This story was originally published in the Miami Herald on June 29, 1999
U.S. Marines have finished digging up and disarming the American minefields at the Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the Miami Herald has learned.
U.S. authorities, however, are reluctant to announce the accomplishment — for fear of unleashing a wave of Cubans trying to defect to the U.S. base on the eastern end of the island.
That would not be safe, according to U.S. authorities, who warn that Cuban military mines still litter the Cuban-controlled side of Guantánamo, behind a barbed wire fence guarded by U.S. Marines in watchtowers. Those mines are still operative and hazardous.
“C’est finis,” a Clinton administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said of the mine-clearing operation.
President Bill Clinton ordered Guantánamo demined in 1997 as a symbolic gesture after refusing to sign a global treaty prohibiting the use of anti-personnel mines. National security experts had argued that the traditional land-mine option was critical to peacekeeping between North and South Korea.
But Pentagon officials had already concluded that the minefield at Guantánamo was costly to maintain — both financially and in lost lives — and could be replaced with other security systems.
Since then, Marines crawling on their hands and knees with ambulance crews nearby have picked through miles of dirt fields to, one by one, disarm anti-personnel and anti-tank mines that once numbered 55,000. Now, Marines using dogs and a specially designed blast-proof tractor are combing the former minefields to verify that they didn’t miss any.
“We have pulled them all up, but we don’t know that for sure,” said Army Col. Vincent Ogilvie, spokesman for the Pentagon’s Miami-based Southern Command.
Marines at the base “are going through the last verification phase,” the colonel said. “Even though we have accurate data, we want to be able to go through every area with a fine-toothed comb.”
Nobel laureate Jody Williams, who collected the 1997 peace prize for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, called the Cuba development “clearly . . . a good step for U.S. land-mine policy.”
But she urged the White House to join the 135 countries that have signed the Mine Ban Treaty in a burst of global cooperation to curb the weapon that has killed countless civilians, or blown off their limbs.
“What is really needed is for this country to sign the treaty. President Clinton was just in Kosovo and his compassion for the victims was evident. He said he never wanted to see another child lose a limb to land mines,” Williams told The Herald.
“Well, if that is the case, he should sign the Mine Ban Treaty. People should not lose limbs to mines in Cuba or in Kosovo or in South Korea or anywhere.”
Steve Goose of the Human Rights Watch Arms Project said the United States still has one million of the traditional land mines — known in military circles as “Bouncing Bettys” —stockpiled in South Korea in the event of the outbreak of conflict there.
But the United States has not claimed ownership of the actual minefields in Korea, Goose said, because it does not operate the DMZ, demilitarized zone.
U.S. defense doctrine has in some instances moved away from the banned land mines and toward self-destructing mines, Goose said. A new generation of mines, some still under development, are either time-limited and explode after days or weeks or can be blown up by remote control.
In the 1991 Gulf War, for example, U.S. forces fixed minefields for self-protection purposes — then blew them up after the Iraqis retreated.
Some U.S. officials say the Cuba minefield case causes a conundrum for foreign policy:
They want to advertise the de-mining success, but fear that more Cubans may become emboldened to try to reach the base and ask for political asylum — a potentially deadly outcome because of the Cuban minefields.
“We don’t now want to broadcast that it is fair game to run across the field,” Ogilvie said.
Besides, several years of a tough migration policy has sought to convince Cubans that the only way to come to the United States is through application at the U.S. Interest Section in Havana.
No Cuban who has come to Guantánamo in more than three years has been allowed to migrate to the United States — despite the occasional arrival who crawls through the minefields or swims through the bay.
Instead, he or she has either been returned through a gate in the fence or sent to a third country for resettlement.
Pentagon officials have repeatedly said that they have employed unspecified security measures at the 45-square-mile base to safeguard it from invasion by Cuba. Cuban President Fidel Castro has long opposed the U.S. occupation of the base established under a 1903 lease agreement.
Ogilvie predicted that Cuba and the United States would tackle the topic of Cubans trying to sneak through the minefields during periodic talks between Cuban and U.S. military commanders at the naval base’s border.
Americans first planted mines at Guantánamo in 1961 to protect the base from being overrun by the Frontier Brigade, as the nearby Cuban infantry and armored forces are called. Cuba spread its own haphazard minefields on the other side 22 years later, after the Reagan administration invaded Grenada in the eastern Caribbean to oust a Cuban-supported Marxist government there.