The Cuban exile who calls Guantanamo Bay his forever home

Fearing reprisals, refugees found safe haven at US naval base during Cuban Revolution six decades ago

Noel West, 88, holds a plaque  commemorating his 55 years of service to the US naval station in Guantanamo Bay. Willy Lowry / The National
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In February 1964, Cuban national Noel West was working as a clerk on the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay when he chose to stay in his barracks and watch a baseball game instead of returning to his home on the Cuban side of the fence.

Little did he know that decision would save his life.

The next day, he learnt Fidel Castro’s soldiers were hunting him.

“My next door neighbour who lived on the Cuban side called me and he asked me if I had gone out the night before. I said, ‘No, why?’” recalled Mr West.

“He said, ‘Well, there were about eight soldiers looking for you.’”

At first, Mr West couldn’t understand why Castro’s men wanted him, but he soon realised that a close friend had sold him out to the nascent communist regime after a casual conversation they had days before.

“We started talking, and he said, ‘Well what do you think about the situation in Cuba now?’ I said ‘Well, I mean, there’s nothing to eat, there’s no jobs, looks like communism is going to take over,’ and, well, I didn’t have anything good at all to say,” said Mr West, who was 32 years old at the time.

That conversation would define the rest of his life. Unable to return home, he was granted permission from the US government to live in an enclave of the naval station until it was safe.

Mr West, now 88, has not set foot in Cuba since and doesn’t believe he will ever be able to return.

The Guantanamo Bay base, which after the September 11 terror attacks became notorious for housing detainees in America’s war on terror, was the first naval station established outside of the US.

It is a spoil of the Spanish-American War, when Cuban and American forces wrestled the strategically located bay from Spanish control, helping pave the way for crucial victories later in the conflict.

Since 1903, the US has leased the land from Cuba. The original lease cost $2,000 per year. Since the mid-1970s, the US has paid Cuba $4,085 for the land, though the Castros never actually spent the money.

In the early 1960s, following the Cuban Revolution in which Castro clawed his way to power and established a communist government, some 350 Cubans escaped to the US base at the south-eastern tip of the island.

Some of the Cuban exiles moved to the US, but a small cohort, including Mr West, stayed at the base and made a life for themselves on their native soil under the protection of the US government.

Today, there are only 19 Cuban exiles, known as Special Category Residents, left on the base.

The base provides health care to the ageing community, whose youngest member is now 78 and the oldest is 92.

The US government has even built a home health facility for those unable to live alone.

Mr West lives in a low-slung, mid-century home across the street from the Cuban Community Centre in one of several residential compounds on the base.

His house is filled with Christmas ornaments - an ode to his first name, Noel - which can be seen alongside pictures and other memorabilia of a life spent in service to the base.

On a mantle in his living room sits a plaque commemorating Mr West’s 55 years of service.

For five and half decades, he worked as a clerk on the base, primarily in charge of ordering fuel for private vehicles. He retired in 2011.

In his spare time, he played baseball and umpired games for American soldiers and other people living on the base.

Eventually, he obtained US citizenship, and though he’s travelled to the US many times and has a son who lives in Florida, he prefers life on the island of his birth.

Gregarious and light-hearted, Mr West jokes he would not make a movie out of his life, but he acknowledges he is part of a little known quirk of history.

Mr West now spends his retirement reading up on events in Cuba on the large computer monitor in his living room.

Nearly 60 years after he last stepped foot in Cuba proper, he still thinks about his community and what life would have been like if he had returned home that night all those years ago.

But he has no regrets over how his life has turned out.

“The thing that I miss about not living there is some of the people that I made friends with that I miss, the opportunity to sit and talk to them.”

Updated: September 14, 2021, 8:09 PM