By Carol Rosenberg, The Miami Herald
10:36 a.m. EST, December 25, 2011
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba—
-Drive through this base dotted with a McDonald's, golf course and
drive-in cinema featuring first-run movies and you could be in anywhere
But switch on the radio in this one-station town and the location is
inescapable. "Radio Gitmo," goes a jingle in an unspoken nod to the
economic embargo, "We're close but no cigar."
The station's motto: "Rockin' in Fidel's Backyard."
Video: Check out Santa riding the surf at Fort Lauderdale beach
It's emblazoned on T-shirts, key chains, tote bags and beer-can covers —
classic public-radio fundraising fare. Except these poke fun at the
Cuban comandante who's been telling the U.S. Navy to get out since the
Each item bears the motto, along with a likeness of Fidel Castro in a
green military cap. And, though he claimed to kick the habit years a-go,
he's chomping on a cigar — a caricature stubbornly locked in time, not
unlike the U.S. grip on this outpost in southeast Cuba.
Successive U.S. administrations have considered Guantánamo a strategic
location. So the Navy maintains it as a small town with a port, prison
and airstrip maintained by 6,000 or so occupants, from U.S. troops and
contract workers to sailors' spouses and kids.
For residents who don't want to tune in to Spanish broadcasts of Radio
Reloj from Cuba proper across the minefield, there's Radio Gitmo, with
its mix of country music in the morning and hip-hop programming at
night, mostly streamed in from elsewhere.
It offers public service programming, too, such as reminders to use
sunblock while snorkeling and to designate a sober driver when out
drinking. A sailor-announcer adopts the audio persona of a talking
iguana to warn people against feeding the wildlife. A more solemn
announcer advises listeners to be aware of their surroundings, avoid
terror attacks — all pretty dry stuff.
Still, the station's lobby is a popular spot for its gift shop — a pair
of bookshelves stuffed with swag.
Hooded sweat shirts are the most expensive at $40. A Fidel figurine
whose head bobbles costs $25. Travel mugs and bottle openers go for $10,
all of it for fun, not profit.
Proceeds this year are going to help the nine seniors at the high school
fund their class trip, an eight-day cruise, and also cut the costs for
juniors enlisted to attend the Navy and Marine Corps balls, says Chief
Petty Officer Stan Travioli, who runs the station.
By far, the $15 T-shirts are the best-selling items.
Soldiers on deployments of a year or less send them to the kids back
home. Off-duty troops sport them at the beach. A British newspaper
correspondent was picking one up for her husband recently when a
counterman at the Guantánamo McDonald's walked in to buy two.
During war crimes hearings, escorts shuttle observers from Camp Justice
— where the Pentagon puts them up in a crude tent city powered by
cacophonous generators — to buy the kitsch. More likely than not,
they're souvenirs of something they've never heard.
Drummer Derek Berk got his Radio Gitmo regalia, gratis, when his
Detroit-based indie rock band, The High Strung, played a couple of
concerts and spent a week kicking around the 45-square-mile base.
Berk literally did rock in Fidel's backyard: "There's not any combat
going on down there," he says. "We're just occupying our area." He
considers his souvenir a treasured addition to his T-shirt collection —
political correctness not a concern.
"I think it's just kind of funny," he says.
"Is it PC for our Army to make fun of their so-called enemy? I feel like
silliness is OK."
Sailors at the radio station don't use the motto as a radio jingle, just
in case it might offend the neighbors. And it's simply not known how
those in Havana view it, if at all.
Neither the motto nor the broadcasts have come up in monthly meetings
with a Cuban military officer along the fence line, said Navy Capt. Kirk
Hibbert, the base commander.
The U.S. military opened the channel of communication in the 1990s, to
let one side alert the other to activities that may alarm the other's
troops. At the meetings, commanders have given advanced notice of
training at the firing range and the first arrival of al-Qaida suspects
The radio station and its quirky motto were already around for years
when Hibbert got to the base 14 months ago. He "never gave it much
thought," he said, until a reporter asked about it.
"I don't see myself sitting in Fidel's backyard," he replied
good-naturedly. "I see myself as the naval officer in charge of