Yankees in the midst
An imperial outpost on Cuban soil...
I’m awakened by the cannonading clip-clop, clip-clop of horses’ hooves on pavement and for a few groggy moments I dream I’m in some dusty, nineteenth century, mid-western American town. In fact I’m in Guantánamo, a small city of 200,000 just 80 kilometres east of Santiago de Cuba.
In the wake of the nationwide petroleum shortage the people here depend mostly on horses and bicycles for transport.
It’s an amazing sight to see a town virtually free of motor vehicles. In place of buses there are an estimated 300 horse-drawn coaches and they ply all the main city streets – a quiet, efficient and surprisingly quick form of public transport. The cocheros (drivers) shout their end destination as they pass each stop. You hop on if there’s room, hand the cochero a peso and settle in. At night, gliding through the darkened streets with a warm breeze blowing softly, the sharp tattoo of horses’ hooves echoes everywhere.
Outside the country, Guantánamo is known less for its horse-powered public transport than for the giant US naval base of the same name located only 26 kilometres away. A US naval base on Cuban soil? It is hard to conceive given the animosity between the two nations. Yet there it is: the unfortunate result of imperial history – 170 square kilometres where the stars and stripes brazenly flies, guarding both sides of the entrance to the Bahia de Guantánamo, Cuba’s largest and deepest natural harbour.
The Americans managed to get their hands on it nearly a century ago. The Cubans had been fighting the Spanish for independence for a decade and were on the verge of victory when the Americans joined the fray in 1898. The Spanish quickly surrendered and US troops occupied the island until 1902. Cuba finally gained its independence that year but the price was steep. The island was forced to accept the Platt Amendment, a piece of legislation which allowed the US to intervene in Cuba at any time ‘for the preservation of Cuban independence’. To make intervention easier the amendment also granted the US the Guantánamo Base ‘in perpetuity’. In 1934, after much pressure, Washington agreed to change the grant to a 99-year lease.
Today the American base is an island within an island. Barbed-wire security fences and watchtowers mark the perimeter on both sides. And the half-kilometre strip of land between Cuban and American territory is heavily mined. The base itself has been completely cut off by the Cubans. There is a desalinization plant for fresh water and the base must generate its own power and process its own sewage. There are around 8,000 Americans there – 2,400 troops and the rest family and support staff.
I can see virtually the entire installation shimmering under the mid-day sun from the Mirador de Malones, a viewing station on a steep cliff overlooking the base. Two kilometres away I can make out clearly the magnificent bay flanked by two US airstrips and the azure Caribbean beyond.
I have driven to the Mirador with José ‘Pepin’ Perez, a garrulous 72-year-old resident of Guantánamo city who knew the base well. We shared the back seat of a jet-black, Soviet-built Lada, travelling in comfort due to the hospitality of the local Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos (Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples, also known as ICAP).
As we made our way past a series of military checkpoints the land changed to cactus-strewn scrub and the road began to climb steeply. Pepin grew more excited. This was his first view of the base since he’d been fired in 1961.
He had begun working at the base when he was 18 years old. ‘I remember the date just like it was yesterday. In the middle of World War Two the base was booming. There were 12,000 Cubans here in 1944 doing all kinds of work.’
I ask him how he feels looking at this outpost of American imperialism, where he spent a good deal of his youth.
He draws a slow breath then says quietly: ‘When I see this I feel angry that the Americans still occupy a piece of my country.’
Cubans find the presence of the American troops deeply insulting and you would be hard pressed to find anyone who is not outraged by the US refusal to return the base. Since Pepin comes to me via ICAP I take for granted that he is a Communist Party loyalist. But he is also careful to point out that his personal experience was not all negative.
‘When I worked down there,’ he says, ‘I got along with everyone. I was treated well. I played with their children. But when the time came to choose between my country and that job, I chose my country.’
Pepin was fired shortly after the US-supported Bay of Pigs fiasco when Cuban exiles botched an attempt to overthrow the revolutionary government and tensions between Havana and Washington were running high.
‘I didn’t know much about politics then,’ he recalls. ‘But I was beginning to learn. I was attending Revolutionary Instruction School at night; we were reading about socialism and of course about Marx, Engels and Lenin. They called me a communist and I was dismissed. But they were fair. Three months later they sent me a $2,500 cheque for my pension money.’
The Castro administration has made it clear that the return of the base is essential before normal relations between the two countries can be resumed. Washington, enjoying Cuba’s pique, refuses even to discuss the matter. Meanwhile, the $2,400 rent cheques which the US sends yearly, pile up in Havana – uncashed. Fidel’s brother, Raúl, has sworn that they will all be exhibited in a museum when the base is once again in Cuban hands.
‘I pray I will be alive when that day comes,’ says Pepin. ‘I promised myself I would walk all the way from my home to the base to celebrate. That will be one of the longest walks of my life, but it will be a proud day for me and for Cuba.’
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