Black Hole, Gulag, Country Club: A Map of Guantánamo Bay

My deployment in Cuba was a wonderful experience. Of course it was difficult to be away from my wife, family and friends, but the overall experience was one that I will cherish for the rest of my life. I will remember my mission, my shipmates, the scenery and of course the scuba diving. Everyone on a deployment finds an escape. Whether it is spending time at the gym, the pool, the Tiki bar, or playing video games. For me, it was the undersea kingdom that presented itself to me everyday… a kingdom of adventure and excitement… [W]hen I think back to my time in Cuba, I will always be able to escape into the silent world of my memories.1

In the most-reproduced photograph of Guantánamo Bay, figures kneel on gravel in a chainlink pen, their orange jumpsuits reflecting brightly under the sun. Handcuffed, hands in mittens, ears in headphones, eyes begoggled, and face masked by a snoutlike pale blue filter, each body is hermetically sealed. Kneeling, each body assumes a slightly different attitude to reduce the pressure on ankles and knees. Struggling to stay upright, the men can’t see the soldiers standing around them, the photographer, or the verdant land on the horizon. It looks possible that pain, muscle fatigue, or heat exhaustion will cause one of the men to pitch sideways on the gravel.

This alarming photograph was taken in 2002 by the Defense Department. Like the photos from Abu Ghraib, it plays in the mind’s eye like a silent film. It appears on websites around the world as an unofficial symbol of the war on terror. Impersonated by protestors, stenciled onto pavements, silk-screened onto t-shirts, and smuggled in replica into Disneyland, the body of the unknown detainee is a metonymic stand-in for the American penal colony at Guantánamo Bay. It seems that there is a powerful resonance between the torturous containment of the prisoner’s body and the geopolitical position of the base itself.

“Where is Guantánamo?” Amy Kaplan asked in her penetrating article on the history of the American presence there.2 In res extensa, the answer is straightforward: on the southeast corner of Cuba, overlooking the Caribbean Sea. In politico-legal geography, the answer is more murky. Secured in the course of Monroe Doctrine-era adventurism, floating in the waters of imperial history, Guantánamo Bay has been the rental property of the United States for over a century. The base is maintained over the objections of the Cuban government – Castro has refused US rent checks since coming to power in 1959 – and so the base is sustained by its own desalination plant and power generator.3 As the result of an ingenious legal gerrymander, Guantánamo is alleged to lie outside the sovereignty of the US, while remaining under its jurisdiction. This distinction has allowed the current administration to treat the base like the “off-worlds” of Blade Runner, connecting it to an archipelago of “black sites” around the planet.

In the months following Guantánamo’s inauguration as a holding pen for suspected terrorists, claims about the base’s space and place began to surface in debates about its political and legal status and its military significance. Guantánamo was said to be somewhere strange –- but exactly where it lay defied coherent projection in space. Its borders cordoned off a territory of sinister indeterminacy. Critics described Guantánamo as “exceptional” and an “anomalous zone”;4 “a legal black hole” and “limbo”: a place where bodies appeared and disappeared.

As evidence of systematic and state-approved abuse of detainees began to come to light5 -– including the Department of Defense’s photograph and others like it -– critics puzzled less over Guantánamo’s peculiar location, and instead drew parallels to firmly territorialized sites of historic repression. In 2005, Karen Greenberg called Guantánamo a stepping stone on the “road to Abu Ghraib.”6 In an address to the Foreign Press Association, Amnesty International secretary general Irene Khan stated that Guantánamo was “the gulag of our times.”7 Not long after, a member of the International Committee of the Red Cross allegedly accused US authorities at Camp Bucca of being “no better than… the Nazi concentration camp guards,”8 and was promptly vilified by the American media.

In response the Department of Defense began a public relations campaign emphasizing the continued intelligence value of detainees and the benign, summer-camp-like lifestyle on base, where “the biggest threats faced by many detainees are… sports injuries.”9 An ever-expanding online military photo gallery shows the base in spooky, posed sterility.

