Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Long Weekend at Guantanamo Bay Cuba

I want to get lost in old Habana
I long to walk down the wide Malecon
Quiero hablar con los pescadores
Y oler las flores
And drive in a '56 Caddy right into the dawn …
Jimmy Buffett

(Note:  This is a chapter for my upcoming book "A Dozen Random Islands")

One of the most consistent and memorable parts of any trip to the tropics, and especially to the Caribbean, is the inevitability of something going wrong that eventually rights itself.  There have been days when the plane I was on broke in mid-flight and we became stranded on an island waiting for someone to arrive who could fix the plane.  There was the sight of the Tontons Macoutes lining the highways of Haiti each packing a side arm looking for the next person to get out of line so they could “educate” them.  There was a time when lifting off from Panama City enroute to Isla San Andres when lightning hit the wing of the plane and a blue flash of ozone filled the cabin. And there was the inevitability of either Bahamasair or LIAT, either running two hours late or losing your reservation or both.  No matter what, however, all things eventually work out.

That was what I was thinking on one April weekend morning as Mark Oberle, Jon Andrew and I were making our way to Fort Lauderdale so we could launch off to Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, Cuba.  The trip began with massive amounts of consternation very early in the morning.  Mark was supposed to leave Seattle on Friday, overnight in Atlanta and then fly to Fort Lauderdale on Saturday morning however his Friday flight was cancelled and Mark was still in Seattle a mere 3,200 miles away.  This was not the most auspicious way to begin a journey to the islands.  Luckily he was put on a later flight through Denver arriving Atlanta in the early morning hours of Saturday.  From there he made his way to Florida.

Then there was Jon.  We talked about 6:15 that morning as he was leaving his office for the Atlanta airport.  For some reason at the conclusion of our conversation I had the words “don’t forget your passport” sitting on the tip of my tongue but I did not say them.  I wish I had because on his arrival in Fort Lauderdale two hours later, Jon discovered that he didn’t have his passport along with him.  Although Guantanamo Bay is a US Navy base non-Navy travelers need a valid US passport to get on the plane to go there, and they need a passport to clear US Immigration on the way back.  It’s a very important little document to have and Jon didn’t have his.  After some frantic calls to Guantanamo Bay, a way around the lack of a passport was worked out.  Instead of the physical passport, if Jon could get a copy of its title page faxed to the airline for him to carry to Guantanamo Bay, he would be allowed access to the base.  Luckily one of his colleagues lives not far from Jon’s office and was able to fax the front page of the passport to the airline. At the same time he sent the passport by priority Fed Ex so it could be carried to Guantanamo Bay on Monday, the next day that Lynx Airlines had a flight to the base.

Far from a luxury airline and lacking any restrooms for the three hour flight, Lynx Air delivered us to Guantanamo Bay and brought us back again.  I guess I can't really ask for anything more.

My consternation was not nearly as frustrating or potentially damaging as either Mark’s or Jon’s.  Mine involved delayed flights – the bane of every traveler.  Despite boarding on time and being prepared to leave on time, for whatever reason we were 45 minutes late pushing back from the gate enroute to Memphis.  Our progress was slowed down considerably because of strong head winds finally arriving at the same time my connecting flight to Fort Lauderdale was leaving was scheduled to leave.  But never fear.  The plane I was supposed to take was delayed two hours arriving from Dallas, so I was not left behind. Now, instead of arriving in Fort Lauderdale at noon, it would be sometime after 2 pm.  When the plane finally limped to the gate in Memphis at 11:00 a.m. (3 hours late) I asked one of the flight attendants “so, what was the delay in Dallas?”  She simply said “tornadoes” and I thought, yup, that will do it.  I finally arrived in Fort Lauderdale at 2:15 pm where I caught up with Mark and Jon in the commuter terminal part of the airport and here for our 5:00 pm departure to Guantanamo Bay.

Other than a military transport, the only regularly scheduled air service to the base from the United States is on Lynx Air International.  Lynx specializes in flights to the Bahamas so, by definition, you can expect flights to run late and ours was no exception.  First they told us that we would be boarding at 4:30 for our 5:00 pm departure. Then they told us there would be a “slight” delay which never bodes well.  At the time of our scheduled departure we were told that the plane we would be using was on the ground and being refueled. Then we heard that the plane wasn’t there and neither were the pilots.  At 6:00 we were told that the plane hadn’t arrived from the Bahamas yet but the pilots had (so, we were making progress).  Fifteen minutes later rumor had it that our plane had just arrived from Bimini and we’d be boarding “soon.”  Of course after nearly 30 years of traveling in the West Indies I realize that soon is a relative term. 

