GUANTANAMO, CUBA — No one has paid much attention to the United States Naval Base at Guantanamo since it served as a refugee camp for more than 50,000 Haitians and Cubans intercepted on their way to south Florida in 1994.
The current mission of Cuba's most despised symbol of US imperialism is unclear. And that makes Santiago Teofilo nervous. The octogenarian Cuban, a retired base office clerk, worries that the US outpost will close, and he will no longer collect his monthly pension check.
"I'm an honest person and never got mixed up in politics," Mr. Teofilo says. He is one of thousands of Cubans once employed on the base, where only 19 remain on the job.
Pedro Hope uses the base to make money in another way. For $5, the English-speaking guide leads tourists to a lookout where the cold war hasn't ended.
In a good week, Mr. Hope says, more than 100 tourists - mainly European - pay government taxi drivers a few dollars to carry them through three heavily armed Cuban checkpoints to Mt. Malones, a 900-foot hill that overlooks the base and the surrounding port city.
On one side of the decades-old trenches, lookout towers, and scattered land mines, helicopters ferry uniformed men above manicured lawns and gleaming white and blue buildings.
On the other side, horse-drawn carriages scurry through dank streets and past dilapidated buildings whose last paint job predates the bearded rebels' seizure of power in 1959.
The stark contrast is nothing new to Jorge Harris. The son of Jamaican immigrants has worked at the Guantanamo base since 1939.
"I stay here because I'm Cuban and my family lives here," says Mr. Harris, who, like the other Cuban base employees, has the option of retiring in the US.
"Many have moved. But, for us, we have the best of both worlds. We can live in our country and still have some of the advantages of the US."
Cuban employees may dine in the base's restaurants, shop in its well-stocked supermarket, and watch the latest Hollywood flick at the movie theater. But Cuba forbids them to bring any products off the base.
Tensions over Guantanamo began before US-Cuba relations nosedived when President Fidel Castro declared the island a Marxist state. The base, originally intended to protect the eastern approach to the Panama Canal, is a legacy of the Spanish-American War.
In 1903, the US government signed a $2,000-a-year lease agreement with a newly installed Cuban government. The lease has now crept up to about $4,000.
Despite employing thousands of Cubans and infusing needed cash into the local economy, the base became a symbol of US imperialism. The diplomatic divide widened after the revolution. Citing US provocations, Cuba cut off water and electricity to the base, and banned US troops from its territory. President Castro, who has called the base "a dagger plunged into the heart of Cuban soil," has not cashed the annual checks since coming to power. He is said to keep them in an office drawer.
Meanwhile, Teofilo - who began working as a toilet scrubber in 1943 for 32 cents an hour - now worries about resentment from his neighbors for being relatively rich. His pension is more than $1,000 a month, compared with about $10 a month for the average Cuban.
"They think base workers have millions," says Teofilo, who recently had a team of workers refurbishing his squat home in Guantanamo. "I just stay in my house, hold my tongue, and tell no one what I make."
At the Villa Gaviota hotel in Santiago de Cuba, the island's second-largest city about 50 miles west of Guantanamo, tourist officials provide those interested in glimpsing the base with a glossy brochure called "Cuba: The Natural Way." Photos show smiling tourists with refreshments on Mt. Malones.
In the hazy distance, over a cactus-speckled desert, is the network of roads that make up the 95-year-old naval base.
"It's a very weird view," tour guide Hope says. "At least now, you can sit at a restaurant, in comfort, and see a relic of the cold war."