Guantanamo Bay Base Has Storied Past
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
NAVAL BASE GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, Aug. 24, 2004 The eyes of the world are focused on this remote Navy base as hearings begin in the first four military commissions for detainees from the war on terrorism.
But the base's commander, Navy Capt. Les McCoy, wants people to know his end of the island is "not a penal colony."
"This is a community that happens to have a maximum-security prison attached to it," he said.
At 101 years old, Naval Base Guantanamo Bay is America's oldest active overseas military base. The positioning of a prison for enemy combatants from the war on terrorism has focused attention on, and led to the revitalization of, a base that had been in a period of decline. The population of the base has tripled in the past two and a half years, McCoy said.
Set up as a naval coaling station, "Gitmo," as the base is affectionately known, evolved into a refueling station as technology advanced. The base was leased in 1903 for $2,000 per year on a perpetual basis. In 1934, the lease was renegotiated to $4,085 per year.
The U.S. State Department sends a check to the Cuban government every July, but, McCoy said, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro has only cashed one -- in 1959, the year he took power.
The relationship between the United States and its closest communist neighbor has resulted in arrangements and agreements that are unique to this location. For instance, the base plays host to three categories of Cubans.
At one time, the base permanently housed thousands of Cuban exiles who had worked on the U.S. end of the island. Today there are 61, including 34 individuals who have been there since Castro took the country's reins in 1959. Forty of the 61 are naturalized U.S. citizens.
McCoy explained that many of these people never wanted to leave their homeland but also refused to live in a communist state. "We are obligated to care for them," the captain said, adding that Guantanamo Bay may be the only U.S. military installation with an assisted-living facility to care for elderly residents.
A second category of Cubans on the naval base is referred to as "commuters." In pre-communist Cuba, Cuban citizens entered the base each day to work for the U.S. government. When the communists came to power, they allowed those already employed here to continue that employment, but no others were allowed to accept jobs here. Over time, an elaborate system evolved for these commuters to leave communist Cuba each morning and return in the evening via the base's North East Gate.
In 1959 there were roughly 3,500 such commuters each day. Today there are three, all between the ages of 75 and 83, McCoy said.
The commuters also have a unique responsibility to other commuters who have retired and are due pensions from the U.S. government. Since the Cuban and American governments have no diplomatic ties, monetary transfers are not possible. The commuters are paid in cash and carry cash pension payments across the border for the others who have retired, the captain explained.
The third category of Cubans on the U.S. base are migrants who are either interdicted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard or asylum seekers who make it across the border by land or by water. They live in migrant facilities on the base and often take jobs while here. If officials find the interdictees or asylum seekers have legitimate grounds to be granted asylum, they are eventually moved to a third-party country, generally in Latin America.
The migrant facilities also house Haitian immigrants who are interdicted at sea, McCoy said.
Despite the attention paid to the prison, McCoy said the detention facility has been good for the base. "It's brought life back to the community," he said.
Today about 8,500 Americans call Gitmo home, including 3,000 U.S. military servicemembers. Nine hundred to 1,000 family members, including about 500 children, accompany the military members.
"We're a small American town," McCoy said. "We think we're a throwback to the '50s."