Finally at 6:40 we were told we could board and as we did the pilot jokingly said that the onboard restroom was broken so any unmet biological urges needed to be taken care of now.  Because we were flying on a Swearingen Metroliner, a 19 passenger flying cigar, there was no bathroom on board to be broken.  We taxied away from the gate at 6:55 and were airborne a couple minutes later headed southeast.  About 30 minutes before arriving I saw lights from an island off the left side of the plane that I thought were from the northern peninsula of Haiti. Instead they were from Great Inagua in the southern Bahamas.  After a rather uneventful 2 hours and 27 minutes in the air, the 15 of us on Lynx Air flight 518 touched down to the east at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station

After four US Marines made an in depth check of our luggage, we took a van to the ferry terminal and caught the 10:00 p.m. U Boat to the windward side of the base. Here we were met by Jon’s friend David who took us to the Bachelor Officers Quarters where we crashed for the next 3 days.  Knowing that our flight would be late and that we would arrive after the restaurants had closed, David had stopped by the Jerk Shop and picked up three jerk chicken dinners and a six-pack of Red Stripe for our late evening dinner.

The website has this to say about the recent history of Guantanamo Bay and how it became not only a US Naval base but also a huge thorn in Cuba’s side:

In 1898, the Spanish American War united Cuba and the United States as Cuba fought for independence from Spain.  At the same time the Spanish surrendered as the United States captured Guantanamo Bay.  That same year the Treaty of Paris was signed granting Cuba independence from Spain.  Not long afterward, the United States formally leased this 45 square mile parcel from Cuba to use it as a fueling station. The lease was renewed in 1934 and it required consent of both parties should either want to withdraw.  Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba were severed in January of 1961 and in their continuing hope that the United States will forfeit the land the Cuban government no longer accepts the $5,000 annual American rent. In 2002, Cuba officially requested that Guantanamo Bay be returned however interpretation of the 1934 mutual consent agreement differs, causing frequent squabbles between the two countries.

In 1964, Fidel Castro cut off the base’s water supply in response to the U.S. government fining Cubans for fishing near Florida. As a result, Guantanamo Bay is self-sufficient, and produces its own water and electricity and even has its own McDonalds, although I’m not sure if that is a positive or not.  The naval base itself is divided into two functioning areas on either side of the bay. The east side of the bay is the main base, and the airfield occupies the west side. Today, both sides of the base’s 17-mile fence line are patrolled by U.S. Marines and Cuban militiamen.

During the 1990s, social upheaval in Haiti brought over 30,000 Haitian refugees to Guantanamo Bay. In 1994, the base provided humanitarian services to thousands of migrants during Operation Sea Signal. That year, civilian employees and their families were evacuated from the base to accommodate for the influx of migrants. The migrant population climbed upwards of 40,000. By 1996, the Haitian and Cuban refugees had filtered out, and family members of the military were allowed to return.

Following the September 2001 attacks in New York and Washington DC, several detention camps were built at Guantanamo Bay that held hundreds of detainees. Many of the prisoners originated from Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. There is longstanding debate over Guantanamo Bay’s role as a detention facility, particularly among lawyers and human rights activists. Its true nature and inner workings are somewhat elusive to the American public, and are under constant scrutiny. One can only speculate the future of Guantanamo Bay and as history suggests, its utility and habitation are ever changing.

My interest in traveling to Gitmo was twofold, one involving birds and one involving politics.  Since first traveling to the West Indies I had made it a goal that I wanted to see every island-specific endemic bird species in the area.  An island-specific endemic is just that.  A species of bird that occurs nowhere else on earth is endemic to that place.  An island-specific endemic occurs only on one island or only in one island nation.  For instance the Bahama yellowthroat is endemic to the Bahamas but there occurs on several islands.  Not far away, however, the Jamaican lizard-cuckoo occurs only on Jamaica.   Among the 646 bird species that still occur in the West Indies (the area inside of what is commonly referred to as “Bond’s Line”) 152 of them occur nowhere else on earth than in the islands.  Among those 152 species, 83 of them are specific to one island.  Those numbers range from 28 endemics on Jamaica to 1 each on Barbados, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Montserrat. Cuba with 21 island specific endemics was a high priority island to visit.  Following a trip to western and central Jamaica in 1990 I was missing only three Cuban endemic bird species.  Among the missing three, two of them were widely distributed in eastern Cuba and rather easily found on Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.  The only challenge was getting to Guantanamo Bay.

