I am in Caimanera. Behind me, on one side of the long, semi-deserted highway is the biggest salt mine from Cuba and a “Restricted Access” sign that announces the entry to the town closest to the U.S. military base that the world calls Gitmo. Here they simply call it “The Base.”
“Your pass, please,” an official tells me at the entrance to the community, and I hold out the paper that states my date of arrival and exit, who I am and whom I am coming to see.
My friend’s husband is waiting for me. If he weren’t there I wouldn’t be able to enter. That’s what they tell me, although I already knew. Who doesn’t? In Guantanamo they teach you from childhood that in Caimanera no one gets in without a pass, that someone always has to meet you (unless you work there), and that it is a special area, so special that its inhabitants earn 30% extra on top of their salary, and receive extra benefits from butchers and warehouses. All this is explained by the danger, the proximity, the foreign militarization of a small fragment of the land.
I inspect the two main streets. One is called Correo (Post), where the seat of the Government and the media are, along with some self-employed individuals and a small central park. The other street is Carretera (Road). Going straight down it you can arrive at the edge of the sea, from where it’s possible to see, skirting the coast, the wreckage of some wooden houses, built on stilts and covered with sheets of zinc. They say that this is how they used to build houses in the South of the United States.
A friend once told me that living a few kilometres from the Base was as normal as living in Guantánamo city: “but you always fear the unexpected.” “You can see the 4th of July fireworks,” he said to me, “and you occasionally hear the sounds of the military training.”
A neighbour explained how the town works. The locals travel to the more isolated communities in dinghies and a small catamaran, while they go to the provincial capital on bus or train. She also, very kindly, shows me the way to the main museum where – she says – they will explain it all to me much more clearly.
Ofelia García Campusano, the museum director, talks to me about prostitution, which seems to be another historical trauma for Caimanera… after the Base. Until the middle of the 20th century, she said, in the southern part of the city there was a tolerated Red Light District, a neighbourhood full of bars and brothels like the “Cachalotte Bar.”
“The girls left the countryside and came to Caimanera to look for work. The men did the same because there were over 2,000 businesses of all kinds here, related to the port and the Base, but the women always had worse luck and ended up in the brothels. Once used, they couldn’t go back to their homes.”
This permissive zone was the first one that had a “health office” (a type of medical clinic), asphalt streets, and access to drinkable water. It even had Guidelines on practicing prostitution, a copy of which – Ofelia confirms – is held in the municipal archives.
“Caimanera became Cuba’s biggest brothel, and around 3,000 women of Guantanamo married American officials and sailors,” explains José Sánchez Guerra, the Historian of Guantanamo City, who claims that the business from traders and brothel owners linked to the Base reached 23 million dollars annually in the 1950s.
They say that from Boquerón, a community located to the side of the entry to the large bay that belongs to the “Martyrs of the Border” People’s Council, you can see everything more clearly… including the building’s infrastructure, the airports and the bay.
The town seems too quiet to me and claustrophobic, despite the squalls. In the queue for the bus I talk to a woman. I ask if she remembers the Chanel 8 programs, broadcast in English for the Marines, and she tells me “Yes, but you can’t pick up the signal for it anymore.” Sometimes you can still tune into a radio broadcast in English.
I arrive home. I turn on the computer to download the photos from the trip and I open the document where I saved the transcription of a debate hosted by Temas magazine in Havana, focusing on the Naval Base. The moderator argues that the Guantanamo Bay is 10 times bigger than the bay in Santiago de Cuba, 15 times bigger than Mariel and 24 times bigger than the Havana Bay. The surface area is comparable to that of Manhattan, and I, at this distance, can only think of the size of the bite that the Americans took out of us.