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Fenceline blackout at Gitmo was unavoidable, military says

During Hurricane Sandy, Guantanamo’s fabled fenceline seemed to disappear. As the Category 2 storm struck in the night, much of the base went black, notably the illuminated line of demarcation that separates the U.S. Navy base from Communist Cuba, even as the base hospital glowed like a beacon on generator power.

The Oct. 25 storm, the worst in eastern Cuba in decades, ripped off roofs and washed out piers, forced closure of the war crimes court and churned up a scare in what was ultimately found to be an inert, 500-pound U.S. training bomb. The base tallied the toll of damage to be $20 million to $25 million.

Still, the most visible sign of the disruption during the storm was when the typically brightly lit 17.4-mile line went dark for the first time anyone can recall.

“The lights along the fenceline went out during Hurricane Sandy because of the strength of the storm and was not something that could have been prevented,” the base’s civilian spokeswoman, Kelly Wirfel, said by email Monday.

Plus, she said, solar-powered lights inserted recently as an experiment continued to work even if they were not visible at a distance throughout the blackout.

After the storm, The Miami Herald asked several questions about the darkened fenceline. The military’s responses came this week.

“We do not have a chronic problem with the fenceline lights or the power going out on base as a whole,” Wirfel said.

But in “any given month,” Wirfel said, weather or animals touching power lines can cause scattered outages, “not something that we could predict or prevent.” The Pentagon’s 45-square-mile gated community is home to 6,000 people, from 166 war-on-terror captives to the children and spouses of sailors posted there.

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Until the prison opened in 2002, Guantanamo’s fenceline was its best-known feature, perhaps thanks to Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of a fictional Guantanamo commander, Marine Col. Nathan R. Jessep, in the 1992 Hollywood hit A Few Good Men.

“You can’t handle the truth,” Nicholson lectures a Navy lawyer played by Tom Cruise. “You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall” — a slogan that has appeared on souvenir T-shirts sold to benefit the Marine Ball.

In the past, hundreds of troops with tanks defended “the wall.” But there hasn’t been a reported shooting across the line in years.

After Sept. 11, 2001, the Pentagon downsized the fenceline force to about 120 Marines and installed stadium-style lighting, cameras and other electronic sentries on the frontier.

Contact through the fenceline is diminishing at the base. It recently disclosed that Cuban day laborers will no longer come to Guantanamo starting next year. These were legacy workers, bookkeepers, gardeners , mechanics, grocery stock clerks, the last of thousands of men and women from the nearby towns of Caimanera and Guantanamo City who had jobs on the base before Fidel Castro’s revolution who were allowed to keep their jobs until retirement.

By 1999 there were just 18 laborers in the commuter Cuban work force. And this year, after deaths, sickness and retirements, only two men were making the Monday through Friday trip through the fenceline. They retire on New Year’s Eve.

Then, the gates will only routinely open for the monthly meetings between the current base commander, Navy Capt. John “J.R.” Nettleton, and a senior Cuban Army commander.

Eastern Cuba suffered the worst hurricane damage in perhaps 50 years in Hurricane Sandy. Hundreds of thousands of homes were damaged, according to the Cuban government, and the United Nations last month sent food for 500,000 people in the provinces near the base.

Health officials have reported incidences of cholera and dengue fever among Cubans. But those health hazards have not crossed the fenceline into the U.S. base, where health officials “regularly test the ocean, river and base water and have found no evidence of cholera or dengue fever,” said the Navy base hospital’s Capt. Barth Merrill in a statement.

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