Cuban Grassquit is a common and conspicuous member of the Guantanamo Bay avifauna

The other reason I wanted to visit Guantanamo Bay was because I was outraged with the person then-occupying the White House who had enraged the entire civilized world when he began putting human beings who likely had committed no crime into cages at Guantanamo Bay and claimed that he was protecting the world from terrorism.  I considered Bush’s detention of people primarily because of their Arabic heritage to be a moral, political and ethical indignity of astronomic proportions.  If anyone deserved to be imprisoned in a cage it was that smirking bastard and his vice president with a permanent snarl.  To top it off under the recently passed “Patriot Act” the Bush Administration was tapping the phone lines of otherwise law abiding citizens and those wire taps along with millions of emails, were being read and deciphered at Guantanamo Bay.  Making matters even worse, Bush was operating outside of the U.S. Constitution by establishing military tribunals where the Arabic cage-dwellers were supposed to be put on trial for unspecified crimes.  It was easier and swifter to prosecute outside of the Constitution in a tribunal at Guantanamo than in a court of law in the United States where the Bush Administration would have to abide by the Constitution.  If you remember from some of his earlier comments George W once said that the Constitution was “just a god-damned piece of paper.”  His approach to sidestepping it at Guantanamo Bay was not surprising.  I wanted to see the place where Bush was holding people in cages he should have been in and where he was making a mockery of the Constitution he swore to uphold.

Confirming my earlier suspicion that there are McDonald's everywhere on the planet I wasn't overly surprised to see one behind a barbed wire barrier at Guantanamo Bay. Personally I would have preferred a Margaritaville Cafe, but that's just me.

Our first morning we were up and out the door by sunrise having been awakened by a raucous group of Greater Antillean grackles squawking around in the yard of the Bachelor Officers Quarters.  While they were making noise, Antillean nighthawks were flying overhead singing “pity-pit-pit” and gray kingbirds were cranking up their dawn song.  We stopped for a quick breakfast at McDonalds and then headed out on the road to Camp Delta, the site of one of Bush’s infamous detention centers.  About 200 meters before the entrance to the detention center at Camp Delta we turned right on the road to Windmill Beach and stopped in some likely looking desert scrub and started searching.  La Sagra’s flycatcher was the first species identified here followed quickly by Cuban emerald, red-legged thrush and Cuban tody.  A rather industrious pair of Cuban grassquit was busily constructing their bulky nest in a roadside bush.  Not long afterward we heard the melodious burps, farts and gurgles of great lizard-cuckoo, a species I’d not seen or heard in 17 years since my last visit to Cuba.  Next was bee hummingbird, the smallest bird on earth, followed by several Cuban blackbirds and a tawny-shouldered blackbird.

The first West Indian endemic I saw was a great lizard-cuckoo perched on the top of the head of a white-crowned pigeon statue as I drove out of the Nassau, Bahamas airport on my first trip to the West Indies.  By the time this trip to Guantanamo Bay came about I had seen all of them but three and those three were all from Cuba.  The most difficult among them is Zapata rail that is not only endemic to Cuba but almost completely endemic to Zapata Swamp in Matanzas Province near Havana.  I tried for it in 1990 and came up empty handed. 

Beside the rail, the other two missing endemics were Oriente warbler and Cuban gnatcatcher.  Both the warbler and the gnatcatcher are fairly common in desert scrub in the eastern one third of Cuba.  Finding them would be relatively simple if you are in eastern Cuba, yet for an American getting to eastern Cuba is a little like having a tooth pulled – you can do it but getting it done is painful.  Until the ineffective and totally politically-driven American embargo on Cuba is lifted and normal relations return, getting into Cuba is a frustrating process. 

The year previously, on his way to the National Wildlife Refuge at Navassa Island off the west coast of Haiti, Jon befriended David on Guantanamo who invited him to return to Guantanamo Bay under his sponsorship to look for birds.  At 7:30 of our first morning on the base, Jon casually announced “I have an Oriente warbler right here.”  It was foraging in some thorny scrub vegetation stopping occasionally to sing and just generally be a warbler.  Largely restricted to arid scrub vegetation, the Oriente warbler has an abundance of habitat to fit its needs in eastern Cuba.  This bird is very closely related to the yellow-headed warbler that is endemic to the western third of Cuba.  In fact, anyone who does not believe in evolution needs only to look at the plumage and structural similarities of these two warblers for proof that evolution marches on.  It would be interesting to do a genetic analysis of yellow-headed and Oriente warbler DNA to see how closely related they are. 

After watching the warbler for several minutes we were drawn to the tooting sound of a Cuban pygmy-owl that absolutely refused to show itself.  We then walked downhill along the road finding a frenetic foraging group of Cuban grassquits.  We walked back up the hill hoping to find the pygmy-owl for Jon but had no luck. It remained in the desert scrub calling incessantly but simply would not show itself.  Not long after giving up on the owl Jon called out that he had the Cuban gnatcatcher. I looked at my watch and saw that it was only 7:56 a.m.  It took only 56 minutes to put myself within one species of having seen them all of the endemic bird species of the West Indies. 

