From left: Locally employed staff member Rohan Wilson, American Citizen Services Unit Chief Bill Torrance, Public Affairs Officer Bobby Adelson, Chargé d’Affaires John McIntyre, and Coast Guard Attaché Lt. Cmdr. Jason Hathaway at the entrance to Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, September 2021.
Story and photos by Bobby Adelson
American Citizen Services (ACS) Unit Chief William “Bill” Torrance and locally employed (LE) staff member Rohan Wilson started their day just like any other. They accepted passport applications and processed consular reports of birth abroad. Unlike most days, however, Torrance and Wilson were not at their typical consular section in Kingston, Jamaica. They were in a nondescript room at U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay (NSGB).
Tucked into a 45-square mile plot of land and water on the southeastern corner of Cuba, NSGB is the oldest continuously operating U.S. Military installation overseas. For foreigners and Americans alike, the name Guantanamo Bay often conjures up thoughts of its most well-known entity: the military detention facility which has housed detainees since 2002. While the detention camp continues to attract the most attention from outsiders, it is just a small component of the military base the United States uses on the land it has been leasing from Cuba for $4,000 a year since 1903 as part of an agreement at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War.
The naval base is home to some 6,000 service members, families, and support staff with Capt. Samuel “Smokey” White serving as the installation commanding officer. As with many other American military bases, NSGB has amenities such as a school, a chapel, restaurants, gyms, a bowling alley, outdoor recreation spaces, and even the familiar golden arches of McDonald’s.
Embassy Kingston provides ACS to all the Americans that call NSGB their home. On a quarterly basis, a small ACS team from the embassy makes the 51-minute flight from Kingston to Guantanamo Bay and sets up shop inside a room adjacent to the NSGB office of the Legal Assistance Attorney Lt. Latena M. Hazard and Legalman Petty Officer 2nd Class Timothy Kline.
Ahead of every visit by an ACS team, NSGB Public Affairs Officer Nikki Maxwell and Mass Communications Specialist Nicholas Burgains promote the visit in the “Weekly Roller,” a series of announcements displayed on monitors throughout the base as well as via the American Forces Network television channel, and their official Facebook page. These advertisements inform Americans of the visit and give them notice in order to make appointments. On the most recent trip to NSGB in Sept. 2021, 40 appointments were booked and the team accommodated another dozen or so walk-in appointments in the packed two-day schedule. This was higher than the average workload handled by a typical ACS officer in Kingston and was achieved due to the unique setup at NSGB.
Wilson handled the initial applicant quality review and accepted payments, generated receipts in triplicate, and prepared the cases for Torrance. Torrance then went through a typical process for adjudicating a passport application, including swearing-in the applicant or the parents of a minor applicant, an interview to determine the eligibility of the applicant to receive a passport, and a final check that the application is complete, with all required copies of supporting documents attached. Wilson and Torrance then collected all the applications and supporting documents and brought them back to Jamaica for further processing. Once back at the embassy, all the applications were entered into the ACS computer system and an officer would then review the documents as normal. Because the pop-up shop at NSGB lacks many of the ACS systems and protocols, Torrance and Wilson were able to handle a high caseload as they were focused only on the in-person portion of the application.
Also making the trip to Guantanamo Bay were Chargé d’Affaires John McIntyre, Coast Guard Attaché Lt. Cmdr. Jason Hathaway, and Public Affairs Officer Bobby Adelson.
As part of the familiarization visit, McIntyre, Hathaway, and Adelson toured the facilities, including meeting with White and paying a visit to the U.S. Naval Hospital Guantanamo Bay.
“Embassy Kingston’s relationship with NSGB is one of the most unique in the Foreign Service,” said McIntyre. “The history and ties we share are excellent, and we are looking forward to more frequent visits.”
The highlight of the trip for McIntyre was his encounters with the Jamaican nationals who live and work full time on the base. The 700-strong cohort of Jamaicans support a wide range of base activities from construction and custodial to fire and emergency services.
One such meeting took place with a group of Jamaican firefighters that are among the 73 Jamaicans staffing the four fire stations on the base. Beginning in 1972, the first group of Jamaicans arrived to support the fire department, and they have been providing fire and emergency services ever since. Currently, the entire operational staff, except for the American assistant chiefs, is made up of Jamaican nationals. As the U.S. representative to the Jamaica people, McIntyre thanked the firefighters and hosted an impromptu question and answer session. As tends to be the custom, many of the questions were about visas.
Torrance summed up the unique ‘consular district’ best in saying, “Guantanamo, like other military bases around the world, is a small American crossroads. It has service members and civilian employees just getting started in their careers overseas for the first time, as well as seasoned travelers who have filled a passport or two with entry and exit stamps. Issuing passports to those personnel means opening up the wider world to them, making it possible to get off the base and see the Caribbean or even further afield on leave. The issuance of a U.S. citizenship document for a new family member is critical to get their children social security numbers, college savings accounts, and so many other important first steps in a lifetime of worldwide experiences.”
Bobby Adelson is the public affairs officer at Embassy Kingston.