Inside Guantanamo Bay: Distraction from the isolation

13News Now Andre Senior has the story

You've probably heard a lot about Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, because of suspected terrorists who are held there. 13News Now traveled to the base and learned it is about much more than what you might think in this five-part series. 

Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – Guantanamo Bay Naval Base is not only secluded from communist Cuba -- separated by a border fence -- but at distance of 536 miles from Key West, it is also separated from the United States.

"Everybody that comes to the island comes in on our Leeward side terminal," said Julie Ripley.

That part of the island is essentially the west side of the base, which would not have much action were it not for the single operational runway and small airport terminal.

"A small contingent of people (who work) out here," said Ripley, who is a base Public Affairs Officer. "There's a smaller contingent that live out here."

Service members, visiting family or contractors who work on base infrastructure, are loaded onto a bus and taken to a ferry stop that will transport them across Guantanamo Bay to the Windward side, where the bulk of the operation is run, including its administrative office.

Controlled by the U.S., Guantanamo Bay provides the only entrance for cargo ships into Cuban-controlled "Bahia Guantanamo" to the North.

13News Now captured video of one such cargo vessel as it sailed toward the entrance, headed for Cuban waters.

You might be surprised to learn that the military for both countries have been communicating for years, even though normalized relations began less than two years ago, culminating with the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana more than a half a century after the countries severed ties.

"We coordinate so that we know when their vessels are going to be going in and out," Ripley told us during our four-day visit to the base.

We are told that communications have been happening for years -- partly out of necessity -- and are cordial.

While politics now allows both governments to communicate and even allow citizens to fly to Cuba, no such agreement exists when it comes to unlocking the North East Gate, which was busy with foot traffic when Cubans worked on base.

"You're actually stuck here... you constantly run through the same people," Lt. Christopher Smith, an Army Officer on the joint base told us. "You see a lot of the same things."

While there are 5,000 people, including service members, contractors and workers living on base, you might think those words are an exaggeration. But they are apparently on target.

"I think most people here love it or hate it," said Tara Culbertson.

As director of Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR), it is her job to break the monotony for those who are assigned to work on the enclosed base. Culbertson does that by providing a football, baseball field and even a gym that would rival those in any United States town.

There is also the sight of a familiar fast-food chain that Culbertson says brings a taste of home to the base.

"It's a real McDonalds and that makes you feel less isolated."

For those who prefer a sophisticated sport, there is a 9-hole course on the base, but don't expect the plush greenery that would having you concurring up thoughts of Virginia Beach's Bow Creek.

Because water is produced through a desalination plant, efforts are made to conserve as much as possible. Golfers must hit their balls while standing on top of a piece of AstroTurf that sits a few inches from a dirt-filled ground.

There is also a marina that is littered with boats, some of which are used to offer service members sailing lessons at no cost.

"Where can you go where you could learn to sail for free?" asked a gleeful Culbertson.

We did spot posters hanging on walls inside various buildings on base that say "Don't be that Guy,"  which highlights the danger of getting too comfortable with libations. They are widely available across the base, like the Navy Exchange at the bars and restaurants.

For many of the younger service members, the base is the first time they are away from home.

"We sell alcohol in our bars, but we also would love for people to get outside."

But perhaps the best distraction to date stretches 950-mile from the Florida coast.

"We now have an underwater cable that comes from Dania Beach," Culbertson said.

It brings T-Mobile cell phone service and high speed Internet access to the base.

"That's been a real morale game changer here."


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