From the Gnatcatcher we moved further up the road toward Windmill Beach. Enroute we saw a white-tailed deer dart across the road – a total surprise and the first deer I have ever seen in the West Indies.  We parked at the recreation area and walked to the beach. The infamous Camp Delta that housed about 400 Middle Eastern people imprisoned because of their ethnicity was just a half kilometer to the east.  Rock iguana’s were present and sunning themselves near the beach. This fantastic reptile is endemic to Cuba and highly endangered there.  Apparently the population on the base is the most stable there is for this reptile.

While Mark was off recording bird voices, Jon and I heard a tooting voice that at first we mistook for a common ground-dove.  Further investigating revealed it to be another Cuban pygmy-owl that was perched somewhere in a patch of sea grape.  We tracked it down and Jon finally saw it, perched maybe 10 feet up and with a freshly captured whip-tailed lizard in its talons.  We watched, photographed and recorded the owl for probably 15 minutes before continuing on the road back toward the central part of the base.  We stopped at one place to look and listen and Mark had a Cuban gnatcatcher fly to within three feet of his parabolic microphone and it began to sing. I think that will become the clearest recording of that species ever made.

We stopped at the intersection of Windmill Beach Road and Camp Delta road where we got out with our binoculars and cameras and Mark with his recording equipment and parabolic microphone and stood by the edge of the road. Guards at the heavily fortified entrance to Camp Delta could see us, and at least two Military Police cars drove by us but nobody stopped to question us or did they get paranoid about us being there with a microphone.  I assumed this was because there was no water-boarding or other compassionately conservative torture going on so they weren’t concerned about the screams being heard.

Searching for birds in the shadow of Camp Delta was a tad disconcerting

We returned slowly to the main part of the base and stopped at a large brackish wetland across Sherman Avenue from the U S Post Office. We then passed through more housing developments and past the entrance to the hospital where we found a large brackish wetland.  Across the road from it we took a street that climbed rapidly up a hill to an overlook. Here we found a picnic shelter and another humongous rock lizard. Directly below us to the east was the infamous Camp X-Ray. This is the place where the wrongly-imprisoned “detainees” were first housed like animals in 8 foot by 5 foot cages.  This is without doubt one of the low points in the recent compassionately conservative history of the United States.  At the overlook we were admonished by a sign to “enjoy the scenery but no photography allowed.”  Curiously later in the day we drove down the hill and up to the entrance to Camp X-Ray and took all sorts of pictures. 

We met David as previously planned at 6:30 for dinner at the Bayview Club, the only place on the base where men have to wear a shirt with a collar if they want to enter.  I had such a shirt (only one of course) but luckily the Bayview Club was closed because it was Sunday.  A few minutes later we found that the Cuban Café was likewise closed because it was Sunday. Finally we went to the Jerk Shop along Deer Boulevard and found it open.  It is adjacent to the Internet Café and also very close to the Tiki Bar. All of these, of course, are highly important places on the base.  At the Jerk Shop we each had a jerk chicken dinner washed down with copious amounts of Red Stripe beer.  It was most appropriate to be sitting in the West Indies eating West Indian food washed down with West Indian beer celebrating the successful search for two of the three West Indian endemic birds missing from my list.

After dinner we drove out to near the ferry landing and then drove up behind the Administrative Building on the hill where Bush’s terrorist court was held.  The building looks more than adequate and secure. However, the Bush Administration planned instead to build a $100 million dollar courthouse facility here on an abandoned landing strip. It would be here in the Gitmo Hilton that these individuals would meet their already established fate because of their genetics. 

The Bush Administration wanted to spend $100 million to build a place to try 400 people who are already convicted in Bush’s mind.  That’s $250,000 for each detainee.  I wonder what sort of advances in port security could be realized if this $100 million was invested in that needed activity?  How many acres of wildlife habitat could be protected for $100 million?  I wonder what sorts of advances could be made in finding a cure for leukemia with that $100 million?  What could have been done in developing alternative energy sources with this $100 million?  Oh well, it doesn’t matter.  Halliburton was in line to receive the contract to build the facility and Dick Cheney’s stock in Halliburton would in value. After all that is the real purpose of the war profiteering?

