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Guantanamo Gate Witness to History, Unique Exchanges

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

NAVAL BASE GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, Aug. 25, 2004 – There is but one break in the 17.4-mile fortified border between this isolated U.S. Navy base and communist Cuba: the remote North East Gate.

This site has been witness to sometimes frightening, other times humorous, but always interesting exchanges between American servicemembers and their Cuban counterparts in this Cold War holdout.

A single narrow road leads to this border crossing at the extreme northeast corner of the base. Traveling in that direction, a Marine acting as tour guide for a group of American journalists visiting the base stops 500 meters (1,640 feet) from the border to describe some of the base's defenses.

Sgt. Francisco Ubri stood between two concrete pillars wrapped in barbed wire and stenciled with the words "ENTER IF YOU DARE" and "LEAVE IF YOU CAN" and pointed to several steel rings spanning the road. He lifted one and removed a cap that revealed a foot-wide hole that runs 6 feet deep. Ubri explained the holes were designed to be filled with C-4 explosives to destroy the road if the Cubans ever invaded the base. The concrete pillars beside the road are actually stacks of giant blocks that would then be toppled across the destroyed road to further impede access.

Ubri next pointed out two ditches that run away from the road on both sides, parallel with the nearby border. Cement and steel anti-tank barriers in deep ditches could just be made out over the tall grass and overgrown brush.

Beyond the ditch and anti-tank barriers, Ubri explained, used to be a minefield. At the height of the Cold War, both sides of the border were mined. The Americans had mapped their minefield, and cleared it in the late 1990s. Still, Ubri said, he wouldn't walk through the area.

He said mines can shift in periods of heavy rain, and they all might not have been removed. "Once a minefield, always a minefield," he said.

The Cuban side of the border still is mined, and no maps exist to show the mines' placement. A February wildfire in the area "cooked off" roughly 152 of them, base commander Navy Capt. Les McCoy said during an earlier briefing. He explained that officials estimated the number of mines blown up by the number of explosions heard.

At this point on the base, there is little evidence of civilization. With the abundant cacti and circling vultures, the place resembles nothing so much as a scene from the American "Old West."

Farther up the road is the North East Gate. A small camouflage-painted barracks building and tall watchtower sit on a hill a short distance from the actual crossing.

Ubri explained the barracks building is no longer occupied full time, but Marine guards used to stay there during their shifts on the gate. Now the area is guarded with random patrols.

A 6-foot fence topped with razor wire marks the border as far as can be seen, except in the immediate area of the barracks building. Directly in front of the abandoned barracks, the fence stretches to perhaps 40 feet high. Ubri said this is because during the 1970s, Cubans would throw rocks at the building during the night to keep the Marine guards from getting any sleep.

About 25 to 30 feet up the high section of fence, about a half dozen wire clothing hangers are just visible. When the Cubans couldn't throw rocks at the building to keep the Marines awake, Ubri explained, they climbed the fence and hung the clothes hangers so they would make noise when the wind blew. They have long since rusted into the fence and don't blow around anymore.

Another Cuban tactic to harass the U.S. Marines backfired when the Marines devised the use of a "secret weapon," Ubri said. At one point, he explained, the Cubans installed a high-powered spotlight to shine into the barracks. It didn't take the Marines long to devise a plan to counter this.

First they put up a screen to shield their activities from the Cubans' sight. When they were ready, the Marines waited until the Cubans turned on their spotlight one night, then dropped the screen in front of their new "secret weapon," Ubri said, with a mischievous grin. He then took his tour group over the crest of the hill facing the Cuban side.

There, on a 20-foot-wide cement circle on the hillside, was painted a red and gold Marine Corps emblem -- the famous eagle, globe and anchor -- and the Marine Corps motto, "Semper Fidelis," Latin for "Always Faithful."

"They never turned that spotlight on again," Ubri said, chuckling. "So we put our own light on it."

At the bottom of the hill, below the giant Marine Corps emblem, is a small gate shack and the actual gate that opens onto a narrow no-man's land before running into a similar gate and gate shack on the Cuban side.

A sign on the American side identifies the location as the North East Gate of U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A sign on the Cuban side, larger and higher than the American sign and pointing toward the American side, says, "Republica de Cuba. Territorio Libre de America." In English that means, "Republic of Cuba. Territory Free of America."

The gates on both sides open twice a day -- at 5:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. -- for a special class of daily commuting workers, and once a month for regularly scheduled meetings between McCoy and a counterpart from the other side.

In pre-communist Cuba, Cuban citizens entered the base each day to work for the U.S. government. When the communists came to power in 1959, 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 through 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 monthly meetings rotate between this side and the Cuban side. The commanders discuss only base issues and not politics, McCoy explained. Ubri, a native of the Dominican Republic, has attended these meetings as an interpreter. He said the meetings hosted on the Cuban side included "the best food I ever had."

On the far side of the gate, the Castro Road winds through the hills out of sight. Ubri pointed out a building to the far right of the gate, atop the highest hill in sight. He said tourists visit the site regularly to use telescopes and peer down into the American base. McCoy estimated the Cubans can see 80 to 85 percent of the base from the site.

Before the tour ended, a Humvee with Marines and rifles came up the road and stopped to check out the site, but only for a few moments. Soon they were headed back down the road, and the outpost wouldn't be manned again until just before 4:30 p.m., when the commuters were ready to head back to communist Cuba.

Contact Author

Navy Capt. Leslie J. McCoy, Commander, Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

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