At Large

Where Gitmo Meets Castro

Scenes from the Cuban border.

By 3.14.08

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GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA -- For anyone wishing to see what it would be like to live under communism, the Cuban border with America's naval base at Guantanamo Bay offers a brief but decidedly memorable taste.

Standing near Gitmo's Northeast gate, the lone crossing point between the base and Cuba, you have the disturbing feeling that you are being watched. And so, of course, you are. Dotting the green hillsides beyond the gate are observation towers from which the Cuban military surveys the border. Because their glimpse into the base itself is limited -- about 75 percent of Gitmo, including the strategic headquarters and the detainee camps, lie outside of their scope of vision -- they are forever watching for that other threat to the glories of Castro's revolution: defectors.

It doesn't quite line up with what one may hear from Amnesty International and its ilk, but in fact there is a long line of people waiting to get into Gitmo. The U.S. Coast Guard reportedly intercepts some 600 refugees, not all of them from Cuba, in the sea around the base every month. Gitmo itself houses around 30 migrants at any given time.

Most refugees have no such luck. For the few asylum seekers that are allowed to remain on the base, about 70 percent are repatriated to Cuba. Before reentering the country, they are forced to recite a pledge of allegiance to Cuba, a ritual of long standing that under the circumstances seems more like cruel and unusual punishment.

STILL, THERE HAVE BEEN some improvements. For instance, migrants fleeing into Guantanamo are now considerably less likely to be blown up. Whereas there were once nearly 60,000 landmines scattered in and around the base's perimeter, all but six have been removed on the American side. This is a credit to the Clinton administration, which ordered Gitmo de-mined in 1997 after wisely refusing to sign an international treaty outlawing anti-personnel mines. (The Cuban side of the border is still mined.)

To be sure, there is still the matter of those other six mines, and as one wanders the grounds along the border, it takes on a certain urgency. "Once a minefield, always a minefield," observes Marine Corporal Munoz, my guide here, not at all reassuringly.

WHAT MAKES THESE HAZARDS worth braving is the rich history of the Northeast gate. In many ways, it's the history of the last 50 years of Cuban-American relations in microcosm -- a natural progression from mutual suspicion, to overt confrontation, to the resigned acceptance that prevails today.

Although the U.S. took charge of Guantanamo in 1903, relations deteriorated with Castro's ascent to power. By the early 1960s, the Marine barracks near the gate had become a favorite target of torment for the Cuban military.

At nights, while Marines tried to sleep, Cuban soldiers would sneak near the fence to hurl rocks at the tin roofs. To this the Marines responded by building a 40-foot-tall, strategically placed fence to intercept the nighttime barrage. When the Cubans struck back by affixing wire hangers to the fence, to be rattled like wind chimes by the late-night breezes, the Marines added barbed wire to keep trespassers away from the fence. Not to be outdone, the Cubans began beaming spotlights into the barracks.

And that was when Vice Admiral John Duncan Bulkeley, Gitmo's commander in the sixties, conceived a scheme that would find no answer from the Cuban side. For one month, the Seabees, the Navy's construction force, labored on a hillside beneath the barracks. When they were done, the face of the hillside had become a display for a giant, concrete version of the Eagle, Globe and Anchor, the Marine Corps' official emblem. No longer would the hill or the barracks be illuminated by the Cubans. For their part, the Marines rather liked the idea, building a floodlight that today stands above the emblem, framing it against the dark of the Caribbean night.

Bygones are not quite bygones, but between the two militaries there is something like a rapprochement. Every month, Marine Corps commanders meet with their counterparts in the Cuban military. The Marine Corps' barracks near the Northeast gate, long since abandoned, serves as the venue. Although the meetings are friendly, the subjects of discussion are necessarily limited. For the most part, the two sides discuss asylum seekers. "After that, we talk about baseball," says Corporal Munoz, who serves as the translator for the Marines. "We never talk about politics."

ANY HOPE THAT Castro's resignation in mid-February would herald a thaw in relations between Cuba and Guantanamo Bay has thus far gone unfulfilled. The new government of Raul Castro has made no overtures. Even the monthly military-to-military meetings have been on hiatus. And while Gitmo's commanders would like to see relations improve, they're not optimistic.

Their pessimism is well-founded. For all the hopeful coverage that greeted Castro's withdrawal from power, little has so far changed in Cuba. The dim figures of Cuban intelligence monitoring the border for any sign of defection, just as they have done for decades, are stark reminders that history has not ended here. It has merely stood still.

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About the Author

Jacob Laksin is a writer in New York City.