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Goin' (or Not) to Gitmo

On the radio in Guantánamo city and along the road to Baracoa, the unmistakable sounds of English-speaking DJs and American pop music can be heard, seemingly out of nowhere. The programming is courtesy of the U.S. government, emerging from behind barbed-wire fences at the base at Guantánamo Bay, known to American military personnel as "Gitmo." The base is an eyebrow-raising anomaly in revolutionary Cuba, as it's probably the least likely spot in the world for the U.S. to have a naval base. Washington continues to hold an indefinite lease on the base, which was established in 1903 as a reward for the U.S. role in the Spanish-American War -- making it the oldest overseas American naval base.

Pursuant to the original agreement, signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, which called for an annual payment of 2,000 gold coins (worth US$4,085 in 1903), the U.S. government continues to send rent checks for that original amount, even though Fidel Castro has never cashed a single one since 1959. Castro understandably would rather forgo the paltry sum than lend legitimacy to the American presence in Cuba. A 1934 treaty that reaffirmed the lease of the base stipulated that both the U.S. and Cuba must mutually agree to terminate the lease -- and when was the last time Washington, D.C., and Havana agreed on anything?

Though it has official missions (refueling and reconnaissance), in peace times the Guantánamo base has existed primarily to continue to poke thorns in Castro's side. That was, until 2001, when the U.S. military decided to send Al Qaeda prisoners captured in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq to Guantánamo. Since then, the base has been a source of international news and controversy. Most of the detainees continue to be held and interrogated without access to lawyers or the filing of any formal charges.

Cubans have grudgingly learned to live with the base. They no longer expect a U.S. invasion at any moment, and the U.S. now returns those Cubans who, rather than attempting to cross the Atlantic, try to escape Cuba by crossing over to the American base. Only a small handful of Cuban workers still cross military checkpoints every day to get to their jobs on the base.

Gitmo has about 3,000 full-time residents who, though surrounded on three sides by Cuba, live as if they were in American "suburbotopia," with typical suburban homes, U.S. products, American cars, cable TV, a golf course, and, of course, a McDonald's. However, this gated community has a sign (on the Cuban side) that reads REPUBLICA DE CUBA, TERRITORIO LIBRE DE AMERICA (Republic of Cuba, Free Territory of America).

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