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US base remains sore point for CubansGuantanamo Bay military base seen as symbol of US imperialism William Neuman In Guantanamo (Cuba), New York Times03 January 2015At a military checkpoint on the road that approaches the US naval base here, one of three along the way, four Cuban soldiers in pea-green fatigues, without guns, stood on duty on a 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 US military base across Guantanamo Bay.“Because this is an area of high sensitivity for defence, everyone needs a pass,” said one of the soldiers, a First Lieutenant 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 Raul, have long pointed to as a stinging symbol of US 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 is 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 have had in a long time, but it is also true that Guantanamo comes up all the time, even in our migration talks, as a principled issue for the Cubans.”Here in Guantanamo, 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 is a little bit delicate,” said art student Geny Jarrosay, 25, who has created several pieces based on the sometimes tense relations between the base and the city of Guantanamo, where he grew up.“Co-existing with it is like having a person you don’t like living in your house for 50 years, and you have gotten used to both the good and the bad.”The base gives Cuba, an island nation, a sort of de facto land border, and a hostile one at that. “We are very conscious that it is American territory even though it is not,” Mr Jarrosay said. “It is Cuban territory.”For a video and photo project he completed last year, Mr Jarrosay said, 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 Guantanamo 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 US sway over Cuban affairs and the right to establish naval bases there. In 1903, the open-ended lease for the base at Guantanamo was signed.For many years, the city of Guantanamo and nearby towns such as Caimanera were closely linked to the base. Many residents worked there, and US troops disported in the local brothels and bars. But after Mr Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, the base became a symbol of US high-handedness and a point of friction.
Cuba refuses to cash the cheques sent by the US to pay the annual rent of US$4,085 (S$5,430). When the George W. 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 Barack 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 remained. Even after the prison is finally shut down, analysts say, it is unlikely 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 US and Cuba,” said Ms Jana Lipman, an associate professor of history at Tulane University, who has written about the base.But she said the political risks of returning it were great, recalling the experience of then 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,” she 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 is Cuban territory. It doesn’t belong to the US,” said Ms 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 is 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 kilometres away and out of sight of the city of Guantanamo. 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 it was like living on the border between hostile countries, describing a sort of militarised gated community.Having a military base in the neighbourhood does have its advantages, said the man, who spoke anonymously for fear of the authorities.“It is very calm, it is 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 Guantanamo, at a newly built tourist overlook with a 3m-high viewing platform and a restaurant, Mr , 48, and his wife Licet Palomino, 45, gazed over Guantanamo Bay towards the base in the distance.Mr Perez, who is from Guantanamo but now lives in Orlando, Florida, having been a resident of the US for 14 years, said he hoped the new opening with the US would lead to the return of the base.“If they have good relations, I think they will give it back,” he said.For a small fee, a government-paid guide, Mr 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, Madam Clara Duany, 74, said she worked on the base as a housekeeper from 1956 to 1960. She said that during Mr Fidel Castro’s guerilla 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. Madam Duany said she felt no rancour towards the Americans despite the government’s anti-imperialist sloganeering.
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