The road to the town of Caimanera is flanked by fields filled with landmines. As our car advances, a series of watchtowers emerge in the distance. Tired revolutionary billboards sweep past: ‘The Revolution is eternal,’ ‘This island will never surrender,’ ‘Socialism or Death!’
Thousands of Cuban soldiers guard the area surrounding this village. Nobody gets in without a special pass. Residents here have to show their ID cards every time they leave the town, and organizing visitors permits for friends and family can take weeks. Caimanera has all this security because it borders the Cuban-controlled waters in the inner part of Guantánamo Bay. The infamous naval base of the same name sits at the mouth of the bay.
Our car weaves slowly around the bollards lining the checkpoint approach, to a barrier. Two soldiers clad in green come to check our papers. I peek through the coils of barbed wire surrounding the village entrance while we wait. Nine months of sitting in waiting rooms for meetings that never happened, sweet-talking officials, and other bureaucratic games finally pay off when the soldiers wave us through.
An uneasy atmosphere lingers in this dusty, arid town. Dilapidated wooden shacks stand on stilts in the water. Piles of rubble line the streets. The sturdier houses are prefabricated concrete constructions inspired by Soviet functionalism.
Two miles south lies a whole other universe. Guantánamo Bay Naval Base: home to the most infamous of prisons, suspected terrorists, the US Navy, and Cuba’s only McDonald’s. I can’t see much from the street, but from a rooftop I can just about make out the lights of the base and the blurred swirl of the wind turbines.
At five the next morning, I meet Osvaldo ‘Rojo’ Coy, a 70-year-old fisherman. We walk down to the jetty past early risers doing press-ups under the tutelage of an enthusiastic sports trainer. On the water, kayakers swoosh past slowly as the sun rises over the bay.
Rojo and Marco Daysón, his wizened fishing companion, help me into their modest and somewhat leaky boat. It reads ‘Always with Fidel,’ across the bow. After a few false starts the engine catches and we set out into the water. The town recedes. The water is serene. Calmness reigns.
It feels like the prison really couldn’t be further away. While we have come to associate Guantánamo Bay with torture, rendition, and indefinite detention, coverage of the prison in Cuba is glossed over. You hear about it less in Cuba than in much of the rest of the world.
Cuban officials have instructed journalists to stop using words like ‘enemy’ when referring to the U.S.
Part of the explanation is that America is not the bad guy anymore. Keen to patch things up with the Americans, Cuban officials have instructed journalists in the country to stop using words like ‘enemy’, ‘empire’ and ‘monster’ when referring to the US. Another reason is that through Cuban eyes, Guantánamo Bay looks completely different.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, nationalist Cubans warred with Spanish colonists in a bid to free their island. The U.S. intervened three years into the war in 1898. They allied with Cuba, once it was clear that the Cubans had the upper hand.
It was no accident that the first U.S. ships arriving in Cuba docked in Guantánamo Bay. For a long time, American politicians and military strategists had the island of Cuba in their sights. As far back as 1823, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I candidly confessed that… I have ever looked on Cuba as the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of states.”
The appeal of Guantánamo Bay was its strategic location. If you were to reap the full harvest of the Western Hemisphere (or so the logic went), you had to control the Caribbean and the Windward Passage. The construction of the naval base began in 1898, with the Cuban War of Independence still raging. Today America has just short of 800 overseas military bases. Guantánamo was the very first.
With Spanish forces defeated, the US and Spain signed a peace treaty in Paris. No Cubans were invited. While 30,000 US troops were still deployed throughout the island, Leonard Wood, the US Governor of Cuba, set out his stall in a letter to Cuba’s nascent government: “Either you give us the base, or we don’t leave.” The territory was ceded, setting the tone for US-Cuban relations for more than a century to come.
This history cuts deep. When the national flag is raised in Cuba, it’s hoisted to full mast, then, after a pause, it’s lowered a few inches. The symbolism is clear: Cuba won’t be fully sovereign until it recovers this strip of land.
In a country where politics is painful, and friends and families have been torn apart, Guantánamo is one of the few issues about which most people agree. José Alabrá, a friend of mine who grew up near Caimanera, says it is obvious to him that if the bay had never been occupied, Guantánamo would not be the most backward province in Cuba today. “Imagine California without San Francisco Bay. Well, that’s what’s happened with Guantánamo.”
As the sun gets higher it starts to get hot. On the boat, we travel between various buoys dotted around the inner part of the bay. At each point, Rojo pulls up cages containing small, jostling crabs. His comrade Daysón readies plastic buckets into which Rojo unceremoniously dumps the crustaceans. “I started fishing when I was 16,” says Rojo in Spanish. “I was one of the first to join the Gustavo Fraga Cooperative after Fidel established it in 1959.”
Fidel Castro had big plans. In the late fifties, Caimanera was a dynamic fishing town. Castro wanted it to become the biggest fishery in Cuba. He set up the Gustavo Fraga Cooperative, employing hundreds of fishermen, to build up the town’s fishing fleet and harness the bay’s resources. In the early years after the Cuban Revolution, Rojo would leave Caimanera, row through US-controlled waters with the consent of the naval authorities, and fish in the open sea.
The base at Guantánamo Bay also employed thousands of Cubans as domestics, cleaners, and mechanics. But as relations between Washington and Havana deteriorated, things turned sour in Guantánamo. Border guards exchanged insults and sometimes shots.
Then, one morning in July 1962 a member of the fishing cooperative named Rodolfo Rosell went into the waters surrounding the naval base and never returned. A few days later, another fisherman found his body lying in his boat, floating back towards Caimanera. Photos showed that he had been tortured.
