Influx of prisoners, military personnel bringing new life

Sunday, January 20, 2002

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- New tents are popping up like mushrooms after a rain. Pool tables at a bar next to the airstrip in the low-lying hills of eastern Cuba are crowded. Stucco houses empty for years are filling with troops.

U.S. troops have been pouring in over the last three weeks, changing the landscape and quickening the pace of life on the base, the oldest on foreign soil.

Some 1,100 troops -- doctors and snipers, intelligence officers and military police -- have arrived at Guantanamo since it became a detention center for captured al-Qaida and Taliban fighters. The population has gone up by 40 percent, with the base now home to 3,800 American men and women in uniform. Hundreds more troops are on the way.

And that means a lot of mouths to feed and bodies to house in a place where supplies arrive only by air or ship.

"Everything you'd need to run a small city, we're bringing," said a spokesman, Army Capt. Patrick Hobin.

There is no furniture yet in many of the beige townhouses where he and others sleep on cots.

"We just got a washer and dryer. We're very thankful for them," Hobin said. "Some of the housing hasn't been used here in five, six, seven years."

Despite the rush of new activity, the outpost still has the feel of a small town in the United States -- with its own McDonald's, bowling alley, and a movie theater currently showing Harry Potter. But the quick rise in the number of people here has created new, if small, problems.

"The McDonald's ran out of onions and pickles" last week, Hobin said. "They had to be put on the barge."

Barges have been hauling food to the base for decades, though there hasn't been such demand for supplies in recent years.

Many base employees say they're confident they can handle the adjustment because in 1994 Guantanamo Bay held more than 45,000 Cubans and Haitians who had left their countries in makeshift rafts and boats for the United States.

Then, the tented cities covered the entire 45-square-mile base, taking over the golf course and many open areas until the detainees' immigration cases were settled. Some eventually were allowed into the United States, others were returned home.

To hold prisoners from Afghanistan, the military refurbished a compound known as Camp X-Ray, which has seen little use since the last Cuban detainees left in 1996.

Its temporary cells -- made of chain-link fence with corrugated metal roofs -- now hold 110 prisoners, with room for hundreds more. Construction workers are building a permanent prison with the capacity for 2,000, and setting up a field hospital to treat inmates.

Amid hills strewn with cacti, military police who guard prisoners sleep under green canvas tents, on cots over exposed earth. Officials say more tents are being added as new soldiers arrive for duty.

It's unclear how long the detainees will stay and what is to become of them.

In the meantime, the Clipper Club bar beside the airfield reopened after being closed much of last year, to serve flight crews and others who now pass through.

Jamaican and Filipino contract workers who do civilian jobs on the base serve American Bud Light and Jamaican Red Stripe beer to young men who eat pizza and fried chicken strips between games of pool.

"Before, it was peaceful here. Now it's busy," bartender Ramil Gacutan said, surveying a crowd that burst into cheers while watching a college basketball game on television.

Apart from signs that warn against iguanas crossing and nightly glimpses of large rodents known as hutias, or banana rats, this U.S. outpost seems as far away from Cuba as it does from Illinois.

"This is not Cuba. This is Guantanamo Bay," said Navy Chief Petty Officer Gabriel Puello, a Cuban-American.

U.S. troops seized Guantanamo Bay in 1898 during the Spanish-American War and have stayed ever since, to the annoyance of Cuba's communist government.

Fidel Castro once called the base "a dagger plunged into the heart of Cuban soil." But in recent years tensions have eased, and Cuba hasn't opposed holding prisoners from Afghanistan at the base.

Some 15,000 people were stationed at the mouth of Guantanamo Bay at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s. Then the population declined. Now, it's rising again as it did with the influx of Haitian and Cuban boat people.

"We can accommodate the increase," said Chief Petty Officer Richard Evans. "It's still a small-town atmosphere. We just have a few more people."


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