February 10, 1998

Decades later, Guantanamo workers still 'commuting'

February 9, 1998, in the Miami Herald
Washington Post Service

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba—As 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 and—as 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 Cuba—to "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 said—gets 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 restaurants.

"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 Cuba—at one time about 3,000 worked on the base—have signed over power-of-attorney to remaining workers, who cash their pension checks and deliver the dollars. But when the last commuter retires—under an agreement with the Cuban government, no one is replaced upon retirement—a 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


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