By ANITA SNOW – Associated Press – May 28, 2000

GUANTANAMO, Cuba (AP) _ The watchtowers along the barbed wire severing the U.S. military base from communist territory bear silent witness to decades of Cold War still playing out in southeastern Cuba.

An American UH-1N Huey helicopter buzzes the line, swirling dust around cactus and grayish henequen plants dotting the sun-baked semidesert that hugs the deep blue Guantanamo Bay.

Camouflage-clad Cuban soldiers schooled in the politics of Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Karl Marx keep watch in what they call “free territory.”

But while Cuba’s elite Frontier Brigade considers Guantanamo the front line of defense against the “Yanqui enemy,” tensions that once crackled along 17.4 miles of tornado fencing are now whispers.

“There has been a relaxation since around 1995,” Col. Gamalier Estevez, the Frontier Brigade’s commander, said during a rare visit by American journalists to the area patrolled outside the 45-square-mile U.S. base. “Before, there were many provocations by American soldiers.”

Although the U.S. government says Cuba poses no military threat since the break up of the Soviet Union, it retains the base for training and drug interdiction. The Cubans feel compelled to guard their side because the Americans remain.

Things first loosened in the early 1990s after communism collapsed in eastern European nations allied with Cuba. Tensions calmed more in the mid-1990s after Cuba and the United States signed migration accords and the base closed camps that had housed tens of thousands of U.S.-bound Haitians and Cubans plucked from rickety rafts on the high sea.

Most migrants picked up at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard are now automatically taken home rather than sent to the base for processing. Fewer Cubans also try to emigrate to the United States by swimming, snorkeling or even walking across mine fields to the base.

The U.S. Navy says Cuban migrants picked up in the area are still processed by U.S. Immigration and Naturalization officials assigned to the base, but there are only about 20 to 60 would-be Cuban immigrants at the base at any given time.


With the Soviet threat gone and the immigration problem largely resolved, the United States in 1996 quietly began deactivating thousands of land mines placed as a deterrent to Cuban attack.

The base population is down by about half over the last decade. Today, it is home to about 3,300 people, with 1,200 military and civil service personnel, 800 dependents and 1,300 contract employees made up of U.S. citizens, Cuban exiles and Jamaican and Filipino foreign nationals.

The Cubans retain tens of thousands of mines on their side of the fence, but the number of Cuban soldiers is down, mostly because of the economic crisis that hit Cuba when it lost its subsidies from the Soviet bloc. The number of soldiers in the Frontier Brigade has dropped 30 percent since the early 1990s, from 13,000 to about 9,000, Estevez said.

About half the watchtowers on each side are now manned, and have been moved far back from the perimeter. Just after the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro to power, posts were as close as 100 yards to the fence. Sentries could see and gesture to each other, sparking clashes.

Cuba over the years has documented 13,498 “provocative actions” by the Americans, including gunshots that killed eight Cubans and wounded 15. Among those actions were 738 shots fired toward Cuban territory, 6,330 violations of air space and 1,555 obscene gestures, according to the communist government.

Cuba says the last death was soldier Luis Lopez Ramirez, 20, felled in 1966 by an American bullet. The final shot, which shattered a watchtower window, came from the U.S. side on Dec. 7, 1989, a day of national mourning for Cuban soldiers killed in the southern African nation of Angola.

Periodic meetings between the U.S. base commander and his Cuban counterpart have helped reduce clashes along the fence line, the U.S. Navy says. Both sides describe the relationship as professional and businesslike.


The only things flying over the fence now are TV signals from the U.S. Armed Forces Network, which Cubans can pick up on Channel 8.

“Good Morning America,” reruns of talk show host David Letterman and spots about the history of Rhode Island and Nebraska flicker on TV sets in Cuban neighborhoods.

Armed Forces Radio broadcasts American heavy metal music amid Cuban stations airing the 1960s folk music of troubadour Pablo Milanes and salsa tunes.

The television and radio programs evidently are intended only for American military and their dependents. But the Cuban government, sensitive to the four-decade propaganda war, keeps careful track of the shows.

Sitting at his small mahogany desk at Frontier Brigade headquarters, Estevez unrolls a map he ordered brought in from the “secret office.”

