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Last Cuban "commuters" retire from jobs at U.S. Navy base

(Reuters) - The last two Cuban workers at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base in Cuba retired on Monday from jobs they began more than five decades ago when the United States and its reluctant host enjoyed friendlier relations.

Harry Henry, an 82-year-old office supply technician, and Luis La Rosa, a 79-year-old welder, had worked on the U.S. base in southeast Cuba since they were teenagers.

They were among thousands of Cuban laborers who once commuted to the base each day, back when U.S. sailors spent their shore leave on Cuban-controlled territory outside the base.

Relations between the United States and Cuba soured after former President Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, and the United States imposed an economic embargo to put pressure on the island's communist government in 1962.

Cubans who worked on the base were allowed to keep their jobs but no more were hired. Over the decades, the ranks of daily commuters thinned until only Henry and La Rosa were left.

The base newspaper, the Guantanamo Bay Gazette, described their unique routine: Each morning at dawn, the two took a cab from Guantanamo City, Cuba, to the northeast gate of the U.S. Naval base. They passed through a gate on the Cuban side, manned by soldiers from the Cuban Frontier Brigade, then walked across an open space and through a second gate on the U.S. side, manned by U.S. Marines.

They handed the Marines their Cuban identification cards, exchanging them for naval station badges and the keys to a blue truck that La Rosa drove to their jobs. At the end of the day, the journey was reversed.

"This is all just routine for us, but sometimes you feel like you're living in two worlds," Henry told the Gazette. "They are two systems any way you look at it. But we are used to it."

Henry had worked at the base for more than 61 years and La Rosa for over 53 years.

"I have a lot of pieces of my life here," La Rosa told the Gazette at a retirement party on the base earlier this month. "My heart is sad about leaving but I know it is time."

In the last decade, the base has been best known for the U.S. detention center that now holds 166 holds foreign captives suspected of links to the Taliban or al Qaeda.

The United States has controlled the base property since 1903, using it as a fueling station during the Spanish-American war. It maintains the base under a perpetual lease that can only be broken by mutual agreement between the United States and Cuba, which have no diplomatic relations.

Support work on the base is now done by contractors, mainly from the Philippines and Jamaica.

The commander of the U.S. base holds monthly meetings at the fenceline with his Cuban military counterpart, but the two elderly workers were the only ones who crossed back and forth through the gate.

They also served as couriers, carrying U.S. government pension payments to other Cubans who had retired from the base. Because of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, the U.S. government has been left scrambling to find another way to make those payments.

(Reporting by Jane Sutton; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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