Life in Guantanamo Bay: Nevada City residents share their experience living in Cuba
For most, the thought of Guantanamo Bay inspires images of orange jumpsuits, hardcore CIA agents and imprisoned alleged terrorists.
That was not the experience for the Heaton family. Rather, for almost two years, the Nevada City residents were part of a web of contradictions that included beautiful nature, internet detachment, an American suburb that accompanied full-time military presence and a high security prison.
Kristanne Heaton, currently a history teacher at Early Ghidotti College High School, took her husband and two children to Guantanamo Bay to teach history from the fall of 2015 until the summer of 2017. Heaton, who was raised in different countries around the world, wanted her children to experience life outside the U.S. while they were growing up too.
Yet, Guantanamo Bay was stranger than she anticipated.
“It’s 45 square miles of cognitive dissonance,” said Sid Heaton, Kristanne’s husband, explaining that much of the bay is serene, with strikingly beautiful wildlife and open spaces which quickly become closed off, limited to military personnel.
The couple described their experience at Sierra College’s Nevada County Campus as part of the Semana Latina celebration, an annual program to honor Latino culture.
“The prison was kind of removed from (my) school,” said Quinn Heaton of his time on the bay, adding that adults who worked on the military base weren’t allowed to speak with their kids about their jobs.
The family went on hikes, skipped rocks, and spent quality time together and exploring their “any-town USA” suburb of “Nob Hill” that felt like one could be in Clovis, California, said Sid. Except in this town, due to the lack of wifi and cellular reception, the Heaton’s spent time like it was the ‘80s, according to Sid.
“Without cell phones, everyone used their land lines,” he said.
That experience changed significantly when T-Mobile arrived in addition to a fiber optic cable, providing high speed internet to the bay before the family returned to the U.S. mainland.
Bay residents do have access video games, which Quinn and his friend would play and even screen for Guantanamo Bay prisoners.
“We would test out games and if it was anti-American or too violent, we would tell (my friend’s) dad, (a military officer), and he would say, ‘Okay, we won’t give them that one.’”
‘NATURE DOESN’T KNOW BORDERS
The family wasn’t able to explore Cuban culture as it didn’t really exist on the American base, Kristanne said. They did, however, experience the vast wildlife described as a “biologist’s dream.”
“Nature doesn’t know borders,” said Kristanne referring to animals like the West Indian Woodpecker, Cuban Tody bird, Bee Hummingbird and Cuban Rock Iguana.
The bay, Kristanne said, has been able to preserve its diverse ecosystem because it never industrialized, and did away with a deadly fertilizer many years ago.
“In Cuba, the corals are extremely healthy, and it might have something to do with them having stopped using fertilizer in 1990,” said Kristanne.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Christopher Columbus landed on Guantanamo Bay in 1494, said Kristanne, describing the native Taino people as kind and generous. Within 10 years of Columbus’ first visit, about 90 percent of the natives were decimated by “disease, mass murder and enslavement.”
“It wasn’t just the place where European dominance began, but it became the place where American domination starts as well,” said Kristanne.
In 1898, the United States went to war with the Spanish, winning control over Guam, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba and other nearby islands, said Kristanne.
In 1934, the Good Neighbor Policy revoked America’s rights to Cuba, but allowed the U.S. to keep their control over Guantanamo Bay. After Cuba’s Communist Revolution, the bay became America’s only base that is part of a “hostile country,” she said.
Today, the area is a hub for foreign workers, Cuban political refugees and a prison complex for suspected terrorists.
AMERICA IN GITMO TODAY
There are several reasons American is still in Guantanamo Bay, according to Kristanne.
“One reason is to keep an eye on communist Cuba,” she said, in addition to monitoring drug trafficking, sheltering Cuban political refugees, its geopolitical relevance and its prison.
When people discuss closing Gitmo, she said, they refer to the prison, but Guantanamo Bay is more than that.
“(Gitmo is) part of not just America’s popular culture, it’s also a global conversation going on all the time,” said Kristanne.
The actual prison was instituted after Sept. 11, 2001, when the Bush administration wanted to hold people captured during the war in Afghanistan. Because there were few legal rules the administration felt they needed to follow, they began making their own rules, which many say included torture and inhumane treatment, said Kristanne.
This led to court cases brought on behalf of Guantanamo Bay prisoners in 2004, 2006 and 2008, Kristanne said. She added the detention center may never close and court cases will linger indefinitely, because prisoners believe they will never be freed and the U.S. does not want to free them.
“I would say the main takeaway about the trials is that they’re ongoing,” said Kristanne. “There’s almost no end in sight.”
According to one estimation, around its peak, there were 731 prisoners in the military prison, which has been reduced to 40 today.
‘THE MILITARY’S A FAMILY’
Kristan set up field trips for her history classes to see the ongoing trials, which are public — but only for people able to get to Guantanamo Bay.
At his school, where his mom taught, Quinn played soccer.
“But since there wasn’t another high school team,” Quinn said, “we would play against the (soldier’s) or the Jamaican guys there, so we got beat in every time.”
The military complex aside, Quinn enjoyed his time on Guantanamo Bay.
“Aside from the prison, what I got from it is the military’s a family,” he said. “It’s a great community, and overall people are kind.”
Contact Sam Corey at 530-477-4219 or at email@example.com.
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