“BASE NAVAL YANQUI EN GTMO” reads the area at the bottom. Above, Armed Forces Network penetration is shown in Cuban neighborhoods.

It also lists the results of a painstaking study: children’s shows, 10 to 12 hours weekly; “Soul Train,” one hour; musical shows, nine to 10; major league sports, 10 to 12; movies, 56.

“People are not prohibited from watching it, but we do not encourage it,” the colonel said. “We ourselves here do not use it.”


The U.S. government seized Guantanamo Bay in 1898, when U.S. Marines landed during the Spanish-American war, known here as the Spanish-Cuban war.

The base’s first lease was signed in 1903 and the United States agreed to pay Cuba 2,000 gold coins a year, now valued at $4,085. Washington continues to pay the lease every year, but Castro’s government refuses to cash the checks.

Located where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean, President Theodore Roosevelt once called Guantanamo an “absolutely necessary strategic base” for controlling the eastern route to the Panama Canal.

Under a subsequent lease negotiated in 1934, the land would revert to Cuban control only if abandoned or by mutual consent. There are no signs the U.S. government plans to leave anytime soon.

“This is an area of great strategic importance since the Windward Passage is the main east coast artery for trade between North and South America,” Navy Capt. Larry E. Larson, the base commander, said via e-mail shortly before he gave up the post May 12 to take a Pentagon position.

“It is imperative to our national interests that we maintain a strong presence in this part of the world,” Larson said.

Along with providing support to the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, the base is home to a counter-narcotics task force made up of Coast Guard, Customs Service and Drug Enforcement Agency officials who monitor drug smuggling in the Caribbean.

Castro resents the base’s role in early U.S. plots to oust him. Defense Department documents described one scheme to simulate the sinking of a U.S. warship in +Guantanamo+ Bay to provide a pretext for invading Cuba.

Castro made several references to the base during the national campaign to bring back 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez to Cuba. During a May Day speech focusing on the boy, Castro said the Cuban people also would continue to “fight for the return to our homeland of the territory illegally occupied in our country.”


In 1964, Cuba cut off the base’s water, telephone service and electricity. Since then, it has relied on desalination equipment for water and twice-monthly barge shipments of food and other supplies.

Despite isolating the base, Cuba has allowed citizens to work there, although the work forces has dwindled over the decades from thousands to hundreds to today’s 17.

They arrive each day, passing Frontier Brigade guards and U.S. Marines, to enter a small structure on the perimeter where they change from regular clothes into coveralls before entering the base.

At day’s end, the workers change back and board a bus for the town of Caimanera. Now mostly in their 70s, they are reluctant to talk.

One canceled an interview, saying he had family business. Another grumbled about a television camera videotaping his ride home. Locals said the workers feared losing jobs that are among the few that earn coveted U.S. dollars in Guantanamo, Cuba’s poorest and most isolated province.

Retired workers like Aristides Agustin, 79, are considered lucky. In Caimanera, where 5,000 people live in old wooden houses on the shore of Guantanamo Bay, most people survive on the equivalent of about $10 a month. Agustin, who worked at the base from 1942 to 1972 as a gardener, carpenter and crate packer, gets a $250 pension each month, delivered in cash by a man who still works on the base.

Agustin fought for years before the American government agreed he was due retirement pay. “There are a lot of former workers who don’t get paid,” he said.


The best view from the Cuban side is Malones Lookout, 1,056 feet above sea level, where tourists can peer over a rock wall at the U.S. base stretching across the green-gray vegetation.

A magnification viewer gives a close-up of the golf course, the white steepled church, the barracks, the family housing. Sometimes yellow buses carrying American children home from school crawl across the landscape.

To the left, between two hills close to the open sea, is where the camps for Haitian and Cuban migrants stood.

“That’s where they were going to put the Kosovars,” said Estevez. “Everything was prepared.”

Plans to house refugees from Kosovo at the base were discussed, then abandoned, last year.

Estevez looks forward to the day the base is abandoned altogether.

“Then we would convert it into a tourist attraction,” he said. “And we would bring all the residents of Guantanamo to go work there.”


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