September 7, 2007 / 6:24 PM / in 11 years

Is Castro dead? U.S. neighbors unsure

GUANTANAMO BAY U.S. NAVAL BASE, Cuba (Reuters) - At the cactus-dotted fenceline where U.S. and Cuban military officers meet face to face on the edge of the Guantanamo Bay naval base, Fidel Castro’s name does not come up in official conversations.

Girls eat ice cream while sitting near a poster of Cuba's leader Fidel Castro during his birthday celebration in Havana, August 13, 2007. Castro's health status is a Cuban state secret. Rumors of his death have regularly swept Miami's Cuban exile community since he underwent bowel surgery and handed power to his brother, Raul Castro, last year. REUTERS/Claudia Daut

The base commander, Capt. Mark Leary, said he discusses mundane things like brush fires and construction work at monthly meetings with his Cuban military counterpart.

“We haven’t done anything differently really since his (Castro’s) illness,” Leary told Reuters this week at the only U.S. military base on communist turf.

“Nothing has changed at the fence line meeting even, and really, I wouldn’t expect it to. It really is kind of a military-to-military relation and really only a local kind of thing.”

Castro’s health status is a Cuban state secret. Rumors of his death have regularly swept Miami’s Cuban exile community since he underwent bowel surgery and handed power to his brother, Raul Castro, last year.

And although they are on Cuban territory, those stationed at the Guantanamo base have no information and seemingly little interest as to whether Castro, 81, still breathes.

So journalists visiting the base this week were stunned when the young Marine escorting them on a tour of the gate that separates the base from its reluctant host casually mentioned that Castro had died the previous Monday, August 27.

Three elderly Cuban workers who have held jobs on the U.S. base since before Castro seized power in 1959 failed to make their daily treks through the gate the previous week, Lance Cpl. Veronica Goncalves said.

“When Castro was pronounced dead on Monday they didn’t come to work all week,” she said.

Pressed to elaborate, she said, “Fidel Castro died last week.”

‘THAT’S NEWS TO ME’

Goncalves said she had read news reports of his death on the Internet but that there had been no official announcement or any alert status on the base.

A public affairs escort, also surprised, phoned his supervisor and reported back that Castro’s health had come up at a staff meeting and “there’s no reason to indicate that he’s dead.”

Leary said that if Castro is dead, “that’s news to me.”

Cuban officials have dismissed the Internet death reports as false. But by all accounts, nothing at the base would immediately change if it were true. The U.S. Navy has leased the Guantanamo base since 1903 under an agreement that can only be broken by mutual consent.

Cuba favors eviction but the United States considers the base in southeastern Cuba ideally suited for fighting drug- and migrant-smuggling in the Caribbean and for holding suspected al Qaeda captives.

Cuba and the United States are longtime ideological foes with no formal diplomatic relations and heated rhetoric regularly flies between Havana and Washington. But dealings at the Guantanamo fenceline are pragmatic and calm.

Firefighters from both sides joined up for their annual drill in June to practice for cross-border brush fires and other emergencies. Leary notified the Cubans that there would be an influx of construction workers for runway repaving and other work on the U.S. side.

A year-old agreement to allow emergency medical flights to cross Cuban airspace was recently and uneventfully put to the test when a man at the base was flown to Miami for treatment unavailable on the base, Leary said.

The agreement shaved 25 minutes off the trip, which otherwise would have required flying around the island, he said.

Residents on both sides of the fence can listen to each other’s radio stations. A U.S. caller to an afternoon radio talk show on the navy base recently suggested that the Cuban soccer team be invited over for a match.

Leary called that “a nice thought” but said there were no plans to carry it out. “That’s really making policy. We don’t do that,” he said.

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