After the dismissal of Cuban workers at Guantánamo Bay in 1964, the United States hired 489 Jamaican workers to fill their spots. The Cuban workers were replaced because of Cold War tensions between Cuba and the U.S.; the Jamaicans were considered “inexpensive” employees. The U.S. feared that the Cuban workers could be spies passing along information to the Castro government. Cuban workers were also demanding better wages and conditions during their stay at the naval base. All these factors played a major role in the U.S. hiring Jamaican workers rather than Cubans. The Jamaicans were used in laborious tasks such as tending to military mess halls and taking care of the landscape, and required additional housing and dining support services. The