GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- It was supposed to be a safe haven for six months. Now, 40 years later, dozens of Cuban day laborers have grown old in what they thought would be temporary residence in this U.S.-controlled corner of Cuba.
Theirs is a curious Cold War subculture - an aged, dwindling population of Cuban workers that chose to side with the U.S. Navy in the early, chaotic days of Fidel Castro's revolution.
Rather than move on and resettle in the United States, these exiles have continued to work and live here with special Pentagon dispensation, some still shunning offers of U.S. citizenship, in a limbo-like existence, while they wait to go home.
Meantime, these Cubans live in Navy housing - rent-free. They get the best Defense Department healthcare - cost-free.
Most have retired on U.S. government pensions, but about a dozen still work. One bags groceries for tips. Another walks each morning from his bachelor suite to his clerk's job at a Navy supply office. Two are waiters at the Windjammer, a restaurant and nightspot on this mostly sleepy 45-square-mile base where sailors and the 64 special Cuban residents live in suburban-style white stucco housing - alongside international terror suspects inhabiting seven-by-eight steel cells.
Although they have been community fixtures for years, their story is seldom told. After months of requests, the Navy finally let The Herald get a rare glimpse inside the lives of these Cubans who live with a special Pentagon status: "Long Term Visitors."
The Cubans here are people such as Paulina Wilson, 70, who as a nanny and housecleaner left her two children in her mother's care on the communist side in 1962. She has since remarried, raised two more children and these days runs the Navy Hospital's linen room, neither ready to retire nor to move on.
"It feels like Cuba because it's Cuban land, " she said, explaining why she has spurned suggestions that she relocate stateside.
And there's Ramón Ramírez, 59, who helped his grandfather deliver fruits and vegetables on a boat that plied the Guantánamo River. He moved onto this outpost on Dec. 28, 1959, after he realized that his grandfather was right - communism was coming to Cuba. He was 17.
"My grandfather said, 'If you want to stay alive or out of jail, you'd better stay here, ' " Ramírez said. He has visited the United States, but always comes back to the base known as Gitmo because, after four decades, it has become home.
"We have the only geriatric Navy housing anywhere, " said Navy Capt. Robert Buehn, the base commander. "Don't look for any regulations that cover this. It's a funny place. It evolved this way and we're just trying to take care of the people the right way."
The oldest of the "temporary guests" are 90 and 91, house-bound widows who require visiting nurse care. Once a month, a Navy volunteer takes them to the graves of their husbands, who died here and were buried on the base.
The youngest member of the base's Cuban community is José, 5, the son from a recent union between a septuagenarian Cuban waiter called "Boxer" and a Jamaican contract worker who is less than half his age. Because of his father's status here, the boy can live on the base through high school.
One of the men has for years taught judo and karate to Navy children.
Another resident is Gloria Martínez, 69, a grandmotherly figure who can be found most days working for tips at the checkout line of the Navy Exchange, Gitmo's grocery store.