Guantanamo retirees lose pensions

AT THE US Navy base at Guantanamo this month, the Pentagon marked the retirement of two elderly workers with typical military pageantry. Schoolchildren did a folkloric dance. There were speeches, a cake and presentation of certificates by the base commander to the would-be pensioners.

AT THE US Navy base at Guantanamo this month, the Pentagon marked the retirement of two elderly workers with typical military pageantry. Schoolchildren did a folkloric dance. There were speeches, a cake and presentation of certificates by the base commander to the would-be pensioners.

This was not a typical US Navy retirement party. Harry Henry, 82, and Luis La Rosa, 79, are the last two daily commuters from their homes in Cuba to the US-controlled territory. They got their jobs at Guantanamo as teenagers and, as long-serving US government employees, are entitled to Defence Department pensions.

But their retirement leaves the navy with no way to pay the pensions they and other Cuban workers have earned because of the five-decade-old US embargo on trade with Cuba.

"Right now there is no established plan to pay these pensions - because of the complication of US law," navy Lieutenant-Commander Christopher Servello said in a statement. "Base and Department of State officials are working to find a permanent solution."

The navy so far won't say how many retired Guantanamo labourers are still receiving pensions, or provide a dollar figure.

Thousands of Cubans commuted to the base from neighbouring towns in south-east Cuba as day labourers - welders, machinists and groundskeepers - before Fidel Castro swept to power in 1959. As tensions built, the base became more and more isolated, producing its own water and electricity.

The US imposed a series of economic sanctions that culminated in the 1962 trade embargo. Cuban workers already employed at Guantanamo were able to keep coming but no one new would be hired.

By 1999, the commuter labour force had dwindled to 18 men walking through the hills to Guantanamo, with some entrusted to carry funds to the pensioners who lived in Cuba.

By 2002, about 100 retirees were receiving US federal pensions, and navy officials sought an initiative to do a wire transfer without violating the embargo. "We saw this coming for some time with the retirement of the last Cuban commuter," one naval officer said, "but have yet to settle on a solution."

Mr Henry and Mr La Rosa were the last of the legacy labourers to serve as bagmen of sorts, twice a month carrying pensions to their colleagues on the Cuban side of the US Marines' 28-kilometre fence line. Mr La Rosa, who retires as a motor pool worker, began working at Guantanamo as an 18-year-old welder. Mr Henry, hired at 17, worked at the base's office-supply depot.

A previous base commander suggested the marines who stand guard on the frontier could be asked to hand cash through the fence to Cuban soldiers. The navy had no comment last week on whether that was a potential solution.

The base itself created a video tribute to the men, without mentioning the retirement pay problem.

"On December 31, these two gentlemen's years of sacrifice and dedication will draw to a close," said a US sailor, "as they pass through the north-east gate for the final time, marking the end of an era."

The author of 2011's Guantanamo: An American History, Jonathan Hansen, said on Friday that this latest episode was "emblematic of the complications of America's long history at the base", which cannot escape US policy towards Cuba.

"Every cute story that comes out of that place has another dark side to it," Hansen said. "So it doesn't surprise me, actually, that they're not going to get these pensions."

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