Gitmo: Cuba's 'Dagger in the Heart'

By David Abel |  The Sun-Sentinel  |   3/14/1999

GUANTANAMO, Cuba -- Like any capitalist, Pedro Hope knows how to hawk his services and lure the mighty dollar.

The English-speaking guide leads tourists to a lookout point above what's perhaps this country's most despised relic of American influence, the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay.

"It's like no where else in the world; it's very impressive," Hope goads a prospective dollar-paying client. "On one side is the American flag, and on the other is the Cuban flag. It's very striking."

As the 20th century draws to a close, the nation's oldest overseas military base has become an oddity rather than a strategic necessity. Guantanamo Naval Station is carved from the eastern end of the last Communist country in the hemisphere, a country that has had no formal relations with the United States for nearly 40 years. Once viewed as the last foothold of democracy against Communist hegemony, the base guarded the eastern approach to the Panama Canal.

But with the demise of the Cold War and the return of the Canal Zone to the Panamanian government by year's end, Guantanamo's purpose is less clear. Most recently it has been used to detain immigrants from Haiti and Cuba that have tried to cross the Straits of Florida on rickety rafts and boats to Florida's shores. Still, the $30 million a year and 3,500 people support what many Cubans view as a painful symbol of US imperialism.

On a good week, more than 100 tourists -- mainly European -- pay tour guides like Hope for a tour that lasts nearly an hour. His $5 fee equals two weeks' wages for the average Cuban. For a few dollars more a government taxi driver will clear three heavily armed Cuban checkpoints to Mt. Malones, a 900-foot hill that overlooks the base and the sprawling port city of Guantanamo.

There, the Cold War hasn't ended.

On the U.S. side of the decades-old trenches, lookout towers and scattered land mines that make up the no-man's-land separating the base from the city, helicopters ferry uniformed men from one side of bay to the other, rising above manicured lawns and gleaming, white-and-blue buildings. On the other side, horse-drawn carriages scurry through dank streets and past dilapidated buildings whose last paint job predates Fidel Castro's ascension to power in 1959.

The stark contrast is nothing new to George Harris. The 74-year-old son of Jamaican immigrants has worked at the Guantanamo base since 1939. The cigar-chewing career employee, who worked his way up from busboy in the Bachelor Officer's Quarters to base vehicle inspector, is one of 19 Cubans who started making the daily trek from Cuban to U.S. territory before the revolution.

"I stay here because I'm Cuban and my family lives here," says Harris, who like other civilian employees has the option of retiring in the U.S. "Many have moved. But, for us, we have the best of both worlds. We can live in our country and still have some of the advantages of the U.S."

Harris still follows a daily routine that once involved several thousand Cuban base employees. He wakes in the dark, walks a few blocks down a dirt road and waits for the 5 a.m. bus to the base. About an hour later, after picking up the others, the Cuban bus passes two checkpoints and drops the employees off on a paved road. Then the group walks 1,100 meters (about a half-mile) to catch a white school bus waiting on the U.S. side.

"You don't see the guns after a while; it becomes a job like any other job," Harris says. "About the only difference now is that we can take dollars off the base. We can't take anything else."

Cuban base employees can dine in base restaurants, shop in its well-stocked supermarket and watch the latest Hollywood flicks at the base movie theater. But the Cuban government forbids the civilian employees from bringing any products off the base.

Tensions over Guantanamo began long before US-Cuba relations soured and then snapped. Despite employing thousands of Cubans at one time and infusing needed cash into the local economy, the base has symbolized U.S. imperialism.

The naval station is a legacy of the US victory in the Spanish-American War. In 1903, the U.S. government signed an unlimited $2,000-a-year lease agreement for the 45-acre base with a fledgling Cuban government. Since then, the rent has risen to $4,085, although in 1934, the Cuban government negotiated a 99-year limit on the lease.

Immeditely after the revolution, Cuba cut off water and electricity to the station, and banned U.S. troops from entering its territory. Castro has called the base a dagger plunged into the heart of Cuban soil.

Most recently, the naval station has served as a refugee camp for more than 50,000 Haitians and Cubans intercepted on their way to Florida during the summer of 1994. A small number have been there for several years, awaiting clearance to enter a third country. Some of those waiting went on hunger strike more than a year ago, to protest the delay.

Capt. Larry Larson, Guantanamo's commanding officer, said the base also supports drug interdiction efforts and maintains the Navy's Caribbean presence.

But a senior State Department official acknowledged the base serves little purpose today other than acting as a thorn in communist Cuba's side. The official said it's possible that Guantanamo may one day serve as a bargaining chip in a rapprochement between the two countries.

That makes Santiago Teofilo nervous. The 82-year-old retired office clerk fears the base will close and he will no longer be able to collect his pension.

"I'm an honest person and never got mixed up in politics," Teofilo says. "I just want to know that I won't lose my income." The one-time toilet scrubber began working in 1943 for 32 cents an hour. He lives on his pension of more than $1,000 a month.

Most of the base's visitors come through the Villa Gaviota, a hotel in Santiago de Cuba about 50 miles west of Guantanamo. There, tourist officials furnish those interested with a glossy brochure called, "Cuba: The Natural Way." Inside the brochure, smiling tourists hold hands over beers in a recently built restaurant on Mt. Malones.

In the hazy distance, over a rare, cactus-speckled desert that hugs the hillsides is the network of roads that make up the 96-year-old naval base.

"It's a very weird view," says Hope, the tour guide, referring to the base. "At least now, you can sit at a restaurant, in comfort, and see a relic of the Cold War."

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