Guantánamo’s last Cuban commuters retire, creating a Navy cash-flow problem

At the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo this month, the Pentagon marked the retirement of two elderly workers with typical military pageantry. Schoolchildren did a folkloric dance. There were speeches, a cake and presentation of certificates by the base commander to the would-be pensioners — all captured and celebrated on Facebook.

This was not your typical U.S. Navy retirement party. Harry Henry, 82, and Luis La Rosa, 79, are the last two daily commuters from their homes in Cuba to the U.S.-controlled territory. They got their jobs at Guantánamo as teenagers and, as long-serving U.S. government employees, Henry and La Rosa are entitled to Defense Department pensions.

But their retirement leaves the Navy with no way to pay the pensions they and other Cuban workers have earned because of the five-decade-old U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba.

“Right now there is no established plan to pay these pensions — because of the complication of U.S. law,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Servello said in a statement Friday issued by U.S. Navy Operations headquarters. “Base and Department of State officials are working to find a permanent solution.”

The Navy so far won’t say how many retired Guantánamo laborers are still receiving pensions, or provide a dollar figure.

Thousands of Cubans commuted to the base from neighboring towns in southeast Cuba as day labors — welders, machinists and groundskeepers —before Castro swept to power in 1959. As tensions built, the base became more and more isolated, making its own water, generating its own electricity.

Meantime, the United States imposed a series of economic sanctions that culminated in the 1962 trade embargo.

Pre-revolutionary laborers were able to keep coming under an agreement that covered the base’s legacy employees. There would be no new hires.

By 1999, the commuter labor force had dwindled to 18 men walking a mile through the hills to Guantánamo’s fabled fence line opening at the Northeast Gate passageway, with some entrusted to courier funds to the pensioners who lived in Cuba.

By 2002, about 100 retirees were receiving U.S. federal pensions and U.S. Navy officials sought an initiative to do a wire transfer without violation of the embargo.

“We saw this coming for some time with the retirement of the last Cuban commuter,” one Naval officer said, “but have yet to settle on a solution.”

Now Henry and La Rosa are the last of the legacy laborers to serve as bagmen of sorts, twice a month carrying pensions to their colleagues on Cuba’s side of the U.S. Marines’ 17.4-mile fence line. La Rosa, who retires as a motor pool worker, began working at Guantánamo as an 18-year-old welder. Henry, hired at 17, worked at the base’s office-supply depot.

Absent a solution, one previous base commander suggested, the Marines who stand guard on the frontier may be asked to hand cash through the fence line to Cuban soldiers. The Navy had no comment Friday on whether that was a potential solution.

The base itself created a video tribute to the men, without mention of the retirement pay problem.

“On Dec. 31st, these two gentlemens’ years of sacrifice and dedication will draw to a close,” said a U.S. sailor, “as they pass through the Northeast Gate for the final time, marking the end of an era.”

Jonathan M. Hansen, author of last year’s sweeping “Guantánamo: An American History,” said Friday that this latest episode is “emblematic of the complications of America’s long history at the base,” which cannot escape U.S. policy toward Cuba.

“Every cute story that comes out of that place has another dark side to it,” Hansen said. “So it doesn’t surprise me, actually, that they’re not going to get these pensions.”

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