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The Birds of Guantanamo

Guantanamo is a city of some 200,000, capital of Cuba’s easternmost province of the same name, which is Cuba’s most agricultural, beautiful and poorest province. The travel books give the city short shrift because it has no tourist attractions, but for those interested in people rather than things it has lots to offer. There’s a nice old center square with a beautifully restored Catholicchurch, a music pavilian where they play trova for us old-timers on Saturday nights, and a cultural center where on Saturday afternoons groups of primary and middle school kids put on costumed song and dance routines to the delight of their parents and envy of their siblings. Nearby there’s also an adult education center, several music, art and dancing schools and Cuba’s best chess club.

The city sits at the upper end of Cuba’s largest and deepest bay. There’s also now a nearby tourist attraction called the “mirador” (the US marines call it “Castro’s bunker”), which is a small café on a mountain on Cuban land where you can have a sandwich and look down through a telescope on the US naval base surrounding the bay near its entrance to the sea. Since the revolution the occupied territory has been barricaded and land mined by the US military, preventing any contact between the two sides, but before the revolution there were some mutually beneficial connections. Some Cubans found good paying day jobs on the base and US sailors and marines used the city as their whorehouse.

Through the telescope you can see the defenders of our nation playing at their water sports and fields in the tree-shaded base town. Several kilometers to the east in the desert is a large, windowless structure where they torture the Talibanis, and further south, a smaller structure where they keep the Haitian, Cuban and Dominican balseros they catch in the Florida Straits. No birds, except a few vultures circle above the town. On the other side of the bay is the airstrip where the huge, black US military planes refuel, the ones which now circle Cuba day and night beaming on to Cuban TV the same propaganda, commercials and cultural trash our Rulers use to anesthisize us. Apparently to them communication no longer means dialogue, rather it means imposing their voices and images on others.

One has to wonder why our Rulers fear the Cuban Revolution so much. Does the independent road to development and modernization threaten their plans for the rest of the Third World? In Kafkaesque fashion they are telling us that they are helping the Cuban people by preventing medicine and medical equipment from reaching them, punishing and threatening foreigners who dare to do business there, unconstitutionally eliminating our rights to travel there and give money and property to our friends and families there. What secrets are they disguising by these absurd rationalizations?

Like Auschwitz, the Guantanamo base is the perfect place for a concentration camp because under the new US theory of sovereignty, relations between the people there are governed by raw power rather than law. If you find yourself in that strange place, whether you are treated as a human or animal depends solely on your access to power. In the past sovereignty meant the absolute right of a community of people to exercise dominion over its land. Now, however, sovereignty is conditional everywhere in the Third World–on the acceptance of dependent First World commercial exploitation. The reason the Cubans have not exercised dominion over their occupied land on Guantanamo bay is that they lack the power. The Cuban sovereignty our Rulers now claim has eliminated the rule of law on the base is like the “sovereignty” they claim to be giving (as though it were theirs to give) to the Iraqis this month. It’s a mirage, a shell game, a glass of dry water for thirsty people.

The century long US occupation at Guantanamo has significantly delayed economic development of the province. If a foreign ship gets US permission to enter the Cuban part of the bay, it can’t dock at a US port for six months. Therefore the province must be supplied by truck from Santiago, 250 kilometers to the west.

Fifteen years after the end of the Cold War and twelve years after the Pentagon certified Cuba constitutes no security risk, our Rulers have recently been tightening the blockade in what seems to be their effort at “the final solution.” The Cuban people will never be starved into submission because they have reorganized their agriculture to become self sufficient. But funding for many of their innovative social programs, once the pride of Latin America, is beginning to disappear. In Guantanamo, housing is a serious problem. In the barrios, people often live several to a bedroom and washing, bathing and flushing is often by bucket only. The limited funding for their self-help, cooperative housing program had to be diverted to areas in central Cuba destroyed by the hurricane two years <ago.But> for some reason Guantanameros seem to have risen above their difficult and crowded living conditions.

My mother-in-law Augustina lives in a three room apartment with her mother, two daughters and a granddaughter somewhere in the middle of Barrio Suroeste. Early in the mornings I spend there, the rooster next door, who seems to know my last name, gently urges me to leave my dreams. Soon the dawn comes up like thunder from across the bay and people are scrambling everywhere to get to school or work in the fincas and agricultural coops which surround the city. Rambler that I am, I like to take walks around the barrio in the late mornings. On the narrow winding road-paths walking is usually best, although bicycles and horse carriages are also used on the thoroughfares. “Clothes make the man” is an iron rule in Guantanamo. My wife, who lets me slop around Miami in whatever I please, won’t let me out the door in Guantanamo without first ironing my shorts and Tshirt and making sure my sneakers are spotless. During the day, salesmen ply the roads, selling housewares to the stay-home women, also preachers, adventurers, story tellers and all kinds of interesting characters, later there are organ grinders and such selling caramelas to kids. When I leave on my walks, I’m always confident that sooner or later I’ll become lost in the labyrinth, but just as confident someone will notice my confusion and take me back to Casa Augustina. Because my eyes are seldom on the ground in front of me where they should be, I’m known as “el accidente que viene.”

In the late afternoons after the washing is hung out, I like to rest on Augustina’s flat roof and watch “las palomas.” The teen age boys catch them, make homes for them on the roofs, and train them to carry inter-barrio messages (telephones being few and far between). They have a good life: comfortable homes, plenty of grain, they do useful work, and in the late afternoons they soar above the barrios in freedom in groups of a dozen or two, catching the fresh breezes from the bay, sometimes dropping down to taste the delicacies of the occasional mango tree.

In the evenings when the streets grow dark, I hear the soft murmur of hundreds of voices discussing the the day’s events, politics, dominoes, whatever, and realize that the streets and porches are full of people and they are creating their community.

When I leave Guantanamo, I often find myself wondering how and why it is that the human spirit, like the palomas, sometimes soars above its harsh condition. I think it has something to do with the idea of real community–where relations among people are governed by law, justice and equality rather than power. Maybe this is the road to real freedom, and maybe it’s why only birds of prey hang out around the military base.

TOM CRUMPACKER is a lawyer who works with the Miami Coalition to End the US Embargo of Cuba. He can be reached at: Crump8@aol.com

 

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