Blogs > HNN > Jeremy Kuzmarov. Review of Mark Denbeaux and Jonathan Hafetz, editors, The Guantanamo Lawyers: Inside a Prison Outside the Law (New York Univsreity Press, 2009) and Stephen Irving Max Schwab, Guantanamo USA: The Untold Story of America's Cuban Outpost (Un

Nov 28, 2009 11:23 am

Jeremy Kuzmarov. Review of Mark Denbeaux and Jonathan Hafetz, editors, The Guantanamo Lawyers: Inside a Prison Outside the Law (New York Univsreity Press, 2009) and Stephen Irving Max Schwab, Guantanamo USA: The Untold Story of America's Cuban Outpost (Un

[Jeremy Kuzmarov is assistant professor of history, University of Tulsa and author of The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs].

The Guantanamo Bay prison has became infamous as a symbol of injustice and of the human rights abuses associated with the War on Terror. An important new book, The Guantanamo Lawyers, edited by Mark Denbeaux, a Seton Hall University law professor, and Jonathan Hafetz, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, provides a revealing look into the abandonment of due process by the Bush administration and horrors experienced by Guantanamo inmates, a large number of whom were detained without evidence or charge. Stephen Irving Max Schwab’s book, Guantanamo USA: The Untold History of America’s Cuban outpost, meanwhile shows the longer history of U.S. control of Guantanamo Bay and how the recent pattern of violence is far from an anomaly in American history.

On November 14, 2001, the Bush administration issued a military order for the detention and trial of non-citizens considered to be terrorists and claimed the authority to kidnap them anywhere in the world while eliminating normal legal protocols. The Guantanamo Lawyers provides testimonials from a group of courageous lawyers who, because of an abiding belief in the tenets of the U.S. constitution, provided pro-bono legal assistance to the Guantanamo detainees. Initially, prisoners were deprived of even the right to representation, although this right was eventually granted by the Supreme Court in Al-Odah V. the United States and Rasul V. Bush. Hundreds of lawyers from across the country, including many with conservative backgrounds, subsequently volunteered to represent the Guantanamo inmates. Many were shocked to discover that their clients were well-spoken, intelligent and often quite moderate in their political views – in contrast to the claim by Donald Rumsfeld that they represented the “most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth.”

While some were affiliated with Al Qaeda, in a large number of cases, the detainees had been either caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, or were randomly picked up by American military forces and their proxies in the Middle-East and were the victims of extortion rackets. Ironically, some had even served in the Karzai government and with Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan, and one was a leading Pakistani doctor. Most of the lawyers found their clients nothing like the stereotyped characterization of Arab peoples in the media: they were regular human beings. They recount how their clients were grateful just to have any human contact. They had spent years on end in solitary confinement, in tiny cells with minimal opportunities for recreation or exercise (at best one hour per day in a cage) and were deprived the opportunity for contact with their families. Reminiscent of the infamous Tiger Cages in South Vietnam, some of the prisoners were kept permanently shackled to the floor causing permanent health damage. Many of the cells were infested with rats, snakes and scorpions and had no toilet facilities. Inmates described open air cages as resembling kennels.

The Guantanamo Lawyers makes an important contribution in helping to expose the wide scale of physical and psychological torture at the military prison. Many inmates showed bruises and scars from intense physical beatings. One man spoke about being beaten by the half-educated guards to the point of unconsciousness. Others were typically subjected to extreme temperatures, sensory torments and sleep deprivation. Some of the worst treatment – including being hung from the ceiling in chains – took place at pre-transfer facilities, including the American-run military prison at Baghram in Afghanistan. For many inmates, the mental torture they experienced could be just as damaging as physical beatings. The aim of the torture was to break the human spirit by creating a sense of total fear, hopelessness and despair. Many of the inmates had attempted suicide and others were deprived of needed medications and medical operations, and died while in custody. One of the victims, Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, was ironically fought against the Taliban for the Northern Alliance and was never formally charged with any crime. He died in Guantanamo of a treatable form of colon cancer for which he was only given painkillers.

