Blog of Rights

August 29, 2004

By Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director, ACLU at 10:02pm
This is my final dispatch about the Guantánamo trip. I just got back today; spent the last day trying to absorb much of what I witnessed over the last week and to figure out next steps for our work. We have the challenge of finding concrete recommendations that will make a difference in improving the system while also continuing our structural criticism that this is a system so fundamentally flawed that it can't be fixed. How to navigate those two tensions going forward will be one we'll have to work on. Clearly there are things that need to be fixed if these commissions are to proceed further, i.e. translation and increased resources for defense counsel. But we must also push hard to see whether or not the Bush administration or perhaps a new Kerry administration would be willing to go back to square one and use the rules in our Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is the finest system of military justice in the world. We will keep you posted on our activities regarding the commissions as the motions play out in September and October and as the trials begin in earnest in 2005. This is a long-term commitment and I promise that we'll give it everything we've got. I also promised that I would give you some musings about what Gitmo is like generally. It felt much larger than I had originally thought. There was "big sky" on all the horizons. The landscape looked a lot like Southern California, much like San Diego or Baja California, not at all lush or tropical. The coastline around Guantánamo is by and large very rocky and the beach I went to on Saturday morning was a lovely rocky beach with the waves crashing over the rocks. As I sat there waiting for my plane yesterday afternoon, I was struck by the dichotomies on Guantánamo. On the one hand the movement of the waves, the butterflies in the burnt grass and the birds soaring above made it feel like a place of enormous freedom and openness. And on the other hand, you had the cement walls, the barbed wire, the concrete barriers that betrayed the highly controlled social environment. On the beach were a group of Cuban refugees who are housed at Guantánamo. Thirty-eight of them, 35 men and three women, are being held there, as are 14 Haitians -- 12 men and two women. Throughout the week, Cuban migrants have begun seeking me out. Realizing that I was a Hispanic human rights lawyer, they wanted me to be aware of their plight. While the United States government is trying to place them into third-party countries, and while their housing and food situation appear to be good given the circumstances (they also looked quite healthy), they did have a number of complaints. Many of them complained that they were being paid $2 or $2.50 an hour for jobs around the base that no one wanted to do and that the four minors, a five, 10 and two 15 year-olds, were not being educated. These ad hoc and informal conversations at the facilities, on the ferry boats and then on the beach during my last day were enough to get me summoned to the office of the Guantánamo base commander, Capt. Leslie McCoy, a thoughtful, accessible and soft-spoken commanding officer with a genuine desire to help the Cubans in their efforts to find a place in third-party countries. We talked about how for many immigrants, including my father, the initial hope of a land of opportunity can be quite disappointing and frustrating. I asked the commander about whether or not they expected to provide educational services to the four children and had a sincere question about whether federal minimum wage laws would apply. Given the fact that the Supreme Court has ruled that there is jurisdiction over Guantánamo, there is a new legal landscape to consider. But since access to the base is so tight, it's hard to fully understand what is going on and what should be done. I believed Capt. McCoy was sincere in his desire to help them to the best of his ability. We talked about our fathers and how the plights of our parents informed our current work. There is a small group of people stuck in a form of legal limbo and as the eyes of the world community turn to Guantánamo, other questions will surely be asked. I guess I end where I started my friends, that Guantánamo is a place of dichotomy, of transparency and opacity, of justice and human rights violations, of the brightest and darkest sides of the human experience. These will be matters that we'll come back to and so you'll be hearing more from me on these and other issues. Be well and thank you for the company during this challenging week. Anthony P.S. Next stop is the defense of the First Amendment and the right to protest, as I head on home to New York City. I'll keep you posted.
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