ISSUES and IDEAS

Few buried here were American

 

crosenberg@miamiherald.com

They include women and children, merchant marines and civilian contract workers who never went home. Some of those buried here are unknown.

"Baby boy Theodore, Haitian refugee, " declares one grave marker at the sun-spackled grounds of the Navy-run Cuzco Beach Cemetery, on a remote corner of this isolated base.

Another marks the last resting spot of Antonia Negron Valle, who died in 1928 at age 29, and her unnamed child.

The Miami Herald was allowed a rare visit inside the cemetery, not far from a 19th-century Spanish-American War beachhead - and it reflects a different image of Guantánamo than that of terrorism suspects held captive or U.S. Marines standing guard.

At first glance, this place seems a miniature of Arlington National Cemetery, America's hallowed graveyard overlooking the Potomac River outside Washington.

But few of the 300-plus people interred here were Americans, and fewer still were members of the U.S. military.

The oldest grave here dates to 1906, three years after the base was formally established.

The most recent arrival was Edgar Lewis, an elderly Cuban citizen, who stayed to work on the base amid U.S.-Cuban tensions in the 1960s, and never went home. He died on the base late last year.

There's also a turn-of-the-20th-century U.S. sailor, William King, who was born in May 1884 and died April 22, 1906 - eight years after the Marines landed here in the Spanish-American War.

And there's Gertrude Myers Russell, whose headstone says she was a civilian employee here. She died Nov. 19, 1922, at age 29.

A walk through the cemetery - off the beaten path, behind a no-go security zone - tells a story much different from that of the Pentagon's four-year-old prison camp for suspected terrorists, which has catapulted this base to international controversy.

There are no war-on-terror prisoners buried here, nor are there any recent fallen American service members, who by policy and practice return home to U.S. soil.

Rather, one section of the cemetery recalls the huge 1990s rafter crisis when upward of 45,000 Haitian and Cuban boat people fled political crises in their homelands. The Cubans were given sanctuary in tent-camps here - until the Clinton administration renegotiated its Cuban migration policy with Havana. Haitians waited out a political crisis in their country and most were ultimately repatriated.

"Unknown Haitian Refugee, " declares a grave marker, engraved with a Christian cross. It has no age and no name of the person who died - only a poignant passing date: July 4, 1994.

The cemetery, which reflects a blend of nationalities, is the military's crisp answer to the civilian burial plots that were once scattered around this 45-square-mile outpost in southeast Cuba. That's because the military undertook a consolidation mission in the 1940s. It reinterred remains from different sites overlooking the Caribbean as well as on a site once called McCalla Hill, not far from the Pentagon's present Military Commissions Building - where 10 enemy combatants so far face war-crimes charges.

Today the base is an isolated outpost, a high-security zone where air and seacraft come and go through a delicate coordination between the U.S. military and its Cuban counterparts.

And the cemetery is cut off from the main portion of the base. It is miles from the McDonald's, out of view of the war-crimes court and open to base personnel here for commemoration ceremonies once a year, on Memorial Day.

In the meantime, the graves hint at an earlier era, when gates were open, two-way traffic flowed freely, and seafarers visited - and who, for one reason or another, died here.

For instance, one headstone belongs to a merchant marine named Olaf Z. Olson. The marker doesn't say when he died, but he lies near another merchant marine, a Greek captain called Anthony J. Coumelis, who was laid to rest in 1942 at age 45.

Cuzco Beach is also the final resting place for Juan Zarazabat, 33, whose marker says he was a Cuban contractor when he died, for reasons unknown, in June 1943, during an era of amiable U.S.-Cuban relations - when thousands of Cubans commuted to the base each day for work.

Another headstone belongs to Miguel Tam of China, described as a civilian employee who was born on Oct. 15, 1906. He died, according to his marker, on May 7, 1962. By then U.S.-Cuban political tensions were roiling, and the year would see the Cuban Missile Crisis.

By the time civilian worker Ramon Guerra Pinero of Spain died here at age 65 on Jan. 23, 1965, the base was a self-sufficient, isolated entity desalinating its own water and producing its own electricity in defiance of Fidel Castro's demand that U.S. forces abandon the outpost.

Georgiana Hurley, a Jamaican civilian, was born Oct. 17, 1908, and died March 19, 1996, after the families of U.S. sailors were evacuated from the base to make way for Cuban rafters, or balseros, who fled the island.

Less is known about others buried here. One marker identifies its occupant simply as Mrs. Walters - perhaps because of the 1940s cemetery consolidations, which swept up remains from now-lost locations called the North Toro and Caracoles Point cemeteries.

Another declares simply, "Vincent, civilian."

Read more Guantánamo Special Coverage stories from the Miami Herald

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In this Feb. 2, 2002 file photo, a detainee brought by airlift from Afghanistan is carried on a stretcher before being interrogated by military officials at Camp X-Ray at the U.S. Navy Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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    GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — Before this onetime coaling station for the U.S. Navy ships in the Caribbean was transformed into a site holding captives in the war on terror that U.S. officials had called the worst of the worst, most Americans were unaware of its existence.

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