Cuban exile family’s firm wins $66M contract to build Guantánamo base school

A drawing of the future W.T. Sampson School campus provided to the Miami Herald by the Munilla Construction Management, MCM, on Thursday, July 7, 2016.
A drawing of the future W.T. Sampson School campus provided to the Miami Herald by the Munilla Construction Management, MCM, on Thursday, July 7, 2016. Courtesy MCM

A family firm of Cuban builders that did work on the Malecón in Havana before the revolution has won a Pentagon contract to build the U.S. Navy’s new state-of-the-art school at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Munilla Construction Management LLC of Miami, a Cuban-American family business of 500 employees, beat out an undisclosed second proposal for the $66 million job, to be complete by November 2018, according to the Pentagon. It is the biggest federal contract won by the firm belonging to the six Munilla brothers, aged 57 to 67, said MCM Vice President Alexis Leal in a statement.

The 112,000-square-foot school, with space for 275 pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade students, is one of the most expensive to be built by the Department of Defense — $240,000 per school child by a firm whose headquarters is in Miami-Dade County, where a new school costs perhaps $30,000 per student.

The school may be one of the most expensive on earth, in part because of the cost of doing business at remote Guantánamo Bay.

But everything at Guantánamo comes with a markup because of the base’s remote location behind a Cuban minefield. Under the decades old U.S. embargo, the military cannot purchase any of its supplies or hire workers from Cuba. Instead, the United States ships in all of its material and laborers by barge or aircraft to the base serviced by a single airstrip and small seaport.

So the project will serve as something of a homecoming for the former Havana-based family firm founded by Fernando Munilla Sr., which, according to its website, “spearheaded” the José Martí Monument in Havana and “expanded and reinforced the Malecón, Havana’s famous seawall” in the 1940s and ’50s.

The firm today is run by his sons, with headquarters in Miami, an equipment yard in Medley, office in Dania Beach and divisions in Irving, Texas and Panama — and offers a familiar South Florida story of exile and achievement. Four of the sons left the island in 1961 with “the Pedro Pan airlift operations days before the Bay of Pigs invasion,” its website says. They went to an orphanage in Ohio, while the two youngest brothers stayed on the island with their mother Maria “until safe passage could be arranged.”

The father “stayed, fighting for his country’s freedom, leading covert operations along with the CIA. He was arrested three times, and finally managed to escape the island just ahead of [Fidel] Castro’s henchmen.”

The Pentagon awarded the contract as the United States is increasing relations with the Cuban government, which insists that normalization must include withdrawal from the 45-square-mile base in southeast Cuba. The Obama administration has said the status of the base is not up for negotiation, something the investment in a new school illustrates.

The builders that won the contract fled Cuba after the revolution, and haven’t done work on the island except the U.S. Navy base since.

A firm spokesman said none of the brothers was available to discuss the deal either Wednesday or Thursday. But the vice president, Leal, said by email that the project was special for the firm because it is trying to grow its federal market, already focuses on education and because “it is being built for our nation’s troops and their families and is located in the only free part of Cuba.”

While two of the brothers have returned to the island on Catholic Church trips, one for a papal Mass, he said, the firm has not done work on any part of the island except the base since the father fled. It was not known if the elder Munilla had visited Guantánamo before he left, either as part of his construction work or with the CIA.

In the United States, MCM boasts a number of federal and government projects, including a Coast Guard hangar at Opa-locka Airport, a mock cityscape at the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Training Center, Homestead City Hall, Miami International Airport’s North Terminal as well as about three dozen school construction projects across three decades of work in Panama and the United States.

It also was general contractor on the $54.6 million renovation and expansion of Miami Senior High School, the historic Mediterranean Revival building with 2,900 students — more than 10 times as many who will study at Guantánamo’s $66 million school.

Congress in 2014 approved funding of the new W.T. Sampson School to put the children of American sailors and others stationed at the base under one roof. Currently, the high school, which was built in 1975, is on one part of the base, not far from O’Kelly’s Irish Pub and the scrubby nine-hole golf course. Primary school students study in a separate building a bus ride away.

Under the contract, the Miami firm is supposed to finish the new consolidated W. T. Sampson School in November 2018.

Under the new plan, workers will level the current 1983-vintage elementary school on Sherman Avenue along the road to the old Camp X-Ray, the original war on terror prison, and the frontier with Cuba — and build a single consolidated school with class space for 275 students far from the Detention Center Zone. (This year, the combined schools had 247 students; 14 of them were graduating seniors.)

The Department of Defense division that runs runs schools at overseas outposts said it will meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards, have state-of-the-art technology in physics, chemistry and video-broadcast labs, a music suite, LED lighting and a wireless network. It will also have space for 50 faculty and administration members, two or more floors and a stucco finish, according to the proposal that Congress approved and funded at $65 million in 2014.

The Pentagon statement, however, said Munilla won a $63,028,574 firm-fixed-price contract that could balloon to $66,178,574 with “one planned modification,” apparently to include a “bus drop canopy” at the entrance and “athletic field amenities,” according to a separate document.

The top contract works out to $240,649 per pupil, compared to $173,441 per pupil at the second most expensive school funded by Congress in the same package — a K-12 school being built on the outskirts of Brussels for the children of Americans stationed there with the U.S. Army or NATO.

The Department of Defense says the Sampson school system, established in 1931, is the world’s oldest operating overseas school for U.S. military dependents. It is named for a 19th Century U.S. Navy rear admiral who was responsible for the blockade of Cuba in the Spanish-American War, and has a storied history of closings that no occasional hurricane or snow day can match.

Sampson students were sent home — evacuated back to the United States — during World War II and for three months in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The schools also closed in the mid-’90s when families were sent away as the base coped with a huge influx of tens of thousands of Cuban and Haitian migrants, housed in tent cities, that taxed this isolated outpost’s water desalination and other resources.