The campaign places special emphasis on the amenities allegedly provided to detainees. According to the online photo gallery, every “compliant” detainee is issued a Koran in his native language and a surgical mask, “so they can keep the Koran off the floor and prevent guards from touching it.” Spray-painted arrows on prison floors indicate the direction of Mecca, and sometimes also state the disheartening distance to the holy city in kilometers. Calls to prayer are broadcast five times daily, and traffic cones marked with a “P” remind guards to keep their voices low in the cellblocks during the hours of prayer. Inmates eat what is invariably termed “a culturally sensitive diet,”10 receive “comfort items” in return for compliance (soap, a salt packet, prayer cap, a pair of shoes) and are also permitted exercise and board games.

Suddenly, Guantánamo is “Not-So-Bad Gitmo”:11 a “model prison,”12 rather like a “country club”13 where a coddled cohort of jihadists plays volleyball,14 enjoys religious freedom,15 receives “over 40,000 pieces of mail,”16 and puts on weight17 at the expense of American taxpayers. In 2005, a bipartisan delegation to Guantánamo testified to the pleasures of detainee life at Gitmo: “Representative Madeleine Bordallo, a Democrat from Guam, said the prison camp was ‘more like a resort,’ and said she enjoyed dining on the same meals the detainees ate.”18

Convinced that critique from the left has cowed the government into capitulating to “terrorists,” right-wing critics list these concessions –- mail, meals, a measure of religious freedom –- with outrage. One writer for the National Review described living conditions at Guantánamo:

Interrogations are limited to four hours, usually running two -– and (of course) are interrupted for prayers. One interrogator actually bakes cookies for detainees, while another serves them Subway or McDonald’s sandwiches…

…Do you get eight hours of uninterrupted sleep, three square meals, and a minimum of two hours of outdoor recreation per day? If not, the al-Qaeda operatives in Gitmo live better than you do.19

Scaling down the prison’s geography to the level of an individual domestic habitus, this writer expresses outrage that prisoners should be permitted the perks of civilized living.

Acknowledging that the (allegedly) “comfortable” facilities at Guantánamo are designed to extract information, he professes disbelief at the “surreal” state of affairs in which aspiring murderers are provided with amenities. Escorting the prisoner into an uncomfortably proximate part of the American reader’s psyche, he encourages the reader into an imaginary zero-sum game with “the al-Qaeda operatives,” in which home-baked cookies for terrorists mean fewer for Americans. However, this writer neglects to discuss the legal and civil rights that have been stripped from the “operatives,” thus reducing the value of private life to the enjoyment of creature comforts and consumer goods.

How is the administration handling these competing versions of Guantánamo’s geography? Its public relations statements on Guantánamo figure its geography in a neutral, blunted language distinctly unlike its critics from the left and the right.

The following document gives a particularly interesting outline of the contours of Guantánamo. Excerpted from a US Navy website, this letter provides new “shipmates” with a bird’s-eye view of the base and its surroundings. Superficially naïve and bland, this discussion expresses the logic of empire.

Congratulations on your orders to Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. You are now part of history, a member of the oldest US base overseas, and the only one in a Communist country. We are located in the Oriente Province on the southeast corner of Cuba. The base is about 400 air miles from Miami, Florida.

We have a lot of history here and if you would like, you can read about the history of Guantánamo Bay on our website…

Our mission… is to provide assistance to the Fleet. We have the capability to replenish and refuel most vessels. We provide services for U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard ships, as well as naval vessels of foreign countries. Additionally, we provide assistance to the Fleet in support of narco-terrorism operations, which occur in this region… We are a processing location for Haitians and Cubans seeking asylum. In the recent past, our base has become a highly successful stop for many Naval ships looking for a place for their crews to rest and relax.

