I start my trip to Cuba in the airport in Ft. Lauderdale looking for Air Sunshine. This is the airline that is supposed to get me to Cuba. I ask one of the TSA guys for directions and he has never heard of it. Not a good sign. But I have time so I keep looking. I finally find it. Stuck in a corner, by itself. It is a small charter service with a plastic sign, advertising trips to Florida, Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and Virgin Islands. I note no reference to where I’m going, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The man at the counter is speaking Spanish to somebody on the phone which in itself is not surprising. It's Florida after all. What is “interesting” is how he looks. Sunglasses and a black beret. Che Guevera comes to mind. I start to laugh. Wild.
I find that I am at the right place and Che tells me to come back earlier than the scheduled flight time. We may leave early. Hey, I’m game. Whatever . . .
A few minutes before our departure, I’m waiting along with my producer, Dan Pashman. Strange because there are very few of us, in fact six total. I’m not even sure what kind of a plane we are talking about. But I have a hint. It takes about 3 1/2 hours to get from Ft. Lauderdale to Cuba. Speed may not be this plane's strong point. I hope reliability is!
Che opens the door which leads directly out onto the tarmac. And there is our baby. She is an Ambraer E-110P, a double prop. plane. It holds all six of us and no more. And as the co-pilot lines us up, he picks out one of us at a time and places us in specific seats - he’s distributing weight. I’m last. I don’t know whether to be offended or not but swear to myself that I better ease up on the bagels with real butter. The co-pilot pulls the hatch shut behind me and Che waves goodbye!
As I sit and look behind the six of us, our gear is pushed into the rear of the plane. There is very little space although I laugh because the co-pilot, literally, four feet from me, lets us know there is a cooler that holds drinks. I look down at my feet and there is the blue and white device. I will keep it in mind.
And then they start up the engines. The sound is deafening and I immediately feel like an idiot. I should have thought about this and thrown some earplugs in my backpack. Too late now. And we are off.
As we quickly enter airspace over the the Carribean, the water quickly turns from a dark blue to almost turquoise. I have to say that it is lovely. But strange. I’m conflicted because I keep noticing how the beauty contrasts so strongly with what also is here, Gitmo.
As I look around at the others also on this flight, I’m find them . . . interesting. Besides the two pilots, the six us of are spread in three rows with a small aisle between us. There is me in the front row behind the pilot. And next to me, there is a man across from me in his early fifties in jeans and a short sleeve dress. He looks like he could be an electrician or engineer.
Behind me is my producer, Dan Pashman. Beside him, and across this small aisle is another man in his late fifties who works for a communications company. He mentioned while we were waiting in the airport that he is based in Cincinnati and that this is his first trip to Gitmo. Very strange.
In the last row, again, two more guys. One is a smaller man with rough hands. He looks like a worker. Again, fifties, but somebody how know how to work. Construction maybe . . . . The last guy is a whole other game. He is big. 6’3”, 6’4”, maybe more. 250 lbs. Harley Davidson t-shirt, goatee, thinning hair, mostly grey now. But there is an edge to this guy. Something different. He reminds me of my days at CIA. Just a feeling. He mentioned while we wait to board the plane that he makes this trip a lot. I wonder what brings him to Gitmo?
So, besides the pilots, both, again, in their 50’s, in their grey slacks and white white and short haircuts, this is our happy little band of merry men. We travel to this little corner of the work, 45 miles total of Cuban land leased to the Americans.
Presumably, we all go for different reasons. My goal is a simple one. I was on the island the day Khalid Sheikh Mohammad arrived at Gitmo in 2006. Since that time, revelations have come out that he was waterboarded, tortured, 183 times. And three days after President Obama was inaugurated, he promised to close this base within one year. And this last week he started to backtrack. I want to understand why.
I will broadcast live shows radio shows this week at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for Air America Radio and I will do at least one live hit for MSNBC using a Department of Defense satellite communications system called DVIDS. Heaven knows what that stands for.
All I know is I’m traveling at donkey speed around the Caribbean and hope to make Gitmo sometime before the next millenium.
As we approach the Island, I see the fence. The guard towers. The runway. We hit the ground. I step to the tarmac and feel the heat on my face. Cuba!