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Posted August 22, 2004 by publisher in Castro's Cuba

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MARK LARABEE | The Oregonian

Relations are nowhere near as icy as during the Cold War, but any move on the fence line still gets noticed

The Cuban guard was walking a tower catwalk until Sgt. Joel Rodriguez climbed the stairs to Marine Observation Post 31, an aging 1950s-era tower that houses a set of high-powered binoculars and detailed map of the fence line separating Cuba from the 45-square-mile Navy base.

Rodriguez’s action caused the Cuban guard to look back through his own glasses. Latin jazz tumbled from a beer bar high on the hill on the Cuban side, where Fidel Castro is said to bring VIPs and reporters to look down on the Americans.

It’s a far cry from the tension caused by the Cuban missile crisis, although both sides still play the same Cold War cat-and-mouse game. The 2,500 Marines stationed here during the height of the stalemate have been reduced to 130 today.

While guards on both sides walk lonely posts, the game is much more civil. Gone are the days when the United States braced for a Cuban invasion. The United States removed its 61,000 land mines between 1994 and 2000, although the Cuban mines remain.

U.S. Navy Capt. Les McCoy, the base commander, said he meets monthly with a Cuban general to discuss fence upkeep and asylum seekers, all in the name of detente. It’s the only open dialogue the United States has with the Cubans, he said.

“These one-hour meetings are cordial, and they never involve politics,” said McCoy, a former Navy helicopter pilot. “We have a mutual respect for our jobs, and we keep our dialogue focused on this area of Cuba.”

Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, newly strategic because of the war on terror, is more a thorn in Castro’s side than a necessary U.S. military outpost. “It does not make them happy, and it’s a great deal for us,” McCoy said.

The United States leased the property from Cuba in 1902 for $2,000 in gold a year and, under a 1934 treaty, secured an indefinite lease for $4,085 paid every July. Castro has cashed only one of those checks, although they are still sent every year, McCoy said.

Aside from the prison, the base is a community of 8,500 people. There are 2,000 military members, a handful of Cuban exiles, family members, and third-country nationals who provide services.

The base feels like a throwback to the 1950s. There are rotting bunkers all around; many buildings have seen better times. Military ships refuel at Guantanamo, but none is stationed here. The U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration use the base to fight the drug trade.

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