(CNN) — It’s one of the most isolated places on an already isolated island.
Entry to this town requires a special pass for nonresidents, and even Cubans can wait weeks for permission to visit family here. A Cuban military checkpoint marks its access road. And nearby still looms a faded billboard that reads, “This is the first anti-imperialist trench.”
Caimanera, Cuba — just across Guantanamo Bay from the notorious US naval base — is surrounded by guard towers, bomb shelters dug into the hillsides, concealed military encampments and miles of cactus ordered planted by Fidel Castro.
Long before “Gitmo” gained notoriety as the prison where terrorism suspects were sent to indefinitely await trial, this no man’s land was dubbed the “Cactus Curtain” by the US Marines who stood guard, eyeball to eyeball with Cuban soldiers. Thousands of land mines were planted around Caimanera as the base lingered as a potential Cold War flashpoint, each side watching anxiously for any miscalculation, any provocation that could lead to a greater conflict.
In some ways, this town-turned-military zone of 11,000 residents is like any other, with relatives watching from wooden porches as children splash in the tranquil, light blue water.
But it’s also steeped in decades of international tension. Here, residents told CNN, a day doesn’t go by without the sound of machine-gun fire, mortars or some other threat drifting to them across the bay. The activity continues as, far from here, a new leader — one not named Castro — has taken the reins of this island nation, while US President Donald Trump oversees freshly tightened travel restrictions and sanctions against the Communist state.
It’s perhaps why, unlike their countrymen elsewhere, people here still refer to Americans on the Navy base with a term that reflects a conflict still quite unresolved: el enemigo — the enemy.
Off limits to outsiders
Caimanera and nearby Boquerón sprang up in the early 20th century, after the United States invaded Cuba to kick out the Spanish troops whom Cuban revolutionaries had rebelled against.
The two nations soon signed an indefinite lease for the 45-square-mile plot that served as home to the oldest military base maintained overseas by the United States — though critics now say Cuba was in no position to reject its terms.
The bayside villages grew to house thousands of Cubans who found work at the American outpost — and also became home to rows of brothels frequented by US servicemen.
All that changed in 1959, when Castro took control in Cuba, and his revolutionary government clashed with the United States.
Both countries accused the other of using the base as provocation for war. Castro cut off water to the base, refused to accept the then-yearly rent of $2,000 and said no more Cubans would be given permission to work for the Americans there.
To prevent Cubans seeking to flee to the United States via Gitmo, Caimanera and towns like it became militarized zones — closely watched and off limits to outsiders. Amid tiffs with the Americans, Cuban officials cut off fishing in large parts of the bay and assailed the “illegal occupation” of the base, which in time came to resemble a small American town, with a bowling alley and Cuba’s only McDonald’s.
Over time, the base — and the zone around it — came to symbolize the decades-old dispute that more than once has nearly sparked a war. To wit, while portraying the base commander in the 1992 movie, “A Few Good Men,” Jack Nicholson bragged: “I eat breakfast 300 yards from 4,000 Cubans who are trained to kill me.”
‘Nowhere else like that in Cuba’
But as the journalists arrived on a recent afternoon, residents here offered a greeting of booming music in the town’s main bayfront plaza. Children danced in unison and demonstrated martial arts. One boy dressed as a Cuban soldier and waved a pellet gun.
The town was immaculately clean and, like just about everywhere else in Cuba, was adorned with murals of the revolutionary icon, Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
A three-star hotel on the largest hill in town was devoid of any tourists, despite the inviting pool and model of the Navy base, complete with plastic US and Cuban soldiers.
This town was named for a type of alligator that was once common in the area but has since disappeared — symbolic, perhaps, of Caimanera’s current state.
An overgrown cemetery on a small hill top on the outskirts of town sat abandoned.
Some residents here work as part of the massive defense network against the Americans, others in a nearby salt plant.
Cuban officials said they try to compensate the town’s residents for living in relative seclusion in the base’s shadow by adding goods like red meat and milk — hard to find in Cuba — to their government-provided rations.
But some residents, like Olga Perez Guerra, who proudly wears a Che Guevara T-shirt and said she supports the Cuban government, admitted that the town’s young people are weary of being cut off from the rest of their nation.
“If today, as a young Cuban from Caimanera, I fall in love with someone who isn’t from here, I have to ask permission for them to be able to come here,” Perez said. “There’s nowhere else like that in Cuba.”
‘Very good at holding people securely’
In 2002, the US began to send terrorism suspects awaiting military tribunals to Guantanamo. Many of the suspects would later say they were tortured by CIA interrogators and held in inhumane conditions.
President Barack Obama swore to close the prison, but Congress stymied those efforts, concerned about where the suspects would face trial instead.
Cuban officials have pushed for the return of the base, even if it meant taking over administration of the prison, said Obama’s deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes in his book, “The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House.”
“We are very interested in Guantanamo,” Rhodes said Col. Alejandro Castro, Raul Castro’s son and the chief Cuban negotiator in secret talks with the United States, told him during their meetings. When Rhodes brought up the issue of the enemy combatant detainees, Alejandro Castro told Rhodes that Cuba would continue to incarcerate them.
“We take note of your difficulty in removing prisoners,” Rhodes said Castro said to him. “Cuba is prepared to make the security requirements to hold them. Cuba is very good at holding people securely.”
Obama rejected Cuba’s overture, Rhodes said in his book.
‘Fence line’ meetings and fireworks
While tensions remain, the United States and Cuba have settled into something of an uneasy truce, like a divorced couple forced to live together.
US officials say they removed thousands of the land mines placed around the base years ago and replaced them with lights and motion sensors.
US and Cuban military officers hold monthly “fence line” meetings to discuss upcoming maneuvers and other issues. Sometimes, US and Cuban officials said, the military brass host each other for lunch.
In February, Cuban military and firefighters helped the base put out a wildfire that exploded land mines on the Cuban side and threatened houses on the base.
In Caimanera, residents in June showed off how the base’s T-Mobile cell phone service reaches their town and said a crowd gathers every year in town to watch the base’s Fourth of July fireworks show across Guantanamo Bay.
“It’s amazing,” one resident, named Carlos, said. “They turn the night into day.”
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