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Friday, 28 December, 2001, 13:20 GMT
Destination Guantanamo Bay
US naval base in Guantanamo
Cuba refuses to cash US rent-cheques for the base
The Cold War may be a receding memory for most of the world, but it remains a daily reality for US forces in Guantanamo Bay, a naval base in Cuba which the US leases from the island's communist government.

I would characterize Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as the least worst place we could have selected

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
US Marines maintain a daily vigil behind a sealed perimeter fence, watching Cuban frontier guards doing the same.

Quite what the Cubans will make of Islamic militants captured in Afghanistan that Washington plans to detain there, is anyone's guess.

But after decades as one of the world's most dangerous military flash-points, tension and mutual suspicion are a way of life there.

Status unchanged

"Gitmo", as the base is known to US servicemen, was established under a treaty signed in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Cuban soldier keeps watch on the border
Cubans watch the Americans watching them

The Americans had wanted the bay, one of Cuba's best natural harbours, since the first battalion of Marines landed there in 1898 during the Spanish-American War.

After Fidel Castro's revolution brought the Communists to power in 1959, then-President Dwight Eisenhower insisted the status of the base remained unchanged, despite Cuban objections.

Washington still pays the rent, set a century ago at 2,000 gold coins a year and now worth just over $4,000, even though Mr Castro refuses to cash the cheques.

Nevertheless, tensions have eased dramatically since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when John F Kennedy blockaded Cuba to force the withdrawal of Soviet nuclear missiles.

The base had already been placed on the highest alert a year previously, when the abortive US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion ended in fiasco.

Easing tensions

These days the 28-kilometre perimeter fence is a calmer place.

Guantanamo Bay
1898 - Battalion of US Marines lands during Spanish-American War
1903 - President Theodore Roosevelt signs lease
1939 - Anticipating US involvement in World War II, President Franklin D Roosevelt orders expansion of base
1959 - Fidel Castro's revolution
1961 - President Eisenhower declares status of the base unchanged
1961 - High alert during Bay of Pigs fiasco
1962 - More troops arrive during Cuban missile crisis
1990s - Base used to house Cuban and Haitian refugees

"There's always a little harassment and taunting by the Cubans, but nothing serious for quite some time," base spokesman Chief Petty Officer Richard Evans told the Reuters news agency.

The Cuban Frontier Battalion, set up to confront US troops in the base, no longer expects imminent US invasion and the US military no longer sees the Cuban army as a threat.

For the past decade the battalion has spent more time stopping Cubans trying to get into Guantanamo - as thousands did in 1995 with many dying in the mine fields.

The US side has even cleared its minefields, but the Cubans have not.

In one of the few areas of formal co-operation between the two countries, those attempting to get to the US via the base are now sent back.

Tensions at the line have diminished to the extent that the Cubans are expanding tourist facilities around the base. A restaurant and bar are being built on a lookout high above it.

New arrivals

Former President Bill Clinton considered housing thousands of refugees from Kosovo at Guantanamo, but abandoned the plan.

Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters shipped there from Afghanistan will have to do some readjusting.

Cuban refugees at Guantanamo naval base
The base was used to house Cuban refugees
In the unlikely event they ever meet the few remaining Cuban workers on the base, they will hear stories of daily hardships and the mass exodus of refugees during the mid-1990s.

Whatever the social complications, Washington has decided that the base is its best option for the detainees.

"I would characterise Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as the least worst place we could have selected," Mr Rumsfeld said.

"Its disadvantages...seem to be modest relative to the alternatives."

The new inmates will certainly have to get used to close scrutiny during their incarceration, not only from their US jailers, but also from the Cubans across the wire.

See also:

27 Dec 01 | South Asia
Cuba base to house Afghan prisoners
21 Dec 01 | South Asia
US holds thousands in Afghanistan
01 Jan 99 | Americas
America's slice of Cuba
12 Dec 01 | South Asia
Red Cross probes Taleban deaths
17 Apr 01 | Americas
Cuba commemorates Bay of Pigs
09 Apr 99 | Americas
Guantanamo refugee plan scrapped
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