This story was originally published on Thursday April 8, 1999
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba Most mornings here, a U.S. Marine gets down on his hands and knees and gingerly digs through the dirt to disarm one of the aging mines that U.S. troops have buried at this U.S. enclave in eastern Cuba over the years. Just beyond blast range, more Marines — a backup mine-clearing crew, ambulance and stretcher team — are on alert for disaster.
By year’s end, Navy Capt. Larry Larson, the base commander, expects to certify that Guantánamo is mine-free —in compliance with President Clinton’s May 1996 order to clear the base of the hair-trigger explosives that once numbered 55,000.
There’s irony and symbolism in the Guantánamo effort.
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Symbolically, it joins a far-flung international campaign to rid the earth of the explosives that claim a casualty every 22 minutes.
Ironically, neither Cuba nor the United States is among the 135 nations that signed the Mine Ban Treaty, a 1997 agreement to end use of anti-personnel mines, those capable of blowing up a person or severing a limb.
Larson said the Pentagon had decided on its own to rid Gitmo, as the U.S. Navy base is called, of its mines and substitute other defense measures, a full year before the presidential order.
“I’m confident that we’re just as secure today as we were 10 years ago with lots of mines and that we will be just as secure in December when we’re done,” he said.
One reason: Thousands of mines are still scattered around the Cuban-controlled side. The Cuban minefields, mile after mile of them, were laid so haphazardly in 1983, without precise maps, that it would be tough to navigate through them or, eventually, disarm and unearth them.
Backed by some Vietnam veterans, the Mine Ban Treaty was championed by the grass-roots International Movement to Ban Landmines, pacifists who gained global credibility by winning the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.
The group’s latest communique warns that today, even as the armed forces of the United States and other major powers move toward the use of time-expiring, self-destructing mines, government and rebel forces continue to lay fresh anti-personnel mines in hot spots like Kosovo, Sri Lanka, Algeria, Congo and Somalia.
Guantánamo is one of just two spots in the world today where U.S. forces have minefields, sown with both the banned anti-personnel mines and sturdier anti-tank mines. The other minefield guards America’s other communist/capitalist fault line between North and South Korea.
In Korea, the Pentagon argues that anti-personnel mines are a strategic necessity. They surround anti-tank mines to prevent people from sneaking into the field and disarming them.
Minefields like those at Gitmo are designed to channel enemy tanks and trucks through a few clear paths - where U.S. forces could spot them, and choke off their movement if necessary.
American minefields were first sown at Guantánamo in 1961 to protect the base from being overrun by the Frontier Brigade, the infantry and armored forces of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who had seized power two years earlier. U.S. forces occupy the base under a lease signed in 1903, which Castro has repeatedly denounced as a violation of Cuban sovereignty.
Cuba spread its own minefields on the other side of Gitmo’s barbed-wire fences 22 years later, after the Reagan administration invaded Grenada in the eastern Caribbean to oust a Marxist government supported by Cuba. No need for mines
Larson argues that newer U.S. defense systems are safe enough to secure the base without mines, which between 1962 and 1990 killed 13 Marines crawling among the explosives to maintain them.
“It’s a dangerous business,” said Col. Al Karle, commander of Guantánamo’s contingent of about 440 Marines. “These men risk their lives and try to get 100 percent.”
U.S. military officials refuse to describe the base’s post-minefield defense mechanisms, which already include motion sensors and concrete tank barriers to keep out invaders. Pentagon officials also refuse to say what percentage of the minefields has been cleared. They say the Southern Command chief, Marine Gen. Charles Wilhelm, based in Miami, will decide whether to make an announcement when Guantánamo is certified mine-free.
Meanwhile, a core unit of enlisted Marines and officers is engaged in a nearly daily drama of delicate de-mining.
First a Marine wearing a headset and Kevlar-packed body armor eases into the carefully mapped minefield, waving a metal detector above the earth to find and mark a series of trademark American five-mine clusters.
The clusters include four “poppers” or “Bouncing Bettys,” capable of blowing an intruder’s leg off. Those mines surround what looks like a fat Frisbee, an M-15 anti-tank mine capable of stopping a tank.
But other metal echoes through the minesweepers’ headsets, too.
“One of the minefields used to have a farm on it so we’re finding kitchen sinks, pieces of tractor, horseshoes — a lot of old debris,” Marine Lt. Thomas Koloski said.
After marking the blast zone, the Marine pulls back. A second Marine sinks to his knees and, digging through the dirt, uses a large safety pin to paralyze the plunger - before gingerly unscrewing it to separate the firing mechanism from the explosives.
Marines say their job is easier than, for example, clearing the minefields that litter Central America, because the Gitmo mines were planted with a map and a strict cluster design in 1961 — and Marines have been crawling through the minefields ever since, keeping them tidy.
Larson said that at any given moment, the de-mining activity — on an isolated end of the isolated outpost — involves no more than 21 Marines of the 1,100 military people who live and work on the base.
Larson said he agrees with the Pentagon decision to remove Guantánamo’s minefields because, with state-of-the-art alternatives, the old system is too costly, too risky and involves too many people.
“I’m happy that we’re getting out of that business,” he said. “When we’re finished with that project, nobody will be happier than me.”