Our scheduled meeting with the commanding officer of the Naval Station went off smoothly.  He was all gung-ho, fire breathing and very proud of his position and the sailors he commanded.  In other words he was totally unlike a US Air Force General I once met who was in command of Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska.  I had traveled to Anchorage for a meeting to discuss the environmental effects of a large and totally unnecessary radar system that the Air Force was hell-bent on constructing.   The meeting’s purpose was to discuss ways to reduce or eliminate bird deaths at a series of structures called Over-the-Horizon radar that the Air Force wanted to build on the Alaskan tundra.  The theory behind the radar was that by sending a beam of electricity from a transmitter in one part of the state and then bouncing it off the stratosphere, it would be “caught” by a receiving station hundreds of miles away.  To catch this beam of electricity, the Air Force was going to build a series of huge nets made of wire and place them in several parts of Alaska.  Over-the-Horizon radar was touted as the latest and greatest technology for detecting incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles.  With this radar, the military could detect when missiles carrying atomic warheads were thirty minutes away from exploding, rather than the current ten minutes away with contemporary technology. 

When all the fluff and puff and glitter were sorted through, it meant that we could tell everyone to prepare to kiss their ass’s good-bye twenty minutes sooner than we could currently.  The extra twenty minutes we would obtain before Armageddon was inevitable was going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to construct.  Making matters even more bewildering, this venture was the first of four radar systems the Air Force wanted to build to give us twenty more minutes warning before it was lights out.  This was a classic example of the kind of pork barrel priority that ensures the reelection of Congressmen every two years.

Our meeting began with an Air Force General giving a rousing speech about using “warriors” and “patriots” and other hyperbole designed to make you wrap yourself in a flag. The General continued his spiel by telling us how his warriors were going to save us from the invading commie hordes and it would only happen when this stupendously expensive radar was built and running.  Until that happened, none of us should sleep with both eyes shut.  Without this radar, and we had to build it now, Russians would be coming down the Iditarod Trail long before the next sled dog saw it.  The General finally stopped hyperventilating about the imminent and certain carnage that only this radar could prevent, and asked the group if there were any questions.

A police action in Southeast Asia when I was in high school and in college had rather soured my outlook on military hyperbole.  An even more insidious military action on an Ohio college campus on May 4, 1970, had given me a bad taste in the mouth for the military.  Yet the General had asked for questions, and he had given a rousing speech that would pull at the heart strings of even the most devoted cynic such as me, so I decided to ask.

“Ah, excuse me, General,” I began.  “You gave an impassioned speech about the immediacy of building this radar so we can be better prepared for a war that sounds imminent.  However, has the Air Force developed a contingency plan for what to do if peace breaks out?”

Dumbfounded by someone asking him about peace, the General stopped, thought a few seconds, shuffled his feet and said “huh?” That confirmed my suspicions that neither the General or the Air Force had thought very much about how to deal with the imminent outbreak of peace.

The Commanding Officer at Guantanamo Bay was much more pragmatic and down-to-earth than his Air Force counterpart in Alaska.  After all the Commanding Officer at Guantanamo Bay had hanging on his office wall a picture of him personally greeting singer Jimmy Buffett the day Jimmy landed his flying boat in Guantanamo Bay harbor and performed a free concert for all the sailors and Marines on the base. 

“So Commander,” I asked as I pointed my finger at the picture of him and my idol that was gracing his office wall, “does this mean you’re a Parrothead?”  The Commander smiled, put his right hand on the top of his head to simulate a shark fin (a universal greeting among Parrotheads worldwide) and said, “Does it show?”  He immediately rocketed to the top of my list of favorite Naval Base Commanding officers.

Jimmy Buffett occasionally flies over from where he is bonefishing in the Ragged Islands, Bahamas, and puts on a free concert for the sailors at Guantanamo Bay.  How cool is that?

The Base Commander was very proud of his environmental record at Guantanamo Bay pointing out several improvements implemented to protect the precious resources he was legally responsible for protecting.  “Even though we are not on the American mainland,” he said, “I feel that my base should be subject to the same environmental laws that all US Navy bases adhere to so I have made Gitmo no different than the rest.”  One hugely positive improvement implemented by the Commander was a series of wind turbines constructed on the hills above and to the south of the main base.  During the time of our visit we learned that fully one-quarter (25 percent) of all the base’s electrical needs were being met by wind energy.  It was the Commander’s wish that by the time he left Guantanamo Bay the base would be 100 percent reliant on wind and solar energy for its power needs.

As we prepared to leave the Commander to handling much more important issues than three bird watchers from the States he asked if we had seen the barn-owl that nests on the base.  We were each impressed that someone of his stature and rank knew about a single barn-owl and we were then directed to a place to find it.

The barn-owl was “next door” to Camp X-Ray.  It was at Camp X-Ray where the United States first incarcerated Arabic speakers it considered to be enemy combatants (which brings up the question of how can someone be an enemy if you don’t know who you’re fighting?).  And we did this while housing these fellow human beings in 8 foot by 5 foot cages.  It was also here where the United States transitioned from being a strong opponent of torture to a world-class torture master.  Camp X-Ray is where Bush hoped to restore some of his lost testosterone in his quest to finally become a man.  Camp X-Ray was a huge success in helping the United States become more of a torturer than any other country on earth. Bush, of course, was a total failure.