The Guantanamo Lawyers provides an illuminating portrait of the hellish conditions pervading in the military prison and of the miscarriage of justice and retreat into moral barbarism that has resulted from the waging of the War on Terror. From a practical perspective, it is clear from the testimony that the facility has done little to deter future terrorist attacks but has instead created a generation of angry victims and stained America’s global reputation, perhaps irrevocably. The lone bright spot in the story is the role of the pro-bono lawyers and human rights activists in raising public awareness of the atrocities taking place and providing the legal counsel and advice that has in some cases contributed to the release of innocent detainees. These efforts unfortunately are not enough to heal the damaged psyche of the torture victims or bring back the dead.

Stephen Irving Max Schwab’s book Guantanamo USA: The Untold History of America’s Cuban Outpost provides an interesting historical perspective on how the U.S. came to acquire Guantanamo at the dawn of the 20th century. A former analyst for the CIA’s South America Division who teaches at the University of Alabama, Schwab mined the archives in both Cuba and the United States to tell the story, which as he demonstrates, is inextricably linked to the broader history of American expansion in Latin America.
American strategic planners such as Alfred Thayer Mahan, Elihu Root and Theodore Roosevelt prized Guantanamo as a naval station capable of safeguarding U.S. access to the Panama Canal and as a base for mounting incursions into Cuba to ensure a stable pro-American client after the passage of the Platt amendment in 1902. This amendment granted Cuba nominal independence after the U.S. occupation but allowed the U.S. the right to intervene, which it did on several occasions, to “restore order and stability” ostensibly to protect its economic interests. In subsequent years, Guantanamo provided a launching pad for the Wilson administration’s brutal invasions of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Schwab is adept in articulating the imperialist motives and assumptions that led to the development of the base, including the pejorative attitude towards the Cuban capacity for self-government. He also notes the backlash that U.S. policies garnered among Cuban nationalists, culminating in the 1959 Castroist revolution.

In his fourth chapter, Schwab notes that Cubans themselves contributed to the growth of Guantanamo, though provides minimal evidence for the claim that it provided positive benefits to the Cuban population by creating employment for Cuban laborers and a steady flow of foreign investment. Jana Lippmann’s recent study on this topic in fact details through first-hand interviews the stark exploitation of Cuban workers on the base, some of whom, as Schwab himself notes, established pro-Castro cells and smuggled weapons and other crucial material to the guerrilla movement during the anti-Batista war.
Meanwhile, the Cuban revolution was in large part based on popular opposition to the United States’ exploitation of Cuba’s sugar resources and the dominance of its economy by multi-national corporations such as the United Fruit Company and the American mafia. In this latter context, the foreign investment expedited through Guantanamo was hardly favorable for Cuba.
During the Cold War, Guantanamo was crucial for waging clandestine operations in the attempt to overthrow Castro’s revolutionary government and was used for the launching of the ill-fated Bay of Pigs attacks. After this was repelled, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations continued to use the base for an array of illegal covert operations, including efforts to plant saboteurs in the country, foment riots, sabotage the economic system, and have Castro assassinated. Fidel frequently included Guantanamo in his inflammatory attacks on U.S. policies and denounced it before the UN General Assembly. During the Cuban missile crisis, Castro expressed repeated fear that the U.S. was plotting a full-scale military invasion from the base, which fortunately was never brought to fruition.

Not surprising for a former CIA analyst, Schwab is generally apologetic of the United States, claiming that kidnappings of U.S. naval personnel, propaganda and sabotage actions such as the attempt to manipulate the bases water supply, combined with reports of growing communist influence within Castro’s movement antagonized the U.S., justifying the hostile attitude of the Eisenhower administration and his successors. For him, American imperialism was an anomaly in the first half of the 20th century, and U.S. action in the Cold War was predominantly defensive, or at least a response to provocation. Schwab is entitled to his opinion, though his views are contradicted by the longer history of U.S. interventionism, opposition towards Castro’s land reform initiatives, and the aggressive American subversion campaign in the fifties in Guatemala against a mildly reformist regime, which set the precedent for Cuba.

