While traveling for two weeks on the closed-off military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba I've discovered that the island can best be described as "The Capital of Urban Legends".
(Warning: This post will be longer than the time it takes to drink an espresso... a direct consequence of only being able to find brewed coffee.)
A two-lane road, called Sherman Avenue, runs from one end of the naval base to the other, curving through brush and cacti. The path goes through mountains punctuated by views of the Bay and the Caribbean Sea. But what turns this area from bland to mysterious are the paved and unpaved roads that veer from the main highway, usually marked by signs that say: "Restricted" or "Warning". Gates often bar the way. Driving around the island means passing abandoned amunitions barracks, half-tube metal buildings in the middle of nowhere, an abandoned air landing strip, watch towers, and bulbous metal vents peeking out from small hills. Weird creatures also often cross this way, notably iguanas and opossum-size banana rats.
Located in the south-east corner of Cuba, Guatanamo Bay is forty-five square miles around with a current (but fluctuating) population of a little over 7,000. The naval base is entirely cut off from the rest of Cuba and any and all resources. Consequently, the base has its own desalination plant, electrical plant, and four windmills that produces one-third of its electrical power.
The base touts one-hundred percent employment. Residents, some of whom have retired here and some others who have worked on the base for more than two decades, cite this as the reason why property crime doesn't exist. (Never mind the fact that military law reigns in these parts and those who break the law often find themselves on a plane going off the island.) But as a consequence, people leave their cars unlocked, the doors of their homes open, and their personal belongings out in the open.
The base also hosts a melting pot of nationalities, with third country nationals making up one-third of the workforce, most originating from the Phillippines and Jamaica.
Getting There: Several military flights leave from Baltimore and Jacksonville on a weekly basis. Two commerical airliners also fly from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. We flew on Air Sunshine, a name that instills a smile of confidence. And you can be confident that, above all, nobody has ever heard of it.
At the Fort Lauderdale Airport, we find Air Sunshine's check-in counter downstairs, along an unmarked hallway, past the baggage claim in terminal three. The flight attendant (who is also the co-pilot and the baggage attendant) checks in passengers by carefully scrutinizing the hand-written tickets. He then checks the military paperwork that allows us to visit the base. Once all passengers are checked in, he disappears. Doors closed, bags gone, we wait at the empty check-in counter. And wait.
Long after the designated time for departure, the flight attendant returns and asks that everyone go to the bathroom. This will be a three hour flight (the Cubans don't allow Americans to use their airspace, so we have to take the long way around) and there is no lavatory on board. Thereafter, he punches at the keypad on a door next to the check-in counter and escorts us onto the tarmac where a 12-person plane awaits. The co-pilot waves us on board one-by-one, pointing to where we will sit.
The flight is smooth, the cabin air breathable and also wintery cold.
We land at dusk on a small runway on the Leeward side of the base, disembark while the co-pilot throws open the doors in the back of the plane and hands us each our luggage. We walk into a hangar chirping with birds, where a man at a podium meticulously checks our paperwork. Then we walk out to the bus stop that takes us to the ferry. The ferry takes us to the Windwood side of the base where most of the activity is located. (The bay cuts the base in half and the only way to get from one side to the other is via ferry.)
Where To Eat: Three galleys provide open buffets at designated hours three times a day. They're free for deployed members and cost about $4.00 per person for an all-you-can-eat meal. There's also an Irish Pub, KFC, A&W, Pizza Hut, the Tiki Bar, an officer's club (that offers Mongolian BBQ night on Thursdays), a cafe that serves Starbucks coffee, a Subway's, The Jerk House (an outside restaurant with Carribean food touting oxtail and spicy goat), and the Cuban Club (which, urban legend has it, actually serves Jamaican food advertised as Cuban).
What To Do: With one-hundred percent employment on base (if you don't work here, you can't be here), spending time working is your best option. With very little else around, eating is your next best bet for fun.
Cooper Field Recreation complex provides a run-down mini-golf course, a fitness center, a top-notch baseball, football, and track field made of artificial grass. There's also a fantastic skate park in the middle of it all that was built, as urban legend has it, by one of the former Admirals whose teenage daughter was an ace skateboarder and begged her daddy for the park as a Christmas gift.
Boating (fishing, sailing, diving) are also available. Jelly fish, starfish, barracudas, mackeral, and a bevy of sea life can be seen in these warm waters.
