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American Forces Press Service

From Mayberry to Metropolis: Guantanamo Bay Changes

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, March 3, 2005 Before the war on terrorism, the Navy maintained enough sailors at this remote base “to keep the lights on,” the base’s commander said. Three years later, the population has quadrupled and construction is booming.

Sailors and civilians at the Navy base have really had to jump to support the needs of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, the unit responsible for managing the enemy-combatant detainee camp.

“We’re running very fast to keep up with (the JTF),” Navy Capt. Leslie J. McCoy, the base commander, said. “(The JTF is) in operational mode, and we are just coming out of what we used to call a ‘minimum-performance arena,’ where we had just enough people here to keep the base going, essentially to keep the lights on.”

U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay is the oldest U.S. base overseas and the only one in a communist country. Located in the Oriente province on the southeast corner of Cuba, the base is about 400 miles from Miami. The United States leased the 45-square-mile parcel of land in 1903 to use as a coaling station.

The base maintained a solid relationship with Cuba until the Cuban Revolution began in the late 1950s. Cuban territory was declared off-limits to U. S. servicemembers and civilians Jan. 1, 1959. President Dwight Eisenhower cut diplomatic relations with Cuba in January 1961. This is when U.S. Marines and Cuban soldiers began patrolling opposite sides of the base’s 17.4-mile fence line. Today, U.S. Marines and Cuba’s “Frontier Brigade” still man the fence.

Since the 1960s, the base has served as a strategic logistics point for the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet and to support counterdrug operations in the Caribbean.

Before DoD began holding detainees here, the permanent population was around 2,600 sailors, family members, government civilians and contractors, and third-country nationals -- mostly from Jamaica and the Philippines. “It seemed not so much like a naval base,” McCoy said, “more like a Caribbean community.”

Now, nearly 9,500 people are needed to support JTF Guantanamo. “We’ve gone from a point where we were tearing down homes, tearing down buildings to a point where we are refurbishing buildings, refurbishing homes,” he said. “I’ve got a sprawling community here where we use every house that we have and almost every room that we have.”

Marines on the base still guard the fence line with Cuba via observation posts and roving patrols. The Cuban side of the fence remains mined, but all U.S. mines were removed the late 1990s. McCoy said he believes it’s been more than 10 years since there’s been even a minor incident between the two countries’ guards.

McCoy has the unique distinction to be the U.S. government’s only official liaison to an element of Cuba’s communist government. He meets once a month with the Cuban officer in charge of military forces on this end of the island.

The captain said his meetings with Cuban Brig. Gen. Jose Solar Hernandez are “always cordial” and only cover issues pertaining to the base. “No matter what is going on, no matter what the rhetoric is between Havana and Washington, we talk about issues that are specific to Guantanamo Bay,” he said.

McCoy said it’s only prudent to let the Cubans know what’s going on, since they can observe about 85 percent of the base from the surrounding hills. “We don’t like to surprise them,” he said.

For instance, McCoy said, he gives the Cubans prior notice of large military exercises. And his predecessor, Navy Capt. Bob Buehn, explained to the Cuban general that DoD would be holding terror-war detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

Despite the construction and population boom, McCoy said, the base maintains its small-town feel. He likened it to Mayberry, the town in television’s “Andy Griffith Show” of the 1960s. Like Mayberry, Guantanamo Bay has virtually no crime.

“It’s a throwback to the ’50s, because it’s very safe for people here,” he said. “It’s safe for kids. There’s no crime; there’s no drugs. They can walk out and go to the McDonald’s at 9 at night and you don’t worry about it.

“There’s not many places in the world you can do that,” he said.

The captain tried to think of the last incidence of violent crime at Guantanamo Bay and wasn’t very successful. The only thing he could come up with he called “Gitmo road rage” with a chuckle. “Some guy hit another guy’s car … at about 25 miles per hour,” he said of the incident. “And I think one guy had been drinking a bit and swung at the other guy.”

In fact, the safe atmosphere has made the base so popular with permanent-party sailors with families that McCoy has had to impose a five-year rule. “The people who like small towns get here and I can’t get them out of here,” he said.


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