At Guantanamo, the feel of small-town America

100-year-old U.S. base is like Mayberry in Cuba

December 26, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba - The sun has not yet begun to rise over the Caribbean Sea when Selvin Butler Fairweather sets out on what must rank among the world's most unusual commutes.

The hourlong journey takes the supply manager from his home in the city of Guantanamo, Cuba, across a minefield, past coils of barbed wire and through a Cuban military checkpoint to his job at this American base.

The 76-year-old Butler is one of five Cubans still working at Guantanamo Bay more than four decades after Washington severed diplomatic relations with the government of Fidel Castro.

The last members of a labor force that once numbered in the thousands, they are now the only people allowed to pass through the gate that separates the U.S. military outpost from communist Cuba.

The commuters, as they're known here, are just one element of an eclectic population that also includes U.S. service members and their families, Jamaican and Filipino laborers, Cuban exiles and migrating Haitians.

America's oldest overseas base - the United States leased the 45-square-mile compound 100 years ago this month - may also be its most unusual.

Along the 17-mile fence line, U.S. Marines stare down the Frontier Brigade of Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces.

At Camp Delta, military police guard about 660 terror suspects captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But neither the enemy within nor the adversary beyond seems to disturb the tranquility of this compound of palm trees and pastel-colored buildings, the only U.S. military installation in a communist country.

Never mind the dog-sized rock iguanas or the cat-sized banana rats - or the distant pop when one sets off an aging mine. With school bake sales and Little League baseball, country music on the radio and an open-air movie theater downtown, the only McDonald's in Cuba and Old Glory everywhere, this community of 6,000 has successfully assumed the look and feel of small-town America.

"We're what people call Mayberry RFD with bad neighbors," jokes Navy Capt. Les McCoy, the base commander, who calls himself the mayor of Guantanamo Bay.

In truth, relations with the neighbors have rarely been better. Guards in watchtowers once exchanged insults, obscene gestures and, occasionally, gunfire across the mined no man's land that separates the base from Oriente province.

Now McCoy sits down once a month with Gen. Jose Solar Hernandez, second-in-command of forces in eastern Cuba, to discuss security, migrants and other topics of mutual concern, and make small talk about baseball and fishing.

"We don't talk politics," McCoy says. "So, no matter what the rhetoric is between Havana and Washington, it doesn't play into our meetings."

Castro has called the base a dagger in Cuba's heart. The United States demanded this prime real estate as spoils of the Spanish-American War of 1898. Under a 1934 treaty, Washington agreed to pay an annual rent of $2,000.

Castro, who gained power in 1959, considers the agreement illegal and the base occupied territory. He has refused to cash the yearly check.

With the advent of Castro, the base stopped hiring Cubans and began importing Jamaicans and Filipinos. A desalination plant on the base now produces water and electricity; food arrives from Jacksonville, Fla., by barge every other week.

Isolated from the rest of Cuba for more than 40 years, Guantanamo Bay has developed its own downtown. A small shopping center boasts a supermarket and department store, video rental store and Subway.

The theater plays free movies under the stars, a dive shop rents scuba gear, and golfers can tee off on a nine-hole course.

"There's so much to do," says Navy Yeoman 2nd Class Tamara Wynn, 23. "Every day the weather's so great, you always have outside sports."

Butler Fairweather began working at the base in 1952 as a member of the airfield crash-fire crew. The $430 he now earns weekly, managing supplies, allows him to live in relative wealth in Guantanamo.

"I'm grateful for it," he says in the island lilt of his Jamaican parents. "I think I've done fairly good, hanging on all this time."

The dwindling of the commuters, who range in age from the 60s to the 80s, presents a problem for the United States. The five men - down from 10 a year ago - carry pension payments to the hundreds of former base workers living in surrounding towns. There is no other way for the U.S. government to transfer money to individuals in Cuba.

"We can't just hand dollars through the gate," McCoy says. "We are working with the State Department to come up with a solution."

The permanent population includes several dozen Cubans who defected in the 1960s. Many left families behind, remarried and have become U.S. citizens; McCoy says they can stay as long as they wish.

Cubans who try to cross the minefield or swim to the base today, however, may be repatriated. The "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy, in which the United States generally allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to stay, does not apply here.

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