Post 52 – A covert visit to Guantanamo – chapter #extracts from UNDER COVER chapters 24-26

Chapter 24

My Cubana Airlines plane from Havana has engine trouble and has to stop at Holguin, which is close to the tourist resort of Guardalavaca.

‘We have malfunction,’ a steward tells us in English, ‘and we will not go to Santiago de Cuba until morning. ‘However, there is possibility to take helicopter from Guardalavaca … but price is one hundred US dollars.’

No problem. I put my hand up while taking $100 from my wallet.

‘You may exit rear of plane, sir, and you proceed shortly.’

I just have cabin baggage and I’m joined by a few Cubans, who look like they could be state employees, and an English holidaying couple.

‘I actually think this is rather exciting,’ the female tourist says, ‘although my husband would prefer to have stayed on the Cubana Airlines flight.’

It’s a short and pleasant drive to the almost entirely self-contained tourist resort at Guardalavaca. But a lot of the guests seem to be unsteady on their feet.

‘It’s alcohol,’ the English guy from our plane says disapprovingly. ‘One is offered champagne In the morning with breakfast, and this continues throughout the day without any extra charge.’

Well – I guess it pays to keep the visitors happy. And in the case of Canadian tourists, who are the most valued visitors, their Government has already invested a large amount of money in building attractive hotel complexes. The resorts around Guardalavaca are pretty idyllic with attractive young women and a few guys cycling, windsurfing and swimming. For the more adventurous, there’s also a motorised parachute, which takes off with one or two people clinging on excitedly to their Cuban pilot.

I would like to have stayed on for a while in the resort area and I’m uneasy when we finally get to a field where a battered ex-military helicopter is waiting.

My seat is by the door, which remains open for the forty minutes we’re in the air, and the views over the mountains are spectacular. I’m imagining Fidel, Che and Raul up in the Sierra Madras with their rag tag army just before they come down to take on Batista in 1958. And Santiago de Cuba is a treat, although the helicopter engine cracks and belches ominously as we come in to land in the fine old city. There are massive bulwarks against the sea, and it looks like they’ve been there for several hundred years.

The security procedures are pretty relaxed, but I stay chatting with the English tourist couple as I don’t want to stand out too much. We part in the terminal foyer, where I wish them well for the rest of their trip. But I’m already aware of a tall, casually dressed Cuban approaching.

‘Rudi,’ he says extending a hand and grinning. ‘We weren’t sure if you were going to make it here today. It’s good you did … and I am Cristo.’

I feel in safe hands as we walk from the terminal to a small car-park and a battered old US Ford that must have come off an assembly line before the revolution.

‘It’s been re-built several times,’ Cristo says, ‘which is a little like the Cuban economy, I think … and it is definitely falling apart.’

We don’t stay in the city, but drive instead out along a coast road at the foothills of the GranPiedraMountains.

‘It is possible you may go to your destination tomorrow,’ Cristo says. ‘But for this evening you can relax in an agreeable place.’

We’re certainly heading towards Guantanamo, and from my guide book I know that there’s an artist community somewhere along the route.

‘We will not go there,’ Cristo tells me. ‘But this evening some of the artists will come for a party at the tourist cottages where we have arranged for you to stay.’

Tourist cottages and Guantanamo don’t go together I feel, but I know that many overseas visitors come to the area to catch a glimpse of the huge US base. A popular viewing spot is at Caimanera on one side of the Bahia de Guantanamo, with Martires de la Frontera on the other side of the beautiful blue water bay.

Guantanamo is notorious, but Cubans who are responsible for the small holiday resort that adjoin it are doing all right, although Cristo seems frustrated when he speaks.

‘Our people are well educated and keen to move forward,’ he says. ‘But at every stage we are impeded by the bureaucratic incompetence of our Government. Somehow they feel that their ideal world mirrors the Russian experience of 1917 … which is of course nonsensical. Communism was and is an economic disaster. We need to realise our potential here, Rudi.’

I’m sensing the seeds of a counter-revolution in the making. News of changes in the Middle East and North Africa has been filtering through Fidel’s static paradise. Dissatisfied people might soon take to the streets, encouraged perhaps by Cuban exiles who are presently based in Miami and all around Florida.

‘Our country has huge potential,’ Cristo says. ‘Given the freedom to act commercially we could turn every part of our island into a place where Cubans could flourish.’