“He was killed by the US intelligence services,” says Rojo. It was done to send a signal to the local people, he said, to let them know that they were no longer allowed to pass through American waters. It was also part of a wider campaign to provoke Cuban authorities into attacking the base. “The whole town attended his funeral and there was a mass repudiation of this criminal act.”
Shortly after, Cuban authorities erected a concrete and metal barrier attached to an underwater net, to partition the bay. Guard towers were put up on land at both ends. Cubans working at the base were allowed to keep their jobs, commuting through layers of barbed wire and checkpoints, but Castro prohibited any new recruitment. Bit by bit the area became more militarized.
Caimanera disintegrated into the ghost town it is today. Of the 10,000 people who still live in the town, Rojo is one of just a few dozen who still work as fishermen. “Catches are far lower today than what they were back then,” Rojo says. “We can no longer make it out to sea so we’re confined to fishing in the inner part of the bay.” Compounding the problem, the state has put a moratorium on catching fish because of low oxygen levels in the bay; they are only allowed to catch shellfish. We get back to the dock after four hours under the sweltering Caribbean sun. The catch is miserable; just 12 kilos (26 lbs) of crabs scamper about in the buckets.
Almost immediately, we are interrupted by the thud of machine gun fire
The town historian, Joaquín Puchili, welcomes us ashore. “Thanks for coming to Caimanera, Cuba’s first anti-imperial trench,” he says shaking my hand. I chuckle to myself, thinking he’s laying it on a bit thick. We start to talk. Almost immediately, we are interrupted by the thud of machine gun fire.
“That’s them,” he says. “At the moment they’re firing shots but they often use mortars. And this happens almost daily. The kids here live as if they were in a movie. They are so used to this, that even when it sounds like a war’s raging, they carry on as normal.” While the gunshots ring out, children carry on skimming stones along the bay. A fruit seller wheels his wagon past. Even the goats tied to a mango tree not far from us carry on as normal.
“After the triumph of the Revolution, the US set about trying to overthrow the revolutionary government,” Puchili tells me. “They launched the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, the failure of which made it clear that no amount of anti-Castro Cubans were capable of toppling our government. So at this point the US comes up with a new strategy: to fabricate a pretext so they can justify sending in their own armed forces to destroy the Revolution.”
Guantánamo Bay became a staging post. The declassified documents from the time are quite extraordinary. The plans to overthrow Castro read like the script of a blood-and-thunder B movie.
Operation Patty, launched in July 1961, was a covert operation in which the CIA would deploy bazooka-wielding anti-communist Cubans from the naval base onto Cuban soil. Raúl Castro was to be assassinated in nearby Santiago de Cuba. Then the CIA-supported anti-Castro Cubans would attack the naval base. This would be presented as a crazed, knee-jerk reaction ordered by an enraged Fidel Castro. This theater would, in turn, justify US military intervention in Cuba. The plan was put into motion but was foiled by Cuban intelligence after a tip-off.
Operation Mongoose, authorized by John F. Kennedy shortly after Operation Patty, was no less wacko. “We could blow up a US ship in Guantánamo Bay and blame Cuba,” the State Department mused. Publishing casualty lists in US newspapers would “cause a helpful wave of national indignation.” The Joint Chiefs of Staff also floated the idea of shooting down a drone aircraft over the base and claiming Cuba had shot down a charter flight carrying vacationing college students.
When we finish with the town historian, Rojo invites me to his house to taste the local crab. We’re not allowed to just take them out of the buckets and boil them: the cooperative’s catch is sent to a processing plant in another province to be canned. Locals can buy it back in the state supermarket, at relatively high prices.
We stab the can open, and Rojo stirs the crabmeat into a sauté of onion and green ají peppers. We crack open a bottle of rum and sit down to lunch. The crunch of sand and crab shells doesn’t stop me from enjoying the meal.
After a few glasses, Rojo lowers his guarded ‘hasta la victoria siempre’ tone. He opens up about his son-in-law who, one night in 1996, made it over the barrier past the guards, and swam across to the naval base. He was granted asylum and went to live in the States.
If you arrive in the U.S. illegally from Cuba, you are entitled to food stamps, a federal stipend, and permanent residence within a year. This year, a record-breaking 45,000 Cubans have made it over, keen to get their papers before U.S.-Cuban relations fully normalize and this law is swept away.
There is still a drip of villagers who try and make it to the base every year. But it doesn’t work out well for everyone. The ‘cactus curtain’ separating Cuba from US-controlled territory is thought to have one of the highest densities of land mines anywhere in the world.
If you walk through Caimanera at dusk, you see dozens of people outside their houses repairing fishing nets, despite the ban on commercial fishing. (Recreational fishing, however, is legal.)
It’s almost impossible for locals to lawfully buy fresh fish in Cuba. In Caimanera, there are no markets, shops or stalls where you can buy fresh fish. High-value red snapper and lobster are kept for tourists or exported. The frozen fish that people are supposed to get in their rations rarely turns up.
But people find a way. You hear the word ‘resolver’ a lot in Cuba, ‘to get by’. It’s used as a euphemism to describe the buying and selling of contraband. People invent all manner of illegal businesses to supplement their meager salaries.
As I walk along the bay on my last morning in the town, a man is busy resolving in a boat. He hauls one of the biggest fish I have ever seen out of the water. He celebrates and tries to hold it above his head. He fails under the weight, but unperturbed, holds it close and dances a victory jig.