William Neuman | The New York Times | January 1, 2015
GUANTÁNAMO, Cuba — At a military checkpoint on the road that approaches the American naval base here, one of three along the way, four Cuban soldiers in pea-green fatigues, without guns, stood on duty last Sunday laughing over a joke in the shade of an almond tree, beside a neatly cultivated flower bed. A large sign declared the site “the first anti-imperialist trench.”
They stopped the few cars that approached and asked to see the special passes required for access to Caimanera, the town that once served as the gateway to the United States military base across Guantánamo Bay.
“Because this is an area of high sensitivity for defense, everyone needs a pass,” said one of the soldiers, a first lieutenant named Gamboa, turning back a reporter from The New York Times. Passes usually take 72 hours to approve, he said, and on a Sunday it was certainly impossible to get one.
Despite the sudden thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba, the base here remains a sore point for Cubans, a deeply felt grievance that the Castros, first Fidel and now his brother Raúl, have long pointed to as a stinging symbol of American imperialism.
A senior State Department official in Washington said that Cuban negotiators had raised their government’s oft-repeated demand for the return of the base during the secret talks that culminated in last month’s surprise announcement that the two countries would re-establish full diplomatic relations.
“It’s logical that the Cubans would raise it,” the official said, adding, however, that it did not become a focus of the talks. “These were more intensive conversations than we’ve had in a long time, but it’s also true that Guantánamo comes up all the time, even in our migration talks, as a principled issue for the Cubans.”
Here in Guantánamo, a city of about 216,000 people, with a prosperous-looking downtown and decrepit back streets, residents have repeatedly been reminded over the years that they stand virtually face to face with the enemy.
“It’s a little bit delicate,” said Geny Jarrosay, 25, an art student who has created several pieces based on the complex, sometimes tense relations between the base and the city of Guantánamo, where he grew up. “Coexisting with it is like having a person you don’t like living in your house for 50 years, and you’ve gotten used to both the good and the bad.”
But the base gives Cuba, an island nation, a sort of de facto land border, and a hostile one at that.
“We’re very conscious that it’s American territory even though it’s not,” Mr. Jarrosay said. “It’s Cuban territory.”
For a video and photo project he completed this year, Mr. Jarrosay says he obtained some dirt from the base — he won’t say how — and on a bus trip across Cuba tossed it out the window a little bit at a time.
“It was like returning the soil to Cuba,” he said.
It might be said that the Guantánamo base is the last fruit of America’s original sin in Cuba — its 1898 invasion in the midst of the island’s war of independence from Spain. A peace treaty ending the Spanish-American War in 1898 installed the United States as the island’s administrator, which it remained until 1902, when Washington allowed Cuba to govern itself.
But the price was the hated Platt Amendment, a series of conditions written into the Cuban Constitution that gave the United States sway over Cuban affairs and the right to establish naval bases there. In 1903, the open-ended lease for the base at Guantánamo was signed.
For many years, the city of Guantánamo and nearby towns like Caimanera were closely linked to the base. Many residents worked there, and American troops disported in the local brothels and bars.
But after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, the base became a symbol of American highhandedness and a point of repeated friction. Cuba refuses to cash the checks sent by the United States to pay the annual rent of $4,085.
When the Bush administration built a prison on the base to house captured terrorism suspects after 9/11, Cuba strenuously objected. Later reports of brutal treatment of prisoners there deepened Cuba’s ire.
After taking office in 2009 President Obama ordered the closing of the prison. But he has not been able to carry out his pledge, and the prison remains a bitter symbol of frustration and unfulfilled promises, and what many critics call a stain on America’s reputation. Twenty-eight detainees were transferred from the prison to other countries last year, but 127 remain.
Even after the prison is finally shut down, analysts say, it is unlikely that the base will be returned to Cuba any time soon.
“This is an excellent moment to open up that question and ponder what that would mean for the United States and Cuba,” said Jana K. Lipman, an associate professor of history at Tulane University, who has written about the base. But she said that the political risks of returning it were great, recalling the experience of President Jimmy Carter when he negotiated the handover of the Panama Canal in the 1970s.
“That was not a popular decision as far as public opinion was concerned,” Ms. Lipman said. “There was a lot of political spillback that the president had to deal with.”
Nearly all the people interviewed here, whether they supported the Cuban government or opposed it, said the base should be returned to Cuba.
“It’s Cuban territory; it doesn’t belong to” the United States, said Iliana Cotilla. She is a nurse who supplements her government salary by selling coffee and snacks from the front of her house, a business newly allowed under Cuba’s socialist system. “It’s a lack of respect to have that on our territory, to be abusing and torturing people there.”
Periodic tensions aside, there is generally no day-to-day contact between Cubans and the base, which is several miles away and out of sight of the city of Guantánamo. The last two local residents who worked on the base retired in 2012.
A resident of Caimanera, who lives within the restricted zone that requires a pass to enter, said that it was like living on the border between hostile countries, describing a sort of militarized gated community.
Having a military base in the neighborhood does have its advantages, said the man, who spoke anonymously for fear of the authorities. “It’s very calm, it’s very controlled, and there is no crime or drugs,” he said. And residents get a cash bonus for living there.
On a wooded hill just outside the city of Guantánamo, at a newly built tourist overlook with a 10-foot-high viewing platform and a restaurant, Néver Pérez, 48, and his wife, Licet Palomino, 45, gazed over Guantánamo Bay toward the base in the distance.
Mr. Pérez, who is from Guantánamo but now lives in Orlando, Fla., having been a resident of the United States for 14 years, said that he hoped the new opening with the United States would lead to the return of the base. “If they have good relations I think they will give it back,” he said, dressed in a red, white and blue shirt patterned after the stars and stripes of the American flag.
For a small fee, a government-paid guide, Yunior Leyva, 31, provided binoculars to visitors and pointed to what he said was a radar installation on top of a hill within the base, with structures looking like giant white mushrooms.
Back in town, Clara Duany, 74, said that she worked on the base as a housekeeper from 1956 to 1960. She said that during Fidel Castro’s guerrilla war against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, she smuggled medicine from the base to the rebels and had to take refuge on the base to escape capture by the government. Today, she is famous here as La India, the unpaid mascot for the local baseball team, the Indios del Guaso.
Ms. Duany said she felt no rancor toward the Americans despite the government’s anti-imperialist sloganeering.
“If they call me I will go work there again,” she said. In the choppy English she learned years ago on the base she said: “I liked every day. Everything. Yes, too much.”