CubaNews / April 2003
By Larry Luxner
Harry W. Sharpe was born in the eastern Cuban town of Banes — “just like Batista,” he points out proudly — and started working for the Americans at Guantánamo on Mar. 30, 1953. Fifty years later, he’s still here, happy to be employed as the night manager of Gitmo’s Bayview Club.
“I watch Cuban TV, listen to Cuban music and I have six Cuban families living right around here to talk to,” says Sharpe, a gregarious 72-year-old who wears dark sunglasses and always keeps a couple of Coca-Colas in the fridge for visitors.
By any account, Sharpe — the product of a Cuban-born mother and a Jamaican-born father — enjoys a reasonably high standard of living, especially compared to most enlisted men at Gitmo. He rents a spacious single-family home in the Caravella Point subdivision and docks his fishing boat at a private pier on Guantánamo Bay, which is accessible by a wooden walkway behind his house.
“I lived in Caimanera for 12 years and came to work here, because I couldn’t get a job in Cuba,” says Sharpe, whose Cuban wife Hilda is employed at the local mini-market. “One morning I came in, and never went back.”
Until 1980, that is, when Sharpe was finally able to get a Cuban visa. Since then, he’s returned to Cuba twice more to visit his two nephews in Havana and various half-brothers in Holguín.
“The first time I went back, things were a little tense,” he says. “The situation wasn’t too good. Before, they didn’t even want to talk to you. Now, they treat you real nice because you’re spending U.S. dollars.”
Sharpe is one of 64 Cuban citizens who chose to stay at Gitmo after the gate closed in 1963. In addition to those Cubans and their offspring, another nine still commute every day from Caimanera, just on the other side of the fence line that surrounds the naval base.
Capt. Bob Buehn, the commanding officer at Gitmo, says these nine — all in their 60s and 70s — are the only people authorized to cross the Northeast Gate, which is the sole opening in the 17.4-mile-long perimeter fence that surrounds the isolated U.S. enclave.
Besides working at Gitmo, these nine “commuters” regularly take pension checks to the other side for the 100 or so Cubans who have retired and are still living, mostly in the city of Guantánamo.
“They earned it by being U.S. employees for all these years, but one of the things we haven’t solved yet is how to do electronic funds transfers for these retirees [once the remaining Cuban employees retire and can no longer cross back and forth],” said Buehn. “We are actively working with the U.S. Interests Section in Havana on how to pay these people. We’re gonna have to find a way.”
In the mid-‘90s, Guantánamo became a temporary haven for thousands of Haitian and Cuban balseros rescued at sea.
Despite the guard towers along the perimeter fence and sharks in the water, a few Cubans do manage to slip onto the base every now and then. In the past, those lucky ones were flown to Miami and eventually became U.S. citizens.
Since May 1995, however, Cubans who escape to Guantánamo are apprehended and processed by an on-site INS agent. At the moment, about 20 Cuban citizens are on the base, awaiting an uncertain future.
“The INS is looking for credible fear of persecution,” said Buehn. “Around 90% of them get repatriated within a few weeks. If the INS determines they have credible fear of persecution, they get taken to a camp and wait here for the State Department to resettle them to a third country, not the U.S. They can be here for up to a year or two.”
As the number of Cuban workers here has dwindled over the years, hundreds of Filipinos and Jamaicans have been brought in by large contractors such as Burns & Roe, Kvaerner and Brown & Root.
“All of our firefighters, for example are Jamaicans and are classified as wage-grade foreign employees,” said Buehn. In fact, it’s far more common to hear Philippine Tagalog or Jamaican patois than Spanish at Gitmo — though English is, of course, the dominant language.
“We don’t forget we’re in Cuba, but I do wish we were able to have more Cuban culture on the base,” said Buehn, who is being relocated to Jacksonville this month after three years at Gitmo. “Everyone I know would love to see the day when the gate opens.”