Naval Base Guantánamo Bay is a great community… Since we do not have the luxury of leaving the base after work, we have everything you need right here. We have a Commissary, Navy Exchange, furniture store, gas station, hospital, dry cleaners, bowling alley, library…

Guantánamo Bay is not all work. There are many off-duty activities as well. Most activities are outdoors, because we have great weather. Because of our location, the temperature in the winter is in the 60s in the morning and is in the upper 70s by afternoon… MWR [Morale, Welfare, and Recreation] is very active here. We have free outdoor movie theaters that show first run movies every night, with two on the weekends… We have a 9-hole golf course, an 18-hole miniature golf course, tennis courts, batting cages, and three swimming pools. There is great diving here.20

There is no detention facility at the “mission” at Guantánamo. There is a “community” of US servicepeople and support personnel, the odd Haitian or Cuban asylum-seeker. There are no international human rights observers, journalists, prisoners, or Cubans. The prohibition on leaving the base is mentioned as a joking aside, while the good-natured claim about Guantánamo’s “great weather” imagines the space of the military base as continuous with the vacation spots of the Caribbean. This letter is a siren song, a note from the Bermuda triangle. It casts a hegemonic spell. Where are the men in hoods, the desecrated Korans, the suicides, the scorpions and banana rats? Where is Cuba?

It is the prerogative of empire to ignore those details, and more. Remarking on the base’s abundant history without addressing its present-day notoriety, the Navy’s correspondent imagines Naval Station Guantánamo Bay as a neutral fact of nature: a base on a sunny island, adrift in a gentle sea. In this imperial cartography, the base is a domesticated mini-state, a spot with great diving. Time, space, the weather, bodies, the law, and the truth are the property of the US military here, and so is the new recruit, who is to become “a part of history.” Naval Station Guantánamo Base, as the recruit is so jovially informed, is a utopian fantasy island. Off the map and through the looking glass, Guantánamo is the best of all possible worlds: a country club in a black hole.


1. Grohman, Adam. 2007. “Dive GTMO: Scuba Diving in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.”, accessed March 14, 2007.

2. Kaplan, Amy. 2005. “Where is Guantanamo?” American Quarterly 57 (3): 831-858.

3. Griswold, Eliza. 2006. “American Gulag: Prisoners’ Tales from the War on Terror.” Harper’s 313 (September): 41-50.

4. Neuman, Gerald. 1996. “Anomalous Zones.” Stanford Law Review 48 (5): 1197-1234.

5. For a catalogue of declassified documents, see

6. Greenberg, Karen J. 2005. The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib. New York: Cambridge University Press. Excerpted in Dratel, Joshua. 2005. “The Legal Narrative.” February 1., accessed October 16, 2006.

7. Kahn, Irene. 2005. Amnesty International Report 2005 Speech by Irene Khan at Foreign Press Association., accessed October 15, 2006.

8. Letter to the Editor. 2005. “As Bad as the Nazis?” Wall Street Journal, May 23.

9. Kaplan, David E. 2006. “Pentagon Launches Guantánamo PR Campaign.” US News and World Report, May 15.

10. Murdock, Deroy. 2005. “Not-So-Bad Gitmo.” National Review Online, May 27., accessed October 10, 2006.

11. Ibid.

12. Alain Grignard, deputy head of the Brussels antiterrorism unit, quoted (unfairly) in National Review editorial. 2006. “The Gitmo Club.” June 15., accessed October 5, 2006.

13. Stakelbeck, Erick. 2006. “Country Club Conditions for Terrorists at Gitmo?” CBN News, September 15., accessed September 29, 2006. See also Investor’s Business Daily editorial. 2007. “Ghost Prisons or Club Med?” February 28.

14. Murdock. “Not-So-Bad Gitmo” (note 10).

15. National Review. “The Gitmo Club” (note 12).

16. Taranto, James. 2006. “War Inside the Wire.” Wall Street Journal, Sept 16 A8.

17. Melia, Michael. 2006. “A Growing Threat at Guantánamo? Detainees Fatten Up.” ABC News, October 3.,
accessed October 3, 2006.

18. Reuters. 2005. “At Hearing, Guantánamo Wins Praise and Criticism.” Boston Globe, June 30.

19. Murdock. “Not-So-Bad Gitmo” (note 10).

20. Cairo, Lawrence. 2006. US Naval Station Guantánamo, “Cuba: Welcome Aboard.”, accessed September 25, 2006.

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