We caught a late morning ferry to the leeward side of the base near the airport.  There we were picked up in a Marine van and driven to the Leeward Galley where we ate extremely well and extremely cheaply ($3.65 for all you can eat of everything).  It was here over lunch that we first learned about the senseless murders of 32 kids and the wounding of 28 more that morning at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg. We are all so lucky that we have the National Rifle Association working diligently to keep guns in the hands of idiots AND let them buy their guns one day before they commit carnage.

Following lunch we stopped at the Marine barracks and picked up a Staff Sergeant who served as our armed guard for the afternoon as we traveled north along the boundary with Cuba to visit the spectacular alkaline wetlands of the leeward side of the base.  On final approach to the runway on our arrival at the base, I noticed a long string of very bright lights extending north from the end of the runway.  I learned later that the bright lights were the base boundary. I also learned that the recent installation of these lights that completely ring the base cost about $35 million dollars. This was done to keep the base “secure.”  The funny thing is that the base boundary can now be depicted from outer space.  The irony of that concern is that just on the other side of the highly secure boundary fence was the poverty of Cuba.  The Cuban side of the fence was protected (from the Americans) by Cuban militiamen who were armed with rifles while on the US side of the fence we road in a Humvee with two massive machine guns mounted in the rear and ours wasn’t the only Humvee with two machine guns in the trunk.  “Overkill” was the first word to enter my thoughts.

The heavily fortified border fence bewteen the Naval Base (left side) and Cuba (right side).  Massive and heavily armed US Marines constantly patrol this border fence.  Something tells me the Cubans would not last long if they tried to break in.

Our Marine guard/guide was originally from southeastern Kansas. He had been in the Marines for 12 years, most recently (six days earlier in fact) in Iraq under threat of being blown up for a lie.  He had attended college “until I was asked to leave” before joining the Marines to get his act together. Despite looking like the typical Marine who could twist the head off a cow just for the hell of it, his goal after completing 20 years with the Marines was to open and manage an art shop.  He was very interested in birds and had done numerous wood carvings and paintings of birds and their habitats. Regarding his interest in birds and his artistic interests he said that while talking with his Marine colleagues “sometimes it’s not a good idea to tell them about some of my interests.”

As we traveled the boundary we found numerous concentrations of water birds foraging actively in the saline soup of Guantanamo Bay.  I asked our guard/guide about his life in Kansas and where he went to college before being kicked out.  He said he had attended Southwestern College in Winfield where he majored in biology.  I asked if he remembered any of the professors there and the Marine mentioned the name of a former colleague of mine was a biology professor there.  Once again surprised by the smallness of the world I said that his advisor was a friend of mine I knew through the Kansas Ornithological Society.  A huge smile crossed his face when he said “He was my advisor.  He used to go to bat for me every time I did something stupid and got in trouble with the University.  I feel really bad that I disappointed him by getting kicked out.” 

Returning in early evening across the mouth of the bay we stopped at the Navy Exchange and Commissary (the PX) where we stocked up on Red Stripe and Australian Wine and then proceeded to David’s house for a barbecue dinner. The PX had in its clothing section a t-shirt that read “US Navy – Catching Pirates for 200 Years.”  I seriously considered purchasing the t shirt but then realized if I ever wore it at a pirate-filled Jimmy Buffett concert my life would be over in a matter of moments. 

Our Lynx Air flight on our last morning was scheduled to leave at 8:00 which meant we had to catch the 6:30 ferry across the mouth of the bay.  Predictably, despite having two alarm clocks set for 4:45, I still tossed and turned for most of the night, finally giving up at 3:30 a.m.  I walked outside and stood in the breezeway listening to Antillean nighthawks then got ready. We left at 5:45 for a quick (and final!) breakfast at Mickey D’s then headed to the ferry and made the 6:30 crossing. As we made the 20 minute crossing I pulled out my iPod and cranked up some appropriate Jimmy Buffett music for the situation.  Specifically I pulled up the A1A album (quite possibly the finest album ever written and produced by anyone) as the ferry pulled away from the dock.  In unison with the master of music I was singing these words from his incomparable song songs about pirates, and being the son of a sailor, and about latitude changes, and migrations and about harbors and about the banana republics.  It was a most appropriate way to end my time on this little patch of Americana deep in the bowels of Castro’s Cuba.

