U.S. Naval Station, Guantánamo Bay, Cuba
The day was beautiful, cloudless, and serenely quiet at The Line, the northeast perimeter gate of the U.S. Naval Station at GTMO. Base Commander Captain Wally T. Andrus fidgeted as he waited for his counterpart to appear from the Cuban side. His watch read 0958. His team—USMC detachment commander Colonel John Compoli, aide Lieutenant Commander Steve O’Malley, and Spanish interpreter Marine Corporal Lance Rueda—peered silently through the chain link fence. The American side featured a guard shack flanked by concrete-filled cinder blocks and oil drum berms garishly painted in red and yellow. Atop the guard shack was a sign: “North East Gate–Marine Barracks–Ground Defense Security Force.” Old Glory fluttered atop the flagpole as if indifferent to the host country on whose territory it was planted. Opposite, some thirty yards away, was a high archway topped by a sign boldly proclaiming, “Republica de Cuba – Territorio Libre de America.” The Cuban flag and pole were inexplicably smaller than their U.S. counterparts.
The monthly meetings on The Line were actually convivial. So much so, in fact, one would not discern that the venue was one of only two points held over from the Cold War where enemies met. The other point was Panmunjom in the Korean DMZ. Berlin’s Glienicke “Bridge of Spies” belonged to the history books. And while the Allenby Bridge, the India-Pakistan Wagah Border crossing ,and the Cypriot Green Line could offer moments of tense drama, they lacked the gravity of junctures where empires, or their surrogates, met and sometimes clashed.
In the movie A Few Good Men, the fictional Colonel Jessep famously said, “I eat breakfast three hundred yards from four thousand Cubans who are trained to kill me.” Andrus loved throwing out that line when hosting visiting VIPs at the base commander’s residence or at the Windjammer Club.
Three Cubans in olive drab marched out of one of the single-story buildings flanking the archway. Their leader, a gray-haired, dark-complexioned man with a paunch, nodded, signaling they were ready to meet. The two delegations, lined up in rank order, strode toward a white line in the asphalt exactly in the middle of the boundary. Falling into place on either side, they halted, stood at attention, and saluted. They then shook hands all around.
Brigadier General Marcos López y López gestured for the Americans to join them at a long, narrow table with folding chairs on the Cuban side, under the archway. The comandante of Cuba’s Eastern Military Region was accompanied by Frontier Brigade Commander Col. Henrique Marcial Arribe, Intelligence Officer Carlos Amenares Sánchez, and a young female interpreter wearing out-of-place pink lipstick, private’s insignia, and a name patch that read, “Navarro.” All were with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias, or FAR, except for Amenares, a member of the Ministry of Interior’s feared secret police. An orderly stood ready to serve refreshments.
As the delegates took their seats, the orderly served strong cafecitos and simple biscuits. The meeting venues alternated between the two sides. When the U.S. Navy hosted, in true blue USN tradition, a fairly lavish meal was served inside an air-conditioned tent. The FAR delegates relished those affairs, as evidenced by their repeated helpings of the heavy American fare. The FAR, like the rest of Cuba, lacked the resources to put on a small banquet for their Yankee counterparts.
As the proceedings began, flies buzzed around increasingly sweaty brows. The overhead sun was relentless, and the archway’s shade provided little relief. The agenda was typically mundane: fence repair notification, new construction around Camp Delta, scheduling the orderly repatriation of Cuban escapees, weed eradication, and coordination of measures to put out brush fires, which were usually started by an animal blundering into a Cuban minefield—the U.S. had removed its minefields. The purpose of the monthly get-togethers was to prevent potential flare-ups from erupting between the two adversaries.
Capt. Andrus took stock of the Cubans as his interpreter translated his opening remarks. López y López, a battle-hardened veteran of Angola, was around sixty, and clearly on his pre-retirement final tour of duty. Despite his jovial demeanor, his eyes were steely. The squinty-eyed, slouch-shouldered, humorless Amenares had the air of a man who spent his time preying on people on behalf of himself as well as the state. Col. Marcial, quiet and observant, stood in stark contrast to his cohorts. A six-foot-two, muscled Afro-Cuban, he was lantern-jawed and handsome. His handshake was viselike, the grip of a powerful man. He had the right qualities for a soldier whose job was to be the first to confront the American superpower should the balloon go up. Andrus figured Marcial would probably be the guy first in line to run three hundred yards to kill him while he ate breakfast.
Seventy-five minutes later, the two delegations rose, gathered their papers, and proceeded back to the white strip separating the Republic of Cuba from America’s oldest overseas naval base.
The earlier ritual was repeated with smart salutes, followed by handshakes. The last to shake Andrus’s hand was Marcial. Again, the tight grip was held a few seconds longer than customary. Marcial fixed Andrus with a firm, direct gaze, but there was something more in those midnight eyes and that demi-grin. Searching? Assurance? Something.
When Marcial released his hand, Andrus felt something in his palm. Paper. Marcial held his gaze a second longer. Warning. Caution. In any case, a visual man-to-man message. Andrus pulled out his handkerchief to wipe his brow, a ploy to deposit the slip of paper in his pocket.
Andrus waited until his chauffeured sedan was a full mile on the road back to headquarters before retrieving the paper and opening it.
I want to defect.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish