Guantanamo says goodbye to last Cuban 'commuters'

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Photo -   Luis La Rosa, left, and Harry Henry talk with a U.S. Marine, unseen, on the U.S. Naval Station base as they arrive for work in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012. Rosa started working on the base at the age of 18 and Henry when he was 17. La Rosa and Henry, the last of what were once hundreds of Cubans commuting daily to work at the base, are retiring at the end of the month. (AP Photo/Suzette Laboy)
Luis La Rosa, left, and Harry Henry talk with a U.S. Marine, unseen, on the U.S. Naval Station base as they arrive for work in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012. Rosa started working on the base at the age of 18 and Henry when he was 17. La Rosa and Henry, the last of what were once hundreds of Cubans commuting daily to work at the base, are retiring at the end of the month. (AP Photo/Suzette Laboy)
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GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba (AP) — One of the world's most unusual commutes is coming to an end.

For more than a half century, Luis La Rosa and Harry Henry have left their homes before dawn each workday in the communist-run city of Guantanamo, where old American cars rumble past posters of the Castro brothers in a Cold War time warp, climbed into taxis and traveled to the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, where troops shop at a Wal-Mart-like store and eat at McDonald's and Subway.

The commute takes less than an hour but spans two worlds and a heavily guarded border fence.

Now it is coming to an end. La Rosa, a 79-year-old welder who works at the base's motor pool, and Henry, an 82-year-old office worker, are retiring at the end of the month. They were honored Friday at a retirement ceremony celebrating the uniqueness of their situation.

The close friends, who have a kind of celebrity status on the base, are the last of what were once hundreds of Cubans commuting daily to work at this isolated U.S. military installation.

For them, it is a bittersweet moment — a severing of one of the last real links between Cuba and the U.S. Navy base that has been an unwelcome presence on the island for generations.

"I feel a bit sad because I'm leaving, but I'm going to my country," La Rosa said on Thursday after passing through the coils of razor wire and a checkpoint guarded by U.S. Marines that separates the base from the rest of Cuba.

Both men brought their wives and other family members to the base for Friday's ceremony, the first time anyone else in their families had been able to visit the place where they worked for decades. La Rosa and Henry thanked the U.S. government and his colleagues; the older man, the only one of them who speaks English, drew laughs when he joked that "I think I can be here a few more years."

Over the years, the Cubans who worked on the base would present retirees with a wooden cane. It started as a joke and became a tradition. The base commander, Capt. John Nettleton, gave Henry and La Rosa each a wooden cane, carved with a wooden horse's head at the handle. A guest speaker, Cuban-born Navy Cmdr. Carlos Del Toro, thanked the men for their service to the base and the government.

"Both of you have made a difference," Del Toro said. "A difference in the United States, a difference in your homeland in Cuba."

Though this spot is best known for the base's prison for terrorism suspects, there is a substantial Cuban city of Guantanamo, which has a colonial downtown and a population of about 250,000. It lies to the northwest of the base, separated by mountains and marshland. A smaller city called Caimanera along the bay is the closest town to the U.S. installation.

There are about 30 other Cubans who live on the post, and the base commander has a monthly meeting with his Cuban counterpart to discuss logistics and administrative issues. But the base and Cuba have almost nothing to do with each other, and that fact is more pronounced with the two men's retirement.

"It is a real symbolic link that is disappearing," said Jonathan M. Hansen, author of the book "Guantanamo: An American History."

The U.S. seized Guantanamo Bay, which is considered an ideal natural harbor, from Spain in the Spanish-American War in 1898, retained it during the occupation of Cuba and then forced the Cuban government to sign a lease for the 45-square-mile base. Relations deteriorated after Fidel Castro took power in 1959 and then turned into outright hostility as the young rebel embraced Soviet-style communism.

Castro, who has called the base "a dagger plunged into the heart of Cuban soil," famously refused to cash the checks for the lease payment of about $4,000 a year.

Cuban anger deepened in January 2002, when the U.S. began using the base to hold suspected al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners. There are now 166 prisoners, down from a peak of about 680 in June 2003. President Barack Obama had pledged to close the prison soon after taking office but Congress blocked him from transferring prisoners to U.S. soil and the men still there largely remain in limbo.

Obama may have pledged to close the prison but the U.S. has not announced any plans to give up the base, which is still considered a strategic asset by the U.S. government.

Most Cubans want the base closed, though it also serves a as "a nice piece of anti-U.S. propaganda that's handy" for Castro, said Hansen, a lecturer at Harvard University who is working on a biography of the Cuban leader.

The two soon-to-be-retirees seem uninterested in political questions. "We don't get involved in any kind of politics," Henry said. "We follow the laws here and the laws there."

They say neither was asked to spy for either side, though the men have been an important conduit for a community of families of exiles who fled Cuba and were allowed to settle on the base.

La Rosa, whose head comes up to Henry's shoulders and has an easy laugh, said people on both sides of the fence have treated them well. "They make fun of us and say we are communists over here," he said. "And when we get back over there, they say we're imperialists."

Over the years, there has been a steady decline in the number of Cubans working at the base.

As workers aged and retired, the number of commuters dwindled from the hundreds to about 50 people by 1985, according to a base newsletter, the Guantanamo Bay Gazette. By June 2005, it was down to Henry, La Rosa and two others, all earning about $12 an hour, an eye-popping salary by Cuban standards, according to another base newsletter, The Wire.

Today, most of the work once done by Cubans is performed by workers from Jamaica and the Philippines.

Leaving their homes wearing baseball caps and jackets against the cool Caribbean morning, La Rosa and Henry typically cross the fence-line as the sun rises. They eat breakfast at a house near the perimeter each morning as the military blasts "The Star-Spangled Banner" through loudspeakers.

Then, La Rosa and Henry climb into a blue pickup truck and drive to work through wide streets in a military installation that resembles a suburban anytown USA, with playing fields, a school for the dependents of service members, a supermarket-department store that resembles a Wal-Mart, an outdoor movie theater and American fast food restaurants. The base is home to about 6,000 military personnel, civilians and contractors.

It is a tranquil place, maybe even dull, where residents while away their time learning to scuba dive.

"Sometimes you feel like you are living in two worlds," Henry, a tall, slender man whose ancestors came to Cuba from Jamaica, said at the start of a recent commute. He has worked at the base 62 years. "They are two systems any way you look at it. But we're used to it."

Both Henry and La Rosa say they are looking forward to some rest after decades of what turned out to be an arduous commute.

La Rosa, who has worked on the base for nearly 54 years, said he is grateful for the work, to be able to support his family and also for the recognition from the military for his years of service.

"My co-worker and I, we never expected this," La Rosa said, his voice breaking. "It won't be easy for me to say goodbye to all these people."

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Suzette Laboy reported this story in Guantanamo Bay; Ben Fox reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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Online:

Guantanamo Public Memory Project: http://blog.gitmomemory.org

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