Base DJs riff Fidel Castro for fun, not profits

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 America.

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.”

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 1960s.

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.

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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.

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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 in 2002.

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 Guantánamo Bay.”

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