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Fire sales are generally reliable indicators that a business is in financial trouble, whether the firm in question is a mom-and-pop hardware store or the Pentagon. In fact, weeks before the federal government shut down this past Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Defense sent out flyers to international purchasers of secondhand military equipment, announcing an unusual sale at an uncommon location: the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.
"The best deal from Cuba since cigars," blared an ad published in the Miami Herald by the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service (DRMS), a branch of the Defense Department charged with reselling excess or surplus property, from helicopters to used clothing. "This is a rare opportunity for remarkable savings," the ad urged. "Get in on this."
Although DRMS sales occur frequently on American military bases in this country and abroad, this is the first sale on Guantanamo "in years and years," according to Babs Eggleston, the marketing service's special project coordinator who is supervising the Guantanamo offer. This sale, Eggleston explains, is prompted by the closure of the tent cities that have been used to house Cuban and Haitian refugees since last year's rafter exodus. In September 1994, at the peak of the crisis, 24 tent cities (the U.S. military calls them "villages") held upward of 50,000 refugees.
As of Monday, November 13, only 5906 Cuban refugees remained in five villages. According to a spokesman for Joint Task Force 160, the agglomeration of army, navy, air force, marine, and coast guard personnel who oversee the humanitarian mission dubbed Operation Sea Signal, refugees are leaving the villages on planes destined for Homestead Air Force Base at a rate of about 500 per week. The last flight is scheduled for the end of January. Future DRMS sales on Guantanamo are planned in the coming months to sell off all remaining material and equipment used by the refugees. (Because DRMS does not depend directly on government appropriations for its daily operation, it has not yet been affected by the federal shutdown.)
Defense Department honchos hope such sales will enable the government to recover at least part of the more than $240 million that has been spent so far on Operation Sea Signal. Among the items on the auction block are one ferry boat (original cost $750,000), 3000 port-o-potties (original cost $250 each), 2452 folding cots (original cost $90 each), between 300 and 500 general-purpose, medium-size canvas tents (original cost $1500 each), and an assortment of vehicles, including one trash-compactor truck, one wrecker, eight tractor trucks, fifteen four-wheel-drive utility-type trucks, and dozens of pickups.
Prospective buyers are required to submit sealed bids by December 4. "We're anxious to remove this equipment, so we'll accept anything that's reasonable," Eggleston notes.
After the bids are opened on December 5, low bidders will be awarded the merchandise. Buyers are responsible for transporting their purchases off Guantanamo. They also must arrange to clean the property to the specifications of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and to comply with customs regulations, if they wish to ship it stateside.
Since November 15, the day before the government shutdown, sale items have been available for viewing. Descriptions have also been posted on the Internet (on the World Wide Web at http://126.96.36.199/mh.html). But for bidders who prefer a hands-on shopping experience, DRMS helpfully provides a sheet of "customer instructions for traveling to and shipping property from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base."
"It's like when you buy a used car, you want to kick the tires and slam the doors and see what works and so on," Eggleston says, conjuring images of a deluxe yard sale under the glare of the Caribbean sun.
To get to Guantanamo, prospective bidders can choose between two charter companies that offer flights from Fort Lauderdale International Airport. The price is $225 each way. Fandango Air flies Tuesday and Thursday. Its competitor, Air Sunshine, flies to Guantanamo Sunday through Thursday. Moe Adili, Air Sunshine's general manager, says he's offering supersaver fares of $125 each way on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.
Eggleston herself will obtain government clearance for travelers to Guantanamo. She'll also arrange for accommodations at the Bachelor Officers' Quarters, for $36 per night. "It's like a Motel 6. It has a queen-size bed and a television," she says, adding that there are plenty of places to eat on the base, including a McDonald's, a delicatessen, a pizza parlor, and for those with high-ranking friends, the Officers' Club. Should a customer want to go for a drive on the 49-square-mile base, the Navy Exchange rents Ford Escorts and Chevrolet Corsicas for $29.95 per day.
Despite the amenities, Eggleston says, she has so far made arrangements for only ten bidders, though DRMS has received more than 200 inquiries about the sale. She speculates that most customers will be bidding blind. "I've just talked to one man and he says he never looks at our property, that he's learned what to expect," she reports.
On the base, refugees are doing what they can to help the U.S. government prepare for the sale. For months they have been helping the Joint Task Force dismantle the villages, pitching in to plant grass seed, repair golf carts, and even refurbish cots at a special workshop. "There's a regular work crew that goes down there every day," says Maj. Terry O'Rourke. "We call it the cot factory, and what they are basically doing is rebuilding the cots that we used here. They're putting bolts and rivets to fix the frames, and they are stretching new fabric. I think the savings will be $75 a cot. The whole focus is to save the U.S. government money."
"We're anxious to remove this equipment, so we'll accept anything that's reasonable."
Babs Eggleston, Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service