U.S. Naval Base
The U.S. Naval Base (www.nsgtmo.navy.mil), which is colloquially referred to as Gitmo, for the official airport code, GTMO, occupies both sides of the entrance to Guantánamo Bay, which is inhabited by endangered manatees and marine turtles (iguanas, the unofficial Gitmo mascot, roam on land).
The Naval Air Station (NAS), on the western side of the bay, is separated by four kilometers of water from the naval station, on the east side. Hence, the bay is crisscrossed by helicopters, boats, and an hourly ferry, while Cuban vessels also pass to and fro (the treaty guarantees free access to the waters to Cuban vessels and those of Cuba’s trading partners heading in and out of the Cuban port of Boquerón; an Anti-Air Warfare Center monitors Cuban traffic).
The bay is ringed by Cuban military bases, two Cuban naval facilities (Glorieta and Boquerón) and Mirador de Malones (U.S. marines call it “Castro’s Bunker”), a command center buried deep beneath the mountain on the east side of the bay. Unbelievably, visits to the bunker have been permitted in past years, but no longer. Check with Infotur in town.
The main gate (permanently closed since 1959) is at Caimanera, 22 kilometers south of Guantánamo. This small Cuban town is surrounded by salt flats; its economy is based on salt, fishing, and a Frontera Brigada military complex. Before the Revolution, many caimaneros worked on the U.S. Naval Base, while caimaneras worked in the strip joints and the brothels that were the town’s staple industry.
Caimanera is a restricted military zone, and visits by foreigners are limited to excursions offered by Habanatur (Fri.–Sun. 8 a.m.–5 p.m. for individuals, Sat.–Sun. for groups, CUC12 per person with cocktail and lunch); 24 hours notice is required. Individuals may be able to get a pass from Infotur or Habanatur after MININT checks you out.
The situation is fluid and depends on the state of international relations. If you visit, from the three-story observation tower of the Hotel Caimanera you can look out past Cuban watchtowers to the naval base that Castro has called “a dagger plunged in the heart of Cuban soil,” and that blazes brightly at night like a mini–Las Vegas.
Gitmo is the only U.S. overseas military base located in a Communist country. It’s also a constant thorn in the side of Cuban–U.S. relations. Since 1903 the United States has held an indefinite lease on the property, which it claimed as a prize at the end of the Spanish-American War. The 45 square miles of land and water were formally handed over to the United States in ceremonies aboard the USS Kearsarge, anchored in the bay, on December 10, 1903.
The Platt Amendment, which “granted” use of the base to Uncle Sam, was dropped in 1934, and a new treaty was signed. Although it confirmed Cuba’s “ultimate sovereignty,” the treaty stipulated that the lease would be indefinite and could be terminated only by agreement of both parties (or if the United States decides to pull out). In the original lease, the United States agreed to pay Cuba the sum of US$2,000 in gold per year.
In 1934, when gold coins were discontinued, the rent was upped to US$4,085, payable by U.S. Treasury check. The first rent check that Uncle Sam paid to Castro’s regime, in 1959, was cashed. Since then Fidel, who refuses to accept the legitimacy of the treaty, has refused to cash the checks.
The gates were closed on January 1, 1959, and have not been reopened.
Life on the Base
Today, 9,500 U.S. servicemen live here amid all the comforts of a small Midwestern town. There are five swimming pools, four outdoor movie houses, 400 miles of paved road, and a golf course. McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell even have concessions—the only ones in Cuba. Another 7,000 civilians also work here, including a small number of Cubans who chose to remain following the Revolution, while a dwindling number of Cubans also “commute” to work daily through the base’s Northeast Gate.
In 1964 the Cuban government cut off the base’s water supply. It was replaced with a seawater desalinization plant that today provides 3,000,000 gallons of fresh water daily, along with electrical power.
The facility was until recently ringed by the largest U.S. minefield in the world, laid down during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 but dug up and disarmed in 1999. The Cuban mines remain, as does a “cactus curtain” meant to deter defectors from Cuba from reaching the base. Nonetheless, each year many Cuban “fence-jumpers” risk death to reach a “paradise” promised by radio and television stations broadcasting from the base.
Since 2002, the base has been used to house suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists.
Castro has proposed to make the base a regional medical center for all of the Caribbean if Uncle Sam relinquishes his hold.
Getting to Gitmo
Prior permission to visit Gitmo is required from the U.S. military and isn’t granted to your average Joe. Air Sunshine (tel. 954/434-8900 or 800/327-8900, http://airsunshine.com) flies between Fort Lauderdale and Gitmo (Sun.–Thurs., US$250 each way).
Trains run to Caimanera fromGuantánamo four times daily.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition