Disaster Drill Illustrates New Approach To Cuba (Rosenberg, MH)
Monday, July 20, 2009; A1
By Carol Rosenberg
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- About 150 U.S. and Cuban troops worked side by side last week, testing collaboration across a minefield that has long divided the Cold War adversaries.
A Cuban Army helicopter flew over this Navy base and dropped 500 gallons of saltwater on burning plywood to extinguish a simulated raging wildfire. American sailors crossed into Cuban-controlled turf to set up a mock triage center run by both nations' militaries, should catastrophe strike.
Nearly anywhere else, the event would have been a run-of-the-mill training exercise. And although U.S. forces at this remote base have engaged in the annual rite with the Cuban Frontier Brigade for more than a decade, the Bush administration forbade the disclosure of information. The Southern Command usually answered questions about the time, date or operation scenarios with ``no comment."
This time, the U.S. military struck a different tone. It provided details but refused to let journalists already on the base for war-court hearings observe the "mass casualty exercise." Sailors photographed the event but were forbidden to release the images, said U.S. Navy base spokesman Terence R. Peck.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Jack Sheehan called the calibrated exposure a likely "trial balloon" by an Obama administration experimenting with expanded relations with Havana.
The White House has moved on a number of initiatives involving Cuba this year, including increasing the frequency with which Cubans could visit the island and voting for a process that could return Cuba to the Organization of American States after almost 50 years. And this summer, the administration resumed U.S.-Cuban diplomatic talks on migration issues, which the Bush administration abandoned seven years ago.
Sheehan, a 1994-97 commander of the U.S. Atlantic Command, and advocate of deeper U.S.-Cuban military relations, told The Miami Herald he instituted the mass-casualty drill as part of an outreach to a military that, he said, would have a critical, trusted role in any future transition in Cuban society.
He said the Obama administration was now likely engaging in "an incremental process" of exposing and potentially exploiting the military relationship at Guantanamo. "We've never advertised it in the sense of the term because it was very controversial," he said.
Pentagon policymakers refused to comment on the new approach. Navy spokesmen said only that the U.S. Navy base ``has fostered a positive relationship with the Cuban Frontier Brigade . . . as one outcome of our shared responsibility for this region of Cuba."
Sheehan said all sorts of military engagement began in the mid-'90s when both sides agreed to migration accords to stem the tide of rafters trying to cross the Florida Straits for Miami, a time he said, ``when hard-liners on both sides of the Straits were looking for reasons not to advance a dialogue."
Discussions then, he said, included minefield removal and scenarios for what would happen if a U.S. fighter jet strayed into Cuban territory.
The talks increased when the Bush White House decided to open the war-on-terror prison camps at Guantanamo, said retired Navy Capt. Bob Buehn, a former base commander.
The Americans informed their Cuban military counterparts ahead of the Jan. 11, 2002, arrival of alleged enemies in orange jumpsuits, and the Cuban government permitted large U.S. military aircraft carrying al Qaeda suspects from Afghanistan to fly over portions of Cuba rather than perform risky corkscrew landings.
But these drills and exchanges were mostly kept secret and mentioned cryptically by base commanders long afterward to illustrate what they cast as a "benign relationship" along a 17.4-mile fence line where cameras, motion detectors and stadium lighting now augment a leaner U.S. Marine force than those portrayed in the Hollywood hit, A Few Good Men.
Another example: Last month, the U.S. Navy provided a special flight to an American archbishop, Timothy Broglio, from the base at Guantanamo to Grand Cayman -- in time to catch a connection to Havana.
From there he flew on to Santiago, in time to tell worshipers at a Mass the next day, across the minefield, that U.S. troops would welcome ties with the Cuban people.
"Many of the servicemen in the Guantanamo base wanted to make this trip with me," he told Cuban Catholics in a homily reportedly delivered in flawless Spanish by Broglio, a former Vatican delegate to the Dominican Republic. ``Let us pray to God that someday we may share a service together, without separations."
Broglio is head of the Vatican's diocese that ministers to Catholics and their families in the U.S. military.
He told The Herald that the U.S. Navy made his trip easier, but it was initiated by the Bishop of Guantanamo, in the Castros' Cuba, who had been told the American archbishop would visit the 45-square-mile Navy base that Fidel Castro ordered evacuated more than 40 years ago.
Cuba declined a proposal by the Guantanamo Archdiocese to let Broglio cross the minefields, through a road that connects Cuba to the Navy base.