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Guantanamo Base: Past and Present of US Fortress in Cuba - 2002-02-11

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has described the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as the "least worst place" to hold Taleban and al-Qaida detainees captured in Afghanistan. Guantanamo, an arid, dusty 115 square kilometer facility, exists on the southeastern corner of an island-nation with which the United States has no official diplomatic relations. For years, an uneasy calm has prevailed along the fence that separates the base from the rest of Cuba.

Traveling the main roads at Guantanamo, it is easy to forget one is in Cuba. The American flag flies everywhere, and one passes a McDonalds, a mini-shopping mall of sorts, a golf course and clusters of American-style suburban homes.

But the scenery is vastly different along the base's 28 kilometer perimeter. A fence reinforced with razor wire runs as far as the eye can see, punctuated by guard towers on both sides and broken only by a single gate.

Marine Major Scott Packard commands security operations along the perimeter. He points to a section of the fence that is some 20 meters taller than anywhere else.

"That fence was erected in 1964 in response to Cuban soldiers throwing rocks and rotten fruit at the [U.S.] Marines. You can see where Cuban soldiers climbed up and hung anti-American banners with coat hangers," he said.

U.S. troops first landed at Guantanamo Bay during the Spanish-American War in 1898, and the United States signed a formal lease with Cuba's newly independent government five years later. A subsequent treaty established that the United States could remain at Guantanamo indefinitely.

Tensions along the perimeter rose after Cuba's communist revolution in 1959, especially during the failed, U.S. backed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis a year later. Cuban President Fidel Castro ordered water cut-off to the facility in 1964, and later had tens of thousands of mines laid on the Cuban side of the fence.

Tensions have since eased. To the surprise of many Cuba observers, President Castro has not protested the use of Guantanamo as a holding facility for Taleban and al-Qaida detainees.

Nevertheless, Major Packard says both sides remain wary of each other. Every month, he and the base's commanding officer meet at the gate with Cuban military officials in an effort to keep the peace.

"I would say the meetings are cordial. They are formal; there is no first-name basis. The talks are military-to-military. There are local issues discussed: usually mundane issues like construction along the fence line to ensure that it is not misinterpreted. The continuing dialogue helps ensure that events do not spiral out of control and there is no misunderstanding," he said.

Major Packard says, despite the formality, occasionally baseball or fishing is brought up. Asked whether the two sides have every considered competing in a friendly game of baseball or softball, the major says simply, "No." Nevertheless, he says both sides make an effort to be hospitable during the meetings.

"When we have the meetings on the Cuban side, there is Cuban coffee, an assortment of Cuban pastries, Cuban fruit, particularly guava, that is very tasty," he said.

In the early and mid-1990's the United States used Guantanamo as a holding facility for 47,000 Haitians and Cubans intercepted at sea. The base's history has special meaning for Navy Chief Petty Officer Gabe Puello, a Cuban-American whose family fled Cuba in the early 1960's.

"If you look at the way the base is situated, the minefields exist outside of Guantanamo. They are not [designed] to keep the folks from Guantanamo from going over there [to Cuba], but to keep Cuban people from jumping over the fence and coming over here," Gabe Puello said.

Every few months, a Cuban national does attempt to negotiate the treacherous path to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay. Some make it, many do not.