Aerial view of the harbor at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station

Lynx Air was scheduled to leave at 8:00 a.m., but things don’t always operate on time in the islands and today was no different. Despite a small hold up we finally lifted off at 8:25 and left the reality of the West Indies as we unfortunately headed north.  Just after clearing the end of the runway the pilot made an abrupt right hand turn over the middle of the bay and headed on a due south course for what was probably 20 miles where he then turned east.  In what I assumed was air space that the Cuban government considered international air space, the plane turned toward the east and proceeded to the easternmost tip of the island.  We stayed on this course for about 90 minutes until making our first “landfall” directly overhead Congotown on the Bahamian island of Andros.  It was refreshing to see such a large island with virtually no development except for along the immediate coast.  The interior of the many islands that make up Andros is totally unscathed and I hope it stays that way for a long time.  Not far north of Andros we intersected the Bimini VOR where we turned due west and began losing altitude over the Gulf Stream.  Two hours and 46 minutes after lifting off from Gitmo we landed at Fort Lauderdale.  We taxied to the gate and were escorted to the Customs and Immigration area where, after more than 3 hours with no bathroom on the plane, I said the hell with the formalities and darted into the first bathroom I could find. 

As I cleared Immigration the agent said “welcome home to the United States.” I replied “thanks but I don’t want to be here.”  He got an inquisitive look on his face and asked me what I meant. I told him that “home is somewhere south of where I have been and where I am now. I won’t be home again until I catch another plane headed off to the tropics.”  He didn’t know how to reply and waved me through.

The US Navy has done a remarkable job of protecting the habitats on the base. This has been done in spite of the fact that they are not required to comply with any US environmental law because they are outside the boundaries of the 50 states or territories.  In addition to a great variety of birds, West Indian manatees are on the base and Guantanamo Bay has a large wake-free zone for their protection.  Given his fascination with Cuba and his love of manatees, I’m surprised that Jimmy Buffett’s “Save the Manatee” effort hasn’t hooked up with GTMO about protecting manatees on the base.  Also, the fact that the Commanding Officer of the base could tell us the density of hutia (the “banana rat” of Cuba) on the base told me that he and the base take environmental protection very seriously.

The US Navy has done a remarkable job of keeping the vegetation on the base in near-pristine condition.  The cactus shown here known appropriately as "dildo cactus" is a conspicuous part of the Guantanamo landscape.

In response to the nationalization by the Castro government of property and companies owned by Americans, the United States implemented a punitive embargo against Cuba in 1960.  That action may have made sense in 1960 but as time has gone on it has become increasingly more obvious that the embargo that is still in place today hurts only the United States.   It should have been lifted ages ago but politics and hysteria and tradition have kept it in place.  It’s akin to the Rural Electrification Administration.  The REA was begun during the 1930s during the height of the Depression.  Its purpose was to provide electric power to rural areas that could not otherwise obtain or afford electricity.  Today in the early 21st century where almost every home has a computer, there is STILL an REA in the US Department of Agriculture!  Americans are able to communicate with their thumbs on a key board of a phone slightly larger than a match book now but still we have the REA because, well, it’s always been there.  The same ridiculous view holds for the Cuban embargo.

In 1960 when the Embargo was put in place the human population of the United States was 179,000,000-.  Today the human population of the United States is 309,000,000.   Simple second grade arithmetic shows us that 130,000,000 people, fully 40 percent of the United States was not even born when the Cuban embargo was put in place.  I wonder how many of those 40 percent are incapable of fathoming the issue.  I was in the 6th grade when the embargo happened and I still don’t understand the why behind it.  Imagine someone born in 1970 trying to get their head around it.

Politicians of all stripes wax poetic about the need to keep a heavy thumb on Cuba because it is a “communist” government.  That alone, supposedly, is reason enough to keep horrible policy in place and at the same time hobble the ability of American companies to invest in Cuba and for American citizens to travel legally to Cuba.  Curiously the American government has absolutely no qualms about maintaining diplomatic relations and numerous business ventures with the communist government of Vietnam, a country in whose own civil war we meddled at the cost of billions of dollars and 58,000 American lives.  Concomitantly the American government has absolutely no qualms about maintaining diplomatic relations and developing business relations with the communist government of China, the largest communist nation on earth.  In fact, the George Dubya Bush administration sold 40 percent of America’s budget debt to China.  So, theoretically, China OWNS 40 percent of the United States.  That communist government is ok, but shaking hands with a neighbor who needs friends 90 miles from our coast is akin to treason.

Every day airplanes flown by Delta, United and American Airlines land in Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong China.  Further United Airlines has landing rights for service to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Vietnam from Hong Kong.  Yet the only air service from the United States to Cuba is occasional charter flights. 

I have now traveled to Cuba twice.  Of the 72 islands in the West Indies that I have visited Cuba ranks in the top four of my favorites.  My travel to Cuba has all been legal because I travel there on a US Treasury Department license, a thing required by the Trading With the Enemy Act of 1917 If I did not have a Treasury license I would be in violation of the law.  Hilarious also, because Vietnam WAS our enemy during the Vietnam War and China is no pal (other than owning 40 percent of America) yet Cuba who has done nothing to the US is considered an enemy. Such bullshit.

