Cuba and the United States: An officially icy relationship that’s surprisingly warm

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 – Globe and Mail
ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY

GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA – Cuba and the United States aren’t the best of friends, to put it mildly.

In fact, the United States is still holding off on diplomatic relations with its island neighbour, whose feisty if aging President Fidel Castro gave a surprise television address this week after years of seclusion due to poor health.

But that officially icy relationship doesn’t quite apply to the partnership that has formed around the heavily guarded border separating Cuba from the controversial U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay.

Although the U.S. has leased the land from the Cuban government for more than a century, Cuba famously has refused on principle to cash the $4,000 (U.S.) cheques the U.S. hands over annually. (Rumour has it they’re on display in Havana).

But on the military side, the two are surprisingly close.

The heads of Cuba’s frontier guards have been meeting monthly with their counterparts in the U.S.’s Guantanamo naval station for the past 15 years.

“The co-operation is not diplomatic,” cautions U.S. Navy Chief and communications specialist Bill Mesta. “It is strictly a military-to-military relationship.” The friendly get-togethers, called “fence line meetings” and conducted via translators on both sides, exist primarily to discuss logistics: When the Americans were repaving a road, they made sure to the Cubans know what was going on.

Cuba’s frontier guards have a firefighting helicopter; Guantanamo doesn’t. The two sides have grown accustomed to staging simulated “mass casualty” role-playing events, in which each side lights a controlled brush fire on either side of the border, and the other side puts it out.

This year, that close relationship was a boon as countries around the world scrambled to send aid to quake-stricken Haiti in what assessment reports have found was largely a chaotic, confused morass of good intentions.

Cuba offered not only to allow the U.S. access to its airspace, but also Cuban air traffic control – handy to have when flights of aid and military cargo would otherwise be “flying blind,” Chief Mesta says.

When they aren’t discussing the finer points of border patrols, Chief Mesta says, they get down to the truly important stuff: Baseball and the environment.

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