Lastly, there are a myraid of disappointing beaches with rocks and brown-moss coral. You can take a swim at Windmill Beach located right below the detention camp, at Ferry Landing adjacent to the rusting desalination and electrical plant, or at Kittery Beach by the watch tower manned twenty-four hours a day. Philips Dive Pier provides a metal plank and ladder from which you can go scuba diving. The water is tepid and the fish often glow in tropical colors. The kids can also enjoy searching for smoothed green and brown glass, left behind from beer bottles at Glass Beach.
Where To Stay: For those coming on short visits, the Navy Lodge -- located next to the open-air movie theater -- has a Holiday Inn-like feel.
For active duty military personnel along with their families stationed here (usually for three years), the suburbs along Sherman Avenue provide duplexes and fourplexes replete with backyards, garages and everything that Pleasantville has to offer. Neighborhoods are parsed into communities by names like Nob Hill and Windward Loop.
For third-country nationals, usually from Jamaica and the Phillippines, bachelor barracks are offered replete with evenings of loud rock music. Although unable to bring along their families (who they many visit -- as applicable -- by taking the rotator to Kingston on weekends for $25), urban legend has it that whoever works as a third-country national in this dorm-like environment for ten years or more, automatically is granted American citizenship.
For those fleeing their country by boat or by swimming, a refugee camp is available over on the island by the airport runway.
And finally, for those suspected of terrorist activities against the United States, the detention camp with its curly razor wire, two layers of green windscreens, and crunchy gravel for pavement is still available (though sources off the island claim not for much longer). It includes several camps replete with isolation cells, open bays, and twenty-four hour surveillance.
A Little Bit Of History: After the Spanish-American War that gave Cubans independence from colonial Spain, the first President of Cuba, Tomas Estrada Palma, granted the United States a perpetual lease on the land of Guantanamo Bay by the terms of the Cuban-American Treaty of 1903.
In 1934 the Avery Porko Treaty reaffirmed the lease, increasing the American payment from $2,000 to $4,085 per year. The treaty also made the lease permanent unless both governments agreed to break it. After the Cuban Revolution, in spite of Fidel Castro's pronouncements that the Americans held the property illegally, the U.S. refused to break the treaty and continued, even up to this day, to send the rent checks -- which continue to remain uncashed by the Cuban government.
By 1961, Cuba created an eight mile barrier of Opuntia cactus along a slice of the American fence. Dubbed "Cactus Curtain" that alluded to the Iron Curtain in Europe, the action led both the U.S. and Cuban military to place more than 55,000 land mines across the 'no man's land' between the U.S.-Cuban border, the second-largest minefield in the world.
Castro then continued to cut the area off completely from Cuban resources. While water had been supplied from the Yateras River from 1939 onwards, in 1964 Castro stopped the flow and then began accusing the U.S. of stealing water. In reaction, the Americans cut the pipelines entirely and relocated a desalination plant from San Diego, California onto the base.
Since 2002, the base has expanded operations to include the detention camp for political prisoners from abroad. At some point, the prisoners numbered upwards of 800. As of its eighth anniversary, coming up this January, the prison holds about 200 detainees, most of whose crimes are hazy or unknown to the American public and whose lawyers are negotiating with various countries for their release. But the detention camp also holds within its confines several of the most notorious terrorists, notably Khalid Sheikh Mohammed -- the man responsible for masterminding the 9/11 terrorist attacks and beheading Daniel Pearl.
So What Are The Legends? Residents time and again roll their eyes at media reports about Guantanamo. They live on this base, work at the facilities, and are a small community where everybody knows and sees everything. They also watch television and read the newspapers, keeping abreast of what's said about Guantanamo. The near unanimous feeling is that journalists (both in America and world-wide) lie and create science fictions about what happens here. Nevertheless, the naval base invites hoardes of journalists to visit each year, believing that transparency protects everyone all-around.
Lately, the most prominent rumor maintains that Osama bin-Laden is being hidden at a black site somewhere here by deep-deep cover intelligence officers.
Another urban legend maintains that male guards have had sexual relations with the prisoners at the detention camp. The urban legend of this urban legend is that a Colonel deliberately made up the story in order to dicourage guards from making friends with the prisoners -- the reason for his decision, if true, being obvious to anyone who understands prison management.
The Cuban press has cultivated numerous urban legends. They claim that four Cubans (two soldiers) were murdered in the 1960's by Americans on the base, one of them a humble fisherman who was kidnapped, tortured and assassinated. Americans at Guantanamo, on the other hand, say that there was a time when Cuban refugees came into the camp in droves. The American government responded by giving each Cuban $5,000 in cash and then flew them to Miami where they immediately became American citizens and lived freely as they wished.
No doubt, Guatanamo Bay is here to stay and as a strategic American military installation, it will continue to attract attention along with its accompanying urban legends for some time to come.
Which legends do you believe?