The Miami Herald

Stadium-style lights to boost security

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- Gone are the days when the United States dug in with tanks, artillery and air units - plus hundreds of Marines made memorable by A Few Good Men - to protect this Navy base separated by a minefield from communist-controlled Cuba.

Now the last official Cold War corner of Latin America is fending off potential incursion with fewer than 125 Marines - and, soon, $2.47 million in stadium-style lighting.

Navy Capt. Mark Leary disclosed the ongoing project that is installing 17.4 miles of lights along the fabled fence line at a briefing Monday for journalists here to report on the resumption of the Pentagon's Military Commissions for alleged war-on-terrorism criminals.

These days, the U.S. military has "relatively cordial and, for us, a productive, pragmatic relationship with the Cubans, " said Leary, who in September took command of the 45-square-mile base that houses the Pentagon's premier prison project for 500 or so captives from 33 or so nations.

BRIGHTER FENCE

The new brightly lit fence line is meant to increase visibility and prevent incursions by outsiders, the captain said, such as some Christian activists who wanted to stage a human-rights protest at the base, but in fact only marched around Santiago Province inside Cuba - miles away.

Only one Cuban defector has crossed the frontier to reach the base in the past four months, said Leary, who reported the would-be refugee population as 31 asylum seekers - all Cubans but for one Haitian.

Most were found at sea, trying to traverse the Straits of Florida and brought here after immigration service interviews found they might be persecuted if they were sent home. Defense Department officials added the lights in a 2002 military construction project, and awarded the contract in 2003 to a firm called Islands Mechanical Contractors, said Stacey Byington, the base public affairs officer.

The contract completion date is Jan. 25.

Tests are underway on the project, which was driven by "antiterrorist" and "force protection" concerns, Byington said - not the arrival of the suspected al Qaeda members and sympathizers on an air-bridge from Afghanistan, starting on Jan. 11, 2002.

Even with the new measures, Marines will continue to watch the frontier from watchtowers. Their mission was made part of American popular culture with the 1992 Hollywood hit featuring Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Jack Nicholson, who famously portrayed a grizzled Marine base commander who growled "You can't handle the truth" during a court martial.

LAND MINES

The U.S. side of the base was de-mined in 1999, by order of President Bill Clinton; the Pentagon downsized the Marine force to a company in 2001. But a Cuban minefield remains on the other side, with explosives sometimes triggered by brush fires.

For a time, early on in the war on terrorism, the Marines dispatched reservists to protect the base. These days, Leary said, they are using first-tour Marines fresh out of boot camp, some on their way to assignment in Iraq and Afghanistan.




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