I don’t disagree, but I’m wondering if there are many more like Cristo and Santos in Havana who have similar thoughts. If there are, then Fidel and Raul’s days are numbered and Cuba is set to become the most alluring tourist Mecca of the Caribbean. I can feel the passion of everyone around me when we arrive at my overnight base. They aren’t just sitting around while Fidel and Raul ossify. They’re ready for big changes.

I have a neat little cottage with a terrace all to myself. It’s on part of an incline that’s a short walk from the beach and the view out over the tranquil Caribbean is great.

‘We have a barbecue with music on the beach from six,’ Cristo tells me. ‘And as I mentioned, we already have some visitors here and we have invited artists from the community, which is nearby. But we may have to start early in the morning, Rudi, so I would suggest you don’t stay up too late.’

He’s putting it nicely, and when he leaves I explore around the kitchen where there’s fruit and coffee from Columbia. I need to prepare myself mentally for the clearly illegal mission I’m about to embark on. If we’re intercepted and I’m taken, I might have to get used to long days and nights in a bleak Cuban prison cell. For now though, as the sun goes down, I sit on the terrace and look west into a perfect sunset.

Gradually, the light fades, and when it’s dark, I hear music on the beach. There are maybe twenty people on the sand when I arrive, split roughly between artists from the nearby community and adventurous tourists: Young and middle-aged people who made a deliberate choice not to go to the all inclusive tourist resorts: comfortable places where many visitors are seriously intoxicated with free booze from early morning until late at night. Everyone is friendly, and without exception, they seem behind the idea of a more open Cuba that would benefit all of its citizens.

‘So … you like to dance?’ a dark featured woman asks when we finish eating, and I’m definitely up for it. ‘I do sculpture,’ she tells me between twirls on a firm patch of sand. ‘But I also like to make drawings of men and women without their clothes … yes?’

Not just now, I’m thinking. Although in different circumstances I’m sure I wouldn’t be averse to popping round to view her etchings.

Chapter 25

I’m between dreams about Anton’s friend Chantelle and the Israeli agent, Sophia, when Cristo comes to wake me at six in the morning.

‘It is necessary for us to go soon, Rudi … because there is always a chance we may encounter a Government patrol.’

I don’t like the sound of this. For one could easily be pilloried in a dock with a red star as an enemy of the revolution. But I get myself together and down a coffee before going outside.

‘We have a fishing boat waiting,’ Cristo says, and I can see it out in the bay, while on the beach there is a rowing boat with two guys.

I sit in the back with Cristo at the front and no one speaks until we reach the fishing boat, which has a rope ladder at the side. I get a nod from one of the guys as I climb on board, and I’m then followed by Cristo who grins at the crew.

The engine is powerful and we’re soon moving out of the bay. But instead of taking a left around the coast to Guantanamo we head straight out to sea.

‘We go this way now,’ Cristo explains. ‘Then we come in at an angle, and if all goes well there will be a boat from the base to pick you up, Rudi.’

There is, I know, a clear area of demarcation around the entrance to the US base. Any uninvited vessels would immediately be fired on by my countrymen. Our problem, however, is approaching from the West. It’s a Cuban naval vessel, which has the fishing boat crew in earnest discussions. Cristo then calls the US base on a radio handset.

‘We need to go below deck,’ he says. ‘Because if our people see you, Rudi, they are liable to shoot before they ask who you are.’

‘So who were you calling?’ I want to know.

‘We have a liaison officer at the American base. If he knows we may be in danger, they will send out a plane.’

‘To do what?’

Cristo doesn’t want to say, but when I push he explains that it’s either the Cuban naval vessel or our fishing boat. And if it’s serious, the Americans will targeting Fidel’s ship.

‘It happens sometimes,’ he adds, ‘although it is never reported in the media because it could be embarrassing.’

I don’t want to go down into the part of the boat where they keep the fish because it really stinks. So I tell Cristo I’ll take my chances and will stay on deck.

The Cuban Navy vessel is getting closer when there’s a message on the radio from Guantanamo. ‘Try to get to the mouth of the bay,’ it says. ‘Now … as soon as you can!’ And that’s it. There are two US Air Force fighters targeting the Cuban Navy vessel. It fires a few shots into the air in the wake of the planes, which are armed with missiles. One of these is fired and explodes just in front of the Cuban Navy boat.

