born. In 1934 the Treaty of Reciprocity repealed the Platt Amendment but did not alter the conditions surrounding the lease; and as it’s stipulated that the lease cannot be terminated without both parties’ consent, it seems unlikely that Cuba will regain sovereignty of the land under its present regime. Famously, Fidel Castro has not cashed a single rent cheque from the US government, preferring to preserve them for posterity in a locked desk drawer.
The base’s history took another twist in December 2001 with the decision of the Bush administration to detain Islamic militants captured as part of the “War on Terror”. Prisoners were initially kept in the makeshift Camp X-Ray but in April 2002 were transferred to Camp Delta, a larger, permanent site, which comprises several detention camps, manned by six hundred soldiers as part of the Joint Task Force Guantánamo. Controversy immediately arose around the circumstances under which the men were held. Because they were classed as “illegal combatants” rather than prisoners of war, the US military felt they did not have to uphold the Geneva Convention and that the detainees could be held indefinitely without charge. Some 779 people (including a number of children) representing forty different nationalities have to date been held here, many without access to any court, legal counsel or family visits.
A decision in June 2004 by the US Supreme Court ruled that the detainees should come under the jurisdiction of US courts and that the policy of holding prisoners indefinitely without the right to judicial review was unlawful. Rather than address these charges, the Bush administration passed the Military Commissions Act 2006, which overrode the main objections. In January 2009, as part of a broader aim to restore the international reputation of the US’s justice system and foreign policies, President Obama suspended the Guantánamo Military Commissions and vowed that the detainee camp would be closed by January 2010. This promise remains unfulfilled.