Troops on this base bunkered behind a U.S. Marine Corps fenceline and Cuba minefield are eager to know when they can visit the other side, the base commander said Friday, estimating it wouldn’t be anytime soon.
“I get that question all the time. When’s the gate going to open? I think people are excited by the prospect of that,” said Navy Capt. David Culpepper, commander of the base of about 6,000 residents for the past 13 months.
Culpepper, a former F-18 pilot, said he got the word he’d fill the real-life boots of Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men” the very day President Barack Obama announced the U.S. would reopen its embassy in Havana — a historical reversal of decades of hostile policy.
‘I think there’ll likely be a couple of years before we have liberty.’ ▪ Base commander
“I took that as a good omen,” he said, noting the timing. “It hasn’t really panned out that way. The gate’s still closed, unfortunately. I think it will be some time before the gate is open again.”
Left unsaid was that President Raúl Castro has consistently said that U.S. military withdrawal from this 45-square-mile base is a prerequisite to true normalization.
Not that there’s any particular tension along the 17.4-mile frontier where Marines deactivated the U.S. minefield in the late ’90s. The only gunfire goes on at the two sides’ separate firing ranges, Culpepper said. Each side warns the other of firing-range training days at “very cordial, very positive” monthly meetings between Culpepper and a Cuban colonel from the Frontier Brigade.
“The status quo is well established. Nobody is bucking it,” the skipper said. “Everybody, I think, is very excited by the prospect that relations between the countries are going to improve and they want it to stay on that vector.”
The Cuban and U.S. military commanders meet at a site called the Northeast Gate, once a pathway Cuban day workers used to come and go from the base. Tensions ended virtually all two-way traffic in the early years of Fidel Castro’s rule, when he ordered the U.S. to leave. It didn’t.
No day-trip to Santiago de Cuba without Status of Forces Agreement.
Now the gate is a popular tourist attraction for base visitors to look across to the other side and get a short history lesson from a Marine guide. Most, however, seem to go for a selfie with an old Cuban revolutionary slogan over their shoulder declaring, “Cuba is the only free territory in the Americas.”
For the gate to open and sailors to take day trips to Santiago de Cuba, about an hour’s drive away, the captain said, the U.S. would need to reach a Status of Forces Agreement with Cuba.
Even with warm diplomatic relations, “It’s still some time until we get to the point of establishing the Status of Forces Agreement with Cuba. I think there’ll likely be a couple of years before we have liberty,” he said, using the Navy term for being allowed to go to town off a base or ship.
Meantime, Cuban migrants still come and go in a trickle — usually dropped off by a U.S. Coast Guard Cutter after they are intercepted trying to reach Florida. One Cuban man swam ashore just over a week ago, and spent a week here before apparently changing his mind. He went back in recent days, Culpepper said vaguely, through a system set up by the U.S. and Cuba.
Mystery solved: Worker with Zika did have symptoms; she was better by time of blood-test results 2 weeks later.
The skipper also solved a mystery about the Zika-infected contract worker who was described by Navy officials as asymptomatic.
The base disclosed the travel-related case a week ago, more than two weeks after she returned from a trip to Jamaica and went to the hospital “complaining of fatigue and joint pain,” Culpepper said. “The doctor pretty much immediately recognized those as symptoms of Zika.”
Medical personnel sent away a blood sample to check it, and by the time the results came back the symptoms were gone. It took two weeks to get the results, Culpepper said. So the base disclosed it, after she was no longer symptomatic.
Culpepper said mosquito control measures have been very effective on the base, which has not found a Zika-positive mosquito. The base sprays for live mosquitoes, uses a second insecticide for larvae and drops pellets in standing water to kill larvae, he said. They also collect samples of mosquitoes and when they find females test them.
The former TOPGUN flight instructor also said:
▪ His brig, essentially a jail for people who break the law on base, has not contained a single captive since he took over the job in April 2015. When he took command, the Pentagon’s detention center, which he does not run, had 122 war on terror captives. As he spoke Friday, in a crude hangar not far from the Camp Justice courtroom, the detention center had 76 captives, 10 charged with crimes.
▪ The 1992 Naval Academy graduate whose call sign is “Chili” said he tries to keep up his flight hours by piloting the base’s C-12, a twin-engine turboprop, about once a month. Asked if felt cramped, he replied: “It’s a very nice airplane. But it is slow by comparison.”