Curiously when I traveled to China in 1992 I simply sent my passport to the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC and for a fee they pasted a visa in my passport.  Similarly when I traveled to Viet Nam in 2006 I simply walked my passport over to the Viet Nam embassy in Washington DC and for a fee watched them paste a visa in it.  In a matter of seconds I was legally allowed to freely travel to these countries that were our enemies.  Now they are our pals but Cuba is a threat.  Go figure.

My first trip to Cuba I flew on Cubana de Aviacion, the national carrier of Cuba from Toronto to Varadero, a beach resort on the north coast of Cuba.  Because of the ridiculous embargo we were required by Federal law to fly directly to New York, then 200 miles offshore from the United States south to Andros Island in the Bahamas. There we could make a right hand turn and fly into Varadero. The trip took 5 1/2 hours and we had to do so because it was a Cuban aircraft. Had we flown on Air Canada (that also had nonstop service) we could have flown directly over American airspace the entire way and made the trip in 3 1/2 hours

Recently I wrote a letter to the World Trade Organization asking for data on who many American corporations conduct business daily and legally with the communist governments of both Vietnam and with China.  I want to use any data obtained to plead a case with myopic Florida legislators who steadfastly oppose normalization of relations with Cuba.  That letter to the WTO follows.

Dear World Trade Organization

I find it increasingly frustrating that the Congress of the United States steadfastly refuses to allow the normalization of relations with the government of Cuba ostensibly because it has a communist government. At the same time, however, the Congress and American businesses fall all over themselves in various business ventures with the communist governments of Vietnam and China.

I have searched the internet trying to find a piece of information that would be useful in arguing against the continued policy against Cuba because of its communist beliefs.  However I have not been able to find that information anywhere.  I'm hoping that the World Trade Organization has that information or could at least direct me to a source that does.

Specifically I would like to know how many American businesses (that we know of) have formal agreements to conduct business (e.g. maintain offices, factories, etc) in 1) China and 2) Vietnam.

Also I would like to know how many American businesses (that we know of) have entered into Memoranda of Agreement and other formal agreements to facilitate trade between them and the governments of China and Vietnam (e.g., the Jones rice company having an agreement to ship rice annually to China, etc).

Lastly I would like to know if there are any estimates of the amount of money $US) spent by American corporations to develop, support, and maintain their business ventures in China and in Vietnam.

Thank you in advance for any assistance you might possibly be willing to extend.

I have never received a reply from the World Trade Organization or have I received a reply to letters written to my Congressman or either of my US Senators (one Democrat, one Tea Party) urging that we end this nonsensical embargo of a neighbor who could use friends just 90 miles from our shores.  I never will receive a reply from them because to actually do something to end this nonsense would not be met favorably in the political realm by people who think it’s important to continue to inflict pain on the Castro government when in fact the only people feeling pain are the Cubans we ostensibly want to help.

Time on Guantanamo Bay, complete with its McDonald’s restaurant, opened my eyes to many things and one of the most important things it made me realize is just how hurtful and misdirected policies and programs can be that begin well intentioned and then morph into the absurd.  Several years ago I watched a television program that included an interview with then-Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.  The interview was filmed in his office and during the discussion he opened the top drawer of his desk and it seemed to be overflowing with paper checks. Each of the checks was a US government payment of $5,000 each year for the lease of the land at Guantanamo Bay.  Castro had never cashed any of the checks (and by 2014 after 54 years of the Revolution, he was sitting on $270,000 that could have been used for badly needed infrastructure improvements even on the road to the Bahia de Cochinos) because to do so would be perceived as his tacit approval of the legality of the lease. 

Meanwhile the United States government continues to joust at windmills and act tough as it thinks that its punitive embargo is hurting Castro.  It is not.

One of my wishes before I take leave of the planet is to see US Marines along the heavily fortified fence marking the west boundary of Guantanamo Bay Naval Base reaching their hands through the fence to shake those of the Cuban militiamen on the other side.  It’s a gesture that needs to happen on the heavily fortified (and land-mine riddled) border between Israel and Jordan and it also needs to happen at Guantanamo Bay.  In my wildest imagination I’d like to see peace break out along that border fence on the southeast coast of Cuba.  Perhaps if the outbreak is extensive enough it could infect the entire western hemisphere.  Of course I’ve always been a dreamer.


  1. Thank you so much for the great tip wadanhyll19. I am also going to Travel to Cuba by the end of this month and wanted to cut down my expenses. You gave me a great solution over this problem.

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