Regardless of his political views, Schwab on the whole provides a well-researched account of the significance of Guantanamo Bay to U.S. foreign policy vis á vis Cuba. The trajectory of the base which he chronicles is particularly relevant in understanding that the most recent abuses have not occurred in a historical vacuum. From its origins as a way-station into the Caribbean and base for intervention in Cuban affairs, to its current status as a penal colony and site of torture for adversaries in the War on Terror, Guantanamo has served as an important venue for the projection of American power. Then, as now, it is a symbol of empire and of the violence and illegalities associated with it.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Arnold Shcherban - 3/11/2011

Hello, Mr. Schwab
I hope to reach you on these boards (though it might be too late by now), since I could not find your e-mail address.
Although I highly value your expertise and analysis on Central and Latin America, I think in your judgment on F. Castro's and his regime course on spoiling
(or lack of desire to normalize) relations between Cuba and USA, despite the efforts of the latter
country you're mistaken.
To understand the main reason why Castro's regime could not normalize relations with the US even if they passionately wanted to do so, I refer you to Intervention by Salim Lamrani during the round table "Interference through the terrorist threat" at the Axis for Peace 2005 Conference.
Although I realize that you know a lot about the major events mentioned of that Intervention, its reading should provide clear understanding of the above-mentioned "stubbornness" of Castro and his comrades (without any apology to his regime.)
Respectfully, A. Shcherban.

Stephen Irving Schwab - 11/30/2009

I totally agree with your comments on Vietnam. As a student of the history of strategic intelligence, I know that Ho Chi Minh worked with the OSS against the Japanese during World War II and even before that--at the Paris Peace talks--at the end of World War I tried to get President Wilson to support the liberation of Indo-China from the French. Sadly, the U.S. government failed to respond positively to these overtures. As for Fidel Castro's Cuba, however, we disagree. I personally believe that the last thing Fidel ever wanted was a close relationship with the United States and whenever U.S. administrations such as President Carter's tried to normalize relations, Fidel has upset the applecart. I know several independent Latin American scholars who were brought into the State Department precisely to try to improve bilateral relations with Cuba and got nowhere.

Jeremy A. Kuzmarov - 11/30/2009

Another point that can be stressed is that over time significant cleavages developed in the Cuban-Russian alliance leading to a waning of Soviet influence in the country and that after the cold was over, the Castro regime maintained the same philosophies as before, and is now being supported by Venezuela who shares its commitment to expunging the US influence in Latin America and nationalizing crucial resources as a means of fueling economic development and funding social welfare and social justice programs. I don't think it would be fair to call it today a "Venezuelan satellite" It acts independently based on its philosophies and cultivates allies who share its goals and can assist in its agenda.

Jeremy A. Kuzmarov - 11/30/2009

I meant to say that the Cuban revolution was designed to prevent (not promote) dependence on the US and create a socialistic society.

