In a small neighborhood on the base known as Center Bargo, one of the many military housing complexes where the 6,000 military service members, civilians and other residents of the base reside, sits the Cuban Community Center. The squat government building is one of the only reminders of a country and culture that the 45-square-mile base leases its land from.
Noel West, 89, lives across the street from the community center. West and the other 18 Cubans still living on the base are known as Special Category Residents, or SCRs. They were given that designation by the US State Department after the border between the Naval base and Cuba closed permanently in the 1960s. Under the designation, they are considered US citizens.
While the US and Cuba restored full diplomatic ties in 2015, relations between the two Cold War-era foes remain tense.
West and the other Cubans have been on this side of the base for so long, many of them are older and have since retired. The US Naval base provides them with home health care and has built a home health facility for the ones who are not able to live at home alone.
‘She never saw me in Cuba again’
West started working on the base as a clerk in 1955. Originally from the small Cuban town of Guaro, West was living in Guantánamo City when he got the job as a clerk ordering fuel for planes and vehicles on the base. For nine years, West commuted back and forth from his home in Guantánamo City to the Naval base, passing through the gate between Cuba and the base every day on his commute.
In February 1964, West decided to spend the night at the Cuban barracks on the base instead of commuting home because he said he wanted to watch a baseball game. The next day, his neighbor called him and said that Cuban soldiers had come to his house looking for him the night before.
“My next-door neighbor that lived on the Cuban side called me from his work here on the base and he asked me if I had gone out the night before. I said, ‘No, why?’ He said, ‘Well, there was about eight soldiers looking for you,” West said.
West never went back to his home in Cuba after that. He stayed on the US Naval base and has lived here ever since.
West believes the soldiers were looking for him because he had made some comments to his friend with whom he played baseball about not liking the new Castro communist regime on the island. Shortly after that conversation, guards appeared at his door, he said.
“My mother … she never saw me in Cuba again,” West said.
Mother and son met up in Jamaica a few years later when she was able to leave the island, but West has never left the base to return to any other part of Cuba since he decided to stay on the US side in 1964.
West stayed on the base, working in the same clerical job until he retired in 2011. He worked for 55 years straight, he said, nine before moving to the base full-time and retiring with 4,000 hours of unused sick leave.
An avid lover of baseball, West used to umpire baseball games on the base outside of work. Now, he spends time on his computer, watches baseball and news on TV and is visited by two home health nurses who take him to do things around the island daily.
Keeping a culture alive
Dana Lane, the Cuban Community Manager on the Naval base, helps take care of the 19 aging residents, all between the ages of 78 and 90. She organizes cultural activities at the community center, like Cuban food cooking nights, dominoes and bingo games, and helps coordinate care for the residents.
Lane has been the Cuban Community Manager since 2015. She is Panamanian.
“They’re family. They’re relatives,” Lane said of the residents. “The job completely changed now.”
At one point, there were nearly 350 Cuban Special Category Residents living on the base. Over time, people have moved away or passed on. Some of the children of the original SCRs have moved away to different parts of the United States, Lane said.
West chose to stay on the base because he had a stable job, he said, and he liked that the base was the size of a small town like the one he’d grown up in, but with more infrastructure. He believed life on the base would be better than staying in Cuba.
“It’s about the size of my hometown. No bigger but more advanced,” West said. “I’ve never seen a concrete building in my hometown.”
West was also critical of the Castro regime and noticed that it was hard for people to get jobs that paid well in Cuba.
Lane said most of the residents who stayed on the US Naval base were “against the regime,” referring to the Cuban government.
A tense history
Cuba and the US have had fractured political relations since the early 1960s. In 1961, the US attempted to invade Cuba, famously known as the Bay of Pigs invasion. In 1962, the US came close to a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Former President John F. Kennedy later imposed an embargo on trade with Cuba that remains in place to this day.
In the early 1960s, as relations between the two countries were deteriorating, the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay was caught up in the changing political landscape. Many Cubans used to commute to the base for different jobs daily passing through a gate between Guantánamo and the naval base. After the border between the base and the rest of Cuba closed, residents had to decide if they were going to give up their jobs on the base or stay and live on the base forever.
The US took Guantánamo Bay in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. After Cuba gained independence in 1903, they leased 45 square miles on the bay to the US for construction of a naval station. In 1934, the US and Cuba signed a perpetual lease, putting the cost of rent for the 45 square miles at $4,085 a year.
In 1964, Castro cut off water to the base, claiming the Americans were taking Cuban water. On the US side of the border, a dug-up hole shows where US military members cut off the water line to Cuba.
Next to the water break, a sign reads, “On 17 Feb 1964 Rear Admiral John D. Bulkeley, Commander Naval Base ordered the water lines be cut and section removed to disprove the assumption that the United States was stealing water from Cuba” in black all-capital letters.
The Cuban government continues to demand the return of the area occupied by the Naval base and says it does not cash the checks the US sends every year to pay for the base. Many Cuban historians argue the US, an occupying force at the time, strong-armed Cuba to hand over the land for the base which was originally a coaling station for ships.
Now, US military members meet with Cuban military officers once a month in what is known as “fence line” meetings to discuss upcoming maneuvers and other issues. They switch off who hosts the meeting each month.
While there is little communication outside of these meetings, there is occasional coordination. In February 2018, Cuban military and firefighters helped the base put out a wildfire that exploded land mines on the Cuban side and threatened houses on the base.
US officials say they removed thousands of the land mines placed around the base years ago and replaced them with lights and motion sensors.
CNN’s Patrick Oppmann contributed to this report.