Inside Guantanamo Bay: lush forests, wildlife and America’s most infamous prison

US has leased the remote naval base from Cuba since 1903

The now-abandoned Camp X-Ray, shown here in 2013. AP
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A green, metre-long snake slithers across the cracked pavement before disappearing into a thicket of bushes.

A short distance away, members of the US military run laps around a pristine track. The smell of McDonald's wafts through the warm air, taunting the troops hard at work.

This is Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, home of the notorious detention centre that has held some of the world's “most wanted”, including five men who are accused of helping Al Qaeda hijackers carry out the September 11, 2001, terror attacks that killed about 3,000 people.

Since it opened in January of 2002, the prison has changed from a seemingly temporary detention centre to a series of brick-and-mortar structures built to last lifetimes, though it remains shrouded in secrecy.

The jail has long symbolised the excesses of former president George W Bush’s “war on terror” and is remembered by many for allegations of torture and for caging its orange-jumpsuit wearing inmates.

Those chain-linked cells under the baking Caribbean sun where the detainees were first photographed have long since been abandoned, and uncut grass and weeds climb the rusted metal fences of the area known as Camp X-Ray.

That camp has now been replaced by a maximum-security prison in a different part of the naval base, which is off-limits to the media. Over the years, about 800 prisoners have been held at the site, but now only 39 remain.

The prison reportedly costs more than $500 million to operate annually. That means each detainee costs American taxpayers about $13 million a year.

The jail's exorbitant price tag and its association with accusations of CIA torture have led to repeated efforts to close the site.

One of former president Barack Obama’s first executive orders was to close it, but opposing Republicans thwarted his efforts. The prison's fate was safe under Donald Trump but remains uncertain under President Joe Biden.

Last month, a group of 75 House Democrats signed a letter saying the prison was in disrepair, costly and a “two-decade human rights embarrassment” to the US.

But even in the midst of calls for its closure, construction of a new multimillion-dollar courtroom and other facilities is about to begin for the eventual trial of the so-called 9/11 Five.

The legal complex and the detention centre take up only a tiny fraction of the sprawling 117-square-kilometre base.

Carved into the lush mountains of south-eastern Cuba, the naval base is a spoil of the Spanish-American War, when Cuban and American forces wrestled the strategically located bay from Spanish control, helping pave the way to crucial victories later in the conflict.

Since 1903, the US has leased the land from Cuba. The original lease cost only $2,000 per year. Since the mid-1970s, the US has paid Cuba $4,085 for the land, though the Castros never actually spent the money.

It is one of the countless quirks and contradictions of this remote US outcropping.

At any one time, Guantanamo Bay is home to about 6,000 people, many of them non-military. Workers are flown in from Jamaica and the Philippines to staff the service industry on the base.

With the exception of the detention centre and legal complex, which is located in corrugated metal hangers on a defunct airstrip, the base feels at once very Cuban and also very American.

There is a golf course, state-of-the-art gym, a $64m new school, swimming pools and several fast-food restaurants, including McDonald's, Pizza Hut and Subway.

But despite these staples of American life, the geography and climate of the island are exactly what you would expect from an island in the Caribbean.

Untouched mangrove forests line the jagged and at times rocky coast. There are beautiful beaches and bright green mountains. The air is thick and salty and the sun shimmers off the emerald water.

Wildlife roams freely on the base. It is hard to go anywhere without seeing large iguanas crossing the roads. Accidentally killing one of the reptiles comes with a hefty $10,000 fine. Many here joke that the iguanas are treated better than the detainees.

There are large rodents known locally as banana rats, so called because of the curling shape of their excrement. These grey creatures are a little smaller than raccoons and take over the base once the sun sets.

Despite the physical beauty, the detention centre and the allegations of torture cast a long, sombre shadow over the entire base.

Updated: September 10, 2021, 6:05 AM