By Jason Leopold
For years, the maxim of Radio GTMO, the official radio station of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, has been, “Rockin’ in Fidel’s Backyard.” The subtle dig is aimed at Fidel Castro, the former President of Cuba who has been calling upon the US Navy to return the base to Cuba, and who has refused to cash 55 years worth of rent checks — the US pays the Cuban government $4,085 annually.
The motto, along with Castro’s cigar-smoking profile, is inscribed on t-shirts, sweatshirts, keychains, cup holders, mugs, bottle openers, and other swag sold at the station’s gift shop. The bottle opener was banned for a period of time because military officials felt it promoted the consumption of alcoholic beverages.One of the station’s most popular items is the Fidel Castro bobblehead, which features the former president of Cuba, cigar in hand, standing on top of a boombox that’s plastered with the Radio GTMO motto.
Proceeds from the sales of the trinkets have raised tens of thousands of dollars that the station, which is incorporated as a nonprofit, has used in part to help students at the base’s high school — W.T. Sampson High caters to children of people stationed at the base — fund class trips.
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Radio GTMO boasts more than 20,000 records, one of the largest vintage vinyl collections at any Armed Forces Network radio station. It broadcasts signals on three channels — two FM and one AM — and it’s situated on the dial between a dozen or so Spanish-speaking Cuban stations. The FM stations play a mix of country, hip-hop, and rock; the AM station broadcasts news and talk.
But now that relations between the US and Cuba are on the mend, the days of Rockin’ in Fidel’s Backyard are coming to an end.
Radio GTMO officials told VICE News that a committee has recently been set up to discuss changing the logo and motto, which means the swag that has been sold there over the years will become collectors’ items.
“Since there is not an appointed timeline or issued guidance from the [Department of Defense or State Department] regarding the normalization of relations with Cuba, we are not hard-pressed at the moment to make sudden changes,” said Steven Jaquin, the officer in charge of Armed Forces Network at Guantanamo. “The simple answer is, ‘Yes, we are going to change the motto and logo.’ When? That remains to be determined.”
A decision has not been made yet as to whether the Castro bobblehead, made in China, will continue to be sold or discontinued.
Although the motto is well-known among both military personnel and the media, lawyers, and human rights groups who have visited Guantanamo over the past 13 years, Radio GTMO does not broadcast the maxim over the air for fear of angering Cuban citizens. Instead, disc jockeys have at times opted to say, “We’re close, but no cigar.” That phrase won’t be used anymore either.
Since President Obama announced last December that the US would normalize relations with Cuba, his administration has moved to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a designation that had been in place for 30 years, and this week authorized ferry service to the country. The US ultimately plans to open an embassy in Havana.
Guantanamo officials told VICE News the policy changes will also lead to other subtle changes on the naval base, but they won’t yet discuss what those changes will entail. What is clear, however, is that the US has no intention of returning the 45-square-mile naval base to Cuba. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said those discussions are not taking place and that the naval base, which the US has operated for more than 100 years, should remain open. Raul Castro, Cuba’s current president and Fidel’s brother, said last January that reestablishing diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba would be difficult if the US doesn’t “give back the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo naval base.”
The only noticeable alteration to the base in recent months occurred at Joint Task Force-Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO), made up of about 2,000 Army, Navy, Marine, Air Force, and Coast Guard personnel who oversee the 122 detainees still held captive there.
Related: The VICE News Interview: Former Gitmo Guard Joseph Hickman
Sunshine and the picturesque bay were prominently displayed for more than a decade in a five-point logo, along with the symbols of the five military branches that make up the task force. But last year, JTF-GTMO scrapped the logo in favor of a new symbol that depicted the razor wire surrounding the detention camps. – Vice News
Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold
By Jason Leopold