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US-Cuba thaw has yet to reach Guantanamo

World News
Thu, 17 Mar 2016

Guantanamo, Cuba: Jorge Frometa sometimes wakes up to a sound most Cubans never hear: the US national anthem, which plays out every morning at the nearby Guantanamo naval base, far removed from the blossoming US-Cuban reconciliation.

As President Barack Obama prepares to jet in to Cuba next week for an historic visit, the American base at the eastern tip of the island stands as testament to the bad old days in US-Cuban ties.

Washington has had a permanent lease on the territory since 1903, over vehement protests from Havana, which wants the 120 square kilometres (45 square miles) back.

Frometa, a 68-year-old retiree, lives in Caimenera, one of two villages that border the US base. Non-residents can only travel there with a special permit from the Cuban authorities.

"We live quietly in Caimenera. The naval base doesn't worry us. Sometimes you go a long time without even remembering it exists. Other times you hear the US national anthem in the mornings and you realise you're millimetres from the base," he told AFP.

Cuba sits 170 kilometres (90 miles) off the Florida coast, but the 11,000 inhabitants of Caimenera are much closer.

The Cuban government has declared the two villages that border the base "high-sensitivity zones for national defence."

Frometa, a former maritime security inspector, was born a short drive away in Guantanamo, the capital city of the Cuban province of the same name. He moved to Caimenera in 1994.

"People come and go and sometimes don't even look at it (the base). You get used to it," he said.

Other residents echo the communist government's call for the United States to abandon the base, where the US is still holding 91 terror suspects detained in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

"We want them to close the prison and give us back the base. We're trusting in Obama's goodwill," said Maria, who works for the national electric company.

Since 2014, Cubans have been allowed to venture to a scenic overlook called La Gobernadora where they can get a good look at the base.

The hangars of the base's airport can be seen in the distance, on the western side of the bay. On the opposite side are buildings surrounded by acacia and mangrove trees.

Besides some 750 US military personnel, more than 2,500 foreigners work at the Guantanamo base and prison -- mostly Jamaicans and Filipinos.

Today, no Cubans are employed at the base, but 50 former employees still recall working there. The last pair retired in 2013.

One of them, 84-year-old Rodi Rodriguez, is the only Cuban civilian authorised to enter the base.

Each month he goes there to collect his and the other retired workers' pension checks.

The routine never varies, he says: as he crosses the border, he is met by a group of armed soldiers, a US official and an interpreter -- even though he speaks fluent English.

At the entrance to the base, he must identify himself to another US official, who issues him a verbal ‘invitation’ to proceed.

Then he goes to an office to collect an envelope with $34,000 in cash.

"They give me the envelope in a little office decorated with both countries' flags. Then I leave and take it to the bank in Guantanamo," he said.

He himself gets more than $1,000 a month, some 100 times the average Cuban retiree's pension.

Rodriguez, who did various jobs at the base for more than 40 years, said he always stayed on good terms with his American employers.

"I never offended anyone," he said. "I even got along with the counter-revolutionaries" -- Cubans opposed to Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution who worked at the base before emigrating to the United States.

But he calls himself a patriotic Cuban, even if he was occasionally the target of jeers from communist party members as he left the base.

"How would Americans feel if we installed a naval base in Houston? Well, we feel like that," he said.

Tensions between the two Cold War enemies have subsided since the days when air raid sirens used to warn local residents of an American invasion that never happened, he said.

But he's underwhelmed by Obama's visit to faraway Havana, he added, blaming the US Congress for blocking the president's efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre.

"I don't expect much from the visit," he said. "The prisoners are still at the naval base. He hasn't been able to close it."

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