U.S. NAVAL STATION GUANTANAMO BAY — A column of blue-gray smoke rose on the horizon Wednesday as we drove slowly up a winding road to what military officials here call the “Northeast Gate” — a heavily guarded opening in the line that separates this patch of U.S. soil from the rest of Cuba.
The smoke column was a strange enough site to cause the mind to wander briefly from the fast-paced frenzy surrounding the creation of a special war crimes tribunal here, and the pending guilty plea of Australian detainee David Hicks (the fate and details of which are expected to unfold in the coming days).
“See that?” remarked a U.S. Marine, one of a few hundred with the job of patrolling the 17.4 mile fence night and day. “A land mine just went off,” he said. “It’s on the Cuban side.”
Yes, a land mine. While in the early 1990s, military officials painstakingly dug out hundreds of the deadly explosives that once peppered the soft earth on the U.S. side of the fence, an unknown number still remain on the Cuban side.
And they blow up regularly, triggered by unlucky Iguanas or shifts in the rain-soaked soil. Three went off Wednesday during our brief tour of the North East Gate. A whole string popped-off on a hot night last month, resulting, military officials say, in a briefly out-of-control brush fire that spread nearly all the way up to the fence line.
Thankfully, no one was injured.
A Meeting of the Minds
Cuban military officials meet monthly with U.S. military officials in a small concrete building that sits in a strip of paved no-man’s-land just past the Northeast Gate. One of the things they talk about, according to Navy Captain Mark Leary, the commanding officer of the U.S. Naval base who participates in the meetings, is landmines and what to do if such a fire were to blow truly out of control.
Once a year here, Cuban and U.S. military officials actually come together, albeit in a thoroughly rehearsed manner, in a joint mass casualty drill to make sure they’re prepared for such a scenario.
Other things are also discussed during the monthly meetings, said Capt. Leary. “We talk to clear up misunderstandings about what’s going on over here [on the U.S. side],” he said, and about the issue of managing the eight or so Cuban cargo ships that pass through the U.S.-controlled entrance to the bay on their way to Cuba every month.
With U.S-Cuban diplomatic relations severed in 1961 and a decades-old trade embargo still enforced by the United States, such discussions certainly don’t reflect official U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba. After all, stone-faced U.S. Marines with M-16s strapped to their backs still man the guard towers that dot the U.S. side of the fence line.
As Cuban President Fidel Castro suffers from old age and illness a few hundred miles from here, his brother Raul was given provisional control of the country’s government last summer.
Capt. Leary said that hasn’t changed the U.S. force posture on the fence line, where Marines usually watch with amusement as the Cuban land mines go off.
World Politics Review Senior International Editor Guy Taylor is blogging this week from Guantanamo. On Tuesday, he discussed the David Hicks case and the prison for terror suspects on To The Point, a program co-produced by KCRW and Public Radio International. For details, click here.