It doesn’t seem to do any damage. But it’s enough to get the Cuban Navy vessel slowing down, and when another missile explodes it begins to turn around. Meanwhile, we’re going as fast as we can towards the entrance to GuantanamoBay. We are soon inside US territorial waters and an armed Navy motor torpedo boat is approaching. The US Air Force fighter planes then circle ominously over the Cuban Navy vessel, which quickly retreats towards the beach town of Playa Uvero.

It might have been easier for me to get into the base from the land side, I’m thinking, but Cristo disagrees.

‘The whole perimeter area is mined on our side and also on the American side,’ he says. ‘This really is the only way if you’re coming from our mainland, Rudi … but when we’re free again, I hope you’ll come back.’

I would love to, although it might not be for a while. But as the US Navy motor torpedo boat pulls alongside, I can see a sailor in white getting ready to throw a rope up to us. So I thank both of the fishing boat crew and then shake Cristo’s hand.

‘I’m grateful,’ I tell him, ‘for making this happen … and I guess we’re lucky not to have been sunk by your guys.’

Cristo laughs at this and pats my shoulder.

‘You take care, Rudi … and don’t forget to come back one day.’

The two boats are roughly the same height, so when the US Navy vessel is secured with a rope, I get my leg over and change vessels. I then wave at Cristo and the crew of the fishing boat as they pull away.

‘Welcome aboard, sir,’ a US Navy Lieutenant says when I turn around. He can’t be more than twenty two or three and he still has a few pimples on his face, but I’m already reaching out to shake his hand and thank him.

‘I guess you guys came close to getting pulled over or being shot at by Castro’s people,’ he says. ‘But we’ll be back at the quayside pretty soon.’

Chapter 26

I wasn’t expecting a Navy band to greet us on the quayside, but the place where we berth is deserted and one of the ratings has to make a radio call for transport.

My escort is a Midshipman in a jeep who salutes as I come up the concrete steps to the quay. ‘Welcome to our Guantanamo Bay base, sir,’ he says. ‘We’ve got quite a community here. In fact, with military personnel, civilians and family members, we’re now almost ten thousand … and as you can see, I guess we have pretty well everything you’d find in almost any average US town of the same size.’

I can see a McDonalds on our way in from the harbour, and I definitely have a feeling that there’s an almost American county club ambience about the place.

‘We have here, sir, a golf club, yachting and sporting facilities and several cinemas and supermarkets,’ the Midshipman tells me.

It seems he’s quite taken with life at the base, where he enjoys comfortable accommodation, along with his wife and two children.

‘We get a lot of bad publicity,’ he tells me, ‘because of the al-Qaeda people we’re holding. Only we’ve got to keep these guys somewhere, and I guess if we had them back home we’d have folk going on about their human rights and civil liberties and all of that.’

I nod and grunt politely. I don’t want to know too much about the US Naval and Air Force base at Guantanamo. But we’ve now pulled up outside a rather grand mansion, where the Midshipman passes me over to a Marine Corporal.

 A standard military barracks it certainly isn’t, but there’s a Marine Sergeant at a desk in the grand entrance hall who gets up and salutes as I’m led in by the corporal.

‘Our Commanding Officer is waiting to see you, sir,’ he says, beckoning me towards an impressive staircase. There are pictures of Spanish grandees on the walls, and it’s clear that this was once the residence of a senior Spanish colonial person.

The door I’m led to on the circular first floor landing is heavy and old. When it opens I can see an Afro-American two star Army general and a Marine Corps Major.

‘I’m Hawkins,’ the General says, extending a large hand. ‘And this is Major Craig Brenner.’

I’ve never met a US Army General, and I can’t recall connecting with too many Afro-Americans who held a rank above Sergeant.

‘We understand you have authorisation to interview one of our prisoners,’ the General says.

‘Yes, sir … a French Algerian called Assad Kumar.’

‘And you got here safely?’

‘Just about, sir … although it was a close call.’ ‘And if your planes hadn’t deflected the Cuban Navy boat, I might now be in one of Fidel’s jails, or worse.’

‘You work as a journalist, Mr Flynn?’

‘Correct … I’m based mainly in the UK just now.’

‘We’ve had some very bad and quite unreasonable publicity in recent years about our legitimate facility here.’

Absolutely – and almost weekly. I’ve read about CIA water boarding; sexual humiliation and prisoners being dragged around blindfolded, with their hands tied.

‘I’m afraid the media have taken rather a hard line on your facility, sir … but you do appreciate that I’m working right now for the US Government.’

‘Of course, Mr Flynn … we know that … and Major Brenner will offer you all the co-operation and assistance he can.’

