February 9, 1998, in the Miami Herald
By DONALD P. BAKER
BAY, CubaAs dawn broke over Oriente Province, Jorge Harris strolled across
the no man's land that separates Cuba proper from the U.S. Naval Base at
Guantanamo Bay andas he has done for the past 58 years went to work.
Harris, 73, is one of 19 "commuters,'' ranging in age from 59 to 80,
employed by the U.S. government to help maintain military equipment at the base
on a welcoming bay along the southeast corner of this tropical island.
Harris, who began working on the base as a teenager in 1939, has survived a
revolution, dictators, an aborted invasion and several mass exoduses by his
countrymen. To him, dividing his time between the U.S. base and one of the
globe's few remaining communist states is "just routine.''
Harris is an automotive inspector, which means he makes a preliminary
diagnosis about what is wrong with the cars, trucks and heavy equipment brought
in for repairs. He learned his skills during his only venture outside Cubato
"someplace in Virginia and Washington'' for three months in 1962.
52 years of seniority
Harris and another commuter, George Pollack, 72, who has 52 years' seniority
at the base, work side by side with American military personnel and foreign
nationals from Jamaica and elsewhere. "He's as good a worker as we have,
and more loyal than the others,'' said Jimmy Leonard, Harris' supervisor for the
past three years.
Harris earns a Navy Department check of $539.06 every two weeks, which he
cashes at a bank on the base. He carries the cash home to Guantanamo City, about
20 miles beyond the base's fence, where most workers earn $3 to $10 a month.
"I live pretty decently,'' Harris concedes, but he insists: "I'm
not one of the wealthiest'' of his home town's 110,000 residents.
"If you split it among your family, it's not a lot,'' he added,
explaining his income supports his wife, eight sons, 14 grandchildren, two
great-grandchildren, brothers and assorted cousins and other relatives. Harris
also has three daughters who live in the New York and Washington areas and whom
he has not seen since 1965.
Cuba taxes no one
Harris pays no tax on his wages -- "Cuba taxes no one,'' he saidgets
free medical care and can look forward to a comfortable pension of $935 a month.
Despite a half-century of exposure to American ways, Harris remains
unabashedly Cuban in his habits and tastes. At the insistence of his American
co-workers, he has eaten lunch twice at one of the base's more popular
"I didn't like it,'' he said of his visits to McDonald's.
This year marks the centennial of the U.S. naval base here, which includes
1,500 military and 2,600 support personnel. The United States seized the site in
1898, during the Spanish-American War. In 1903, 45 square miles were leased from
newly independent Cuba, for a refueling station. In 1934, that treaty was
reaffirmed, with the agreement the Americans could stay in perpetuity, so long
as the base is not abandoned.
Retirees from the base who live in Cubaat one time about 3,000 worked
on the basehave signed over power-of-attorney to remaining workers, who
cash their pension checks and deliver the dollars. But when the last commuter
retiresunder an agreement with the Cuban government, no one is replaced
upon retirementa new plan must be devised.
For now, Harris leaves home at 4 a.m. and boards a city bus half a block
away. He transfers to a bus used exclusively by the Navy Department commuters,
which drops them off a mile from their destination.
The `cattle chute'
They walk a hilly path called "the cattle chute,'' which is bordered by
Cuban land mines. At the bottom of an incline, the workers are stopped and
searched by the Cuban frontier brigade, after which they pass through a gate
beneath a sign that says "Republica de Cuba.''
They stroll across a 50-yard open stretch, divided by a painted white line
that demarcates Cuban and American territory. At a second gate, marked "U.S.
Naval Base, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba,'' U.S. Marines exchange the workers' Cuban
identification cards for naval base badges.
Harris is given the keys to a white Dodge van, which he drives past a Marine
sharpshooter in a Humvee, and drops off his co-workers before ending his commute
at the maintenance garage.
Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald