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America's Cuban Territory

Long before the arrival of al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners, the U.S. base at Guantánamo Bay has been a source of tension and controversy
John Lantigua
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Spy Scandal, May/Jun 02

(continued from page 1)

On June 27, 1958, rebel forces led by Raul Castro, Fidel's brother and now head of the Cuban armed forces, kidnapped 29 U.S. sailors and marines who were returning from leave inside Cuba. U.S. servicemen regularly roamed the island, especially the nearby city of Guantánamo's bars and brothels, the latter located in the aptly named zona de tolerancia, or zone of tolerance.

The captives were released three weeks later, unharmed. But on January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro assumed power in Havana, and the United States immediately prohibited its forces stationed at Gitmo from entering Cuban territory.

Before the revolution, many Cubans worked on the base in civilian positions. But the United States, afraid of infiltration by spies, stopped hiring locals to staff those jobs. Those already employed at the base were allowed to continue after further background investigation, and today 10 aging Cuban "commuters" still work there, walking through the main gate every day. The other nonmilitary positions were filled by specially recruited foreign nationals. Jamaican stewards, for example, work in the officers quarters, and Filipinos run the ferry that connects the two sides of the base.

On January 4, 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower announced the formal break in relations between the United States and Cuba, but emphasized that the rupture had "no effect on the status of our Naval Station at Guantánamo."

Despite that declaration, the laid-back tenor of life at the base did change. At the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion, in April 1961, Guantánamo was put on high alert, although it was geographically far from the action. Later that year, Castro planted his cactus curtain. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, dependents of the military personnel and other civilians were evacuated. In 1964, after Cuban fishermen were fined for entering Florida waters, Castro cut off fresh water to the base. In response, the United States imported water and then relocated a desalinization plant from the mainland.

Underwater fencing was strung to head off those trying to enter Gitmo from the sea. Both the Cubans and the Americans planted land mines on either side of the 17.4-mile fence that defines the land borders of the base, the United States alone burying some 50,000 of them.

The two sides also constructed watchtowers to oversee that mined "no man's land" and staffed them with guards toting automatic weapons. Occasionally, shots were fired across the fence, and the Cubans claim several of their border guards were killed in the early years. (The United States denies the allegation.) But no one can recall a shot fired in anger since 1972. For the next 20 years or so, Gitmo was visited by balmy breezes and the occasional storm, but not much else—until the Caribbean immigration emergency broke on its shores in the mid-1990s.

The crisis was precipitated by riots in Havana in August 1994, in response to which the Cuban government announced that it would not block attempts by its citizens to leave the island. Tens of thousands shoved off to sea in boats and rafts, trying to reach the United States. Reacting to the human tide, the Clinton administration decreed that it would no longer allow Cuban refugees to automatically enter the United States, but would pick them up at sea and stash them at Guantánamo while it reviewed their asylum applications. Some 20,000 Haitians were already detained there, after having been intercepted at sea trying to escape their ravaged land for the coasts of Florida. Almost all of them were eventually sent back to Haiti.

By 1995, some 51,000 refugees populated Guantánamo. They lived in camps called Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, etc. and one denominated Camp X-ray, a cell block for those considered dangerous. It is in a new incarnation of Camp X-ray that the captives from the Afghan war were locked up in early 2002.

For the majority of Cuban and Haitian refugees, Guantánamo was a very different experience than it is for the Taliban fighters and suspected Al Qaeda members. The Cubans and Haitians lived in tent cities, which included busy streets, churches, libraries, clinics, playing fields, community centers and a refugee government. They organized dances and staged concerts by such Cuban-American performers as Gloria Estefan.

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