- Cuban Borderlands:Local Stories of the Guantánamo Naval Base
Cuba’s only land border runs for seventeen miles through the east of the country, tracing the perimeter of a forty-five square mile area that constitutes the US Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay. The border is a visible presence: a system of wire fencing and trenches, punctuated by surveillance towers and extended into a minefield on the Cuban side. Jana Lipman recounts how, although there had always been fences to distinguish between Cuba and the base, as hostilities between Cuba and the US intensified in the early 1960s, both militaries reinforced their defensive installments and introduced military patrols. The US first laid a minefield around the base’s side of the perimeter in 1961, and a second one was laid on the Cuban side soon thereafter (Lipman, Guantánamo 162).1 The Cubans later “bulldozed six tank roads, built [End Page 276] a ten-foot wide cactus wall, and constructed a guard post to better view US military activities” (165–6) and in 1976 completed a fortified security belt that included three wire fences, minefields, bunkers, and communications systems (Suárez and Quesada 101–02). Legal passage to the US side of the border is now almost exclusively by air or by sea, the Northeast Gate through which Cuban base workers once made their daily entry having fallen into disuse since the retirement of the last of these in December 2012.2 Peter Hulme, in his study of Eastern Cuba’s literary geography, describes the post-1959 naval base as approximating “the most perfect colonial enclave that has ever existed” (377), given its autonomy and rigid physical separation from Cuba.3
The almost total impermeability of this land border would seem to reiterate rather than counter the discourse of insularity that has long underpinned Cuban culture.4 If one were to seek borders for Cuba in the sense that Ramón H. Rivera-Servera and Harvey Young describe these, as “porous, their ability to demarcate a limit often undone by crossings that render them a material and rhetorical failure” (1), then one might look instead to the sea, primarily to the famed ninety-mile expanse of water that separates Havana from Southern Florida. Indeed, Patricia Ybarra has argued that these ninety miles, when crossed perilously on the makeshift rafts that proliferated in the context of 1990s trade, emigration, and immigration policies, are as integrally a part of the US borderlands as are the areas around the US-Mexico border [End Page 277] (59–61). Even at Cuba’s border with the Guantánamo naval base, in fact, most illegal crossings have occurred across not land but water, hostile and perilous though the bay for which the base is named may be. Felipa Suárez and Pilar Quesada report that, once a security belt was established at the Cuban side of the land border, infiltrations and ex-filtrations through it diminished appreciably, forcing migration attempts to an alternative route down the Guantánamo River and across the bay.5
Despite the imposing separation of Cuba from the naval base, the fact that an area of land on the island flies the US flag has undermined Cuba’s territorial and ideological insularity in deeply unsettling ways, as Dara Goldman has shown. There is, she writes, a “fundamental incommensurability” between the military occupation of Guantánamo and a Cuban national imaginary that prides itself on its independence from, and opposition to, an external enemy, and thence is unable to accommodate the shame of occupation (130). It is both this conceptualization of the base as a violation of Cuba’s territorial integrity and the preeminence of the Havana-Miami axis in Cuban politics, culture, and economic life that account, in Goldman’s reading, for what she considers the surprising absence of the base from both political speech and cultural production in post-1959 Cuba. Even in the post-9/11 years, during which Guantánamo’s place has been firmly established on the map of what Amy Kaplan calls the US’s “global penal archipelago” (831), Cuban leaders have made fewer references to the base than one might expect, given...