He’s extending his hand again, and when I’ve thanked him, he turns to leave.

‘Can I offer you a drink?’ the Major asks when we’re alone, and I’m nodding. A decent sized Scotch whisky would be most welcome.

There’s a whole selection of bottles to choose from, and when the Major has poured me a measure of something that looks and smells all right, I thank him. We then go to sit by a large window with great views over the Caribbean bay.

‘We have over five hundred unlawful combatants here,’ the Major tells me. ‘Most of them have activist connections, either with al-Qaeda or other Islamist factions. They have all been questioned rigorously, either here or at CIA holding facilities around the world. They certainly don’t love us, Mr Flynn … and I’m not sure if you’re going to make a lot of progress this guy Kumar.’

It’s a fair point. I’m not into professional interrogation, although I do have some experience as an investigative journalist.

‘Sure … I understand that,’ the Marine Corps Major says. ‘Only fitting up celebrities and crooked business people is slightly different from getting the facts out of terrorists.’

I’m sensing that I’m up against someone here who doesn’t hold my scribbling profession in high esteem. ‘I’ve been sent here, Major, to try and get a result,’ I tell him. ‘I may not succeed, but I’ll give it my best shot.’

‘Have you anything you can offer this guy?’ Brenner asks.

There was nothing specific from Leah Sherman, but I can check this out.

‘Can I use my mobile here?’ I ask, but the Major shakes his head. It would be in breach of the base security system.

‘OK … so can you please call the US Embassy in London and get me Leah Sherman, who’s with Homeland Security.’

It’s a long shot, but as I sit admiring the view, the Marine Corps Major walks reluctantly to a desk and picks up a phone. It takes a while, for my Controller’s not at Grosvenor Square and the Embassy security guy has to re-route the call to her.

‘This is the base headquarters at Guantanamo, ma’am,’ the Major says when he eventually gets through. ‘We have a Rudi Flynn here who wants to speak with you.’

He then beckons me over like I’m some sort of subordinate low life – so I take the receiver without making eye contact with him.

‘Leah,’ I ask as assertively as I can. ‘Is there something I can offer this guy Kumar if he’s prepared to co-operate?’

 ‘Yes, Rudi … it’s your call. If he’s helpful, we can get him out … although I’m not sure if the French would want him back in Paris. So maybe we could ask the Brits … there’s also someone from Washington called Kean at the base, and I’ll speak with him.’

This is a result, and as I gulp down the remains of my Tennessee whisky, I notice that Brenner is grinding his teeth.

‘Do you know much about this person you’re about to interview?’ he asks tetchily.

‘No Major … not a lot … and I would appreciate anything you have on him.’ Another whisky would also be most welcome, but that’s not going to happen.

‘He has professed his innocence on any Islamic activist involvement ever since he arrived here a year ago.’

I’m aware of this and also that the Americans picked Kumar up in Tangier with the help of the Moroccan authorities. The reason for his detention – the CIA claim – is to do with his Muslim associates, who were mainly in Paris.

‘He knew Anton du Prey, who was murdered recently.’ I say in mitigation. ‘du Prey was writing a book which supported the stance taken by moderate Muslims vis-a-vis the activists.’

It’s clear Brenner now thinks he’s dealing with some sort of liberal left wimp who probably voted Democrat and supports the Greens.

‘He had several meetings with Islamic activists who were causing trouble at the SorbonneUniversity in Paris,’ the Marine Major says curtly.

So what – Kumar was a journalist. It would be legitimate for him to meet with these people and most students have their moments as ‘troublemakers’. I myself had been upbraided by the authorities at Berkeley in California when I was a student there. And my breach of the University regulations was that I took part in a noisy demonstration. It was related to my country’s war in Iraq when a member of the Pentagon came to the college to try and encourage students to join the armed forces.

‘Yes – but he also had links with unsavoury North African activists in the banlieues on the outskirts of Paris,’ the Major says. It’s like he’s suggesting that this was a good enough reason to kidnap the guy and take him half way around the world to serve an indeterminate sentence at Guantanamo.

‘I think it would be helpful, sir, if I can now go and see this person, please … I would also like to interview him on my own if this is OK with you.’

I’m clearly an unwelcome visitor as far as Major Brenner is concerned. But he’s picking up a radio handset to request someone’s presence. Shortly afterwards a female Sergeant with a side arm appears to escort me from the grand colonial mansion.

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