Jeremy A. Kuzmarov - 11/30/2009

on the point about foreign investment, my assumption was that this was one of the points that you made in the book. It certanily was one of the general aims of US foreign policy, although did not specifically have much to do with Guantanamo.
In terms of the Bay of Pigs, point well taken.
In terms of Russian/Chinese counter-efforts/imperialism, I don't believe that Cuba can ever be characterized as a "satellite" of any of these powers. It was above all else a nationalist revolution designed to promote Cuba's dependence on the United States and create a socialist society. Piero Gleijeses book chronicles how Cuba acted independently of the Soviet Union in the international sphere to promte third world anti-colonial liberation movements, in Africa specifically (contrary to US propoganda in this period which depicted Cuba as a Soviet satellite operating in Angola at the behest of Russia.) There is generally a large body of literature on US opposition to third world revolutionary nationalism on ideological and geo-strategic grounds; and also a literature on how the Soviet "threat" was inflated and used as a pretext for the US to intervene. The perpetuation of an aggressive foreign policy and maintenance of a vast system of military bases after the cold war ended further validates the notion that the USSR was used as a bogeyman to justify the expansion of American hegemony and global power (see works by Chalmers Johnson, Noam Chomsky and others on this point). Finally, with regards to Cuba, there is also a large body of literature on how US policies drove Castro into a more radical position and put him in a situation where he sought out Soviet support/patronage as a defensive mechanism to save his revolution from the subversion efforts by the United States. The same can be said of other third world countries (like North Vietnam for example which was also led by nationalist Ho Chi Minh who courted more Soviet arms and aid in the face of the US onslaught in Southeast Asia).

Stephen Irving Schwab - 11/29/2009

Thank you for your kind reply. I would like to make three more points concerning your comments on my book. I frankly am surprised that you said that Guantánamo "expedited foreign investment into Cuba". How did this occur? Although I devoted approximately three years to my research, I have never found any evidence of this. Second,my research indicates that Guantánamo did not play a major role in launching the Bay of Pigs operation. Although Secretary of State Dean Rusk, at one point, did propose that Guantánamo serve as a staging area, he met quick and sharp opposition from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and backed down. I believe that even if the JCS had not taken a strong stand on this point, President Kennedy would have overruled Rusk-after all it was Kennedy's desire to preserve an aura of plausible denial for the entire operation that caused him to cut the air cover for the invasion in half. I don't see how Kennedy could have dreamed that "plausible denial" would be possible if Guantánamo had played a key role. Of course, the whole operation had mutiple fanciful, poorly planned, and ineptly executed aspects and, in my view, it made Fidel Castro golden in the eyes of the majority of Cubans. Third, you speak of U.S. empire building in Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean basin and I agree with you, but what about Soviet/Russian counterefforts to keep Cuba as a Soviet satellite. In specific terms, I would cite the Lourdes signals intelligence(SIGINT)facility that enabled the Soviets and then the Russians to eavesdrop on US telephonic communications and intercept other sensitive information as well as the Chinese involvement in Cuba's satellite intercept facility at Bejucal just south of Havana.

Jeremy A. Kuzmarov - 11/29/2009

Thank you for your comments, Mr. Schwab and clarification of your position on the Guatemalan coup. I am not an expert on this topic, but it wouldn't surprise me if you are correct that most of the seized lands were not fully dispersed given the autocratic manner in which Castro ruled and tried to impose "socialism from above," against the hopes of many who fought for the revolution (In my view, this does not mean that the US was not centrally concerned with its own interests in Cuba and generally ideologically hell bent on suppressing any socialist experiments in the developing world, especially in its own backyard). The major study that I am aware of, which focuses on the issue of land reform, is by Samuel Farber entitled The Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered. He argued that this was the key issue driving the US opposition to Castro (as it was similarly in driving the US opposition to Arbenz).

anyways, let me congratulate you on what is generally a very informative and well researched book, my points of criticism/difference aside.

Jeremy Kuzmarov

Stephen Irving Schwab - 11/29/2009

As Mr. Kuzmarov notes, I am a former CIA analyst, but I do not defend such CIA covert actions as the overthrow of the Arbenz regime in Guatemala, which I have always regarded as an overreaching of U.S. power with horrific, tragic consequences for thousands of apolitical, innocent Guatemalans. As for Castro's agrarian reforms, I understand that approximately half of the expropriated latifundia went directly to the Cuban government and was never redistributed to Cuban small farmers or agricultural workers. Is this incorrect? If so, I would appreciate it if Mr. Kuzmarov would recommend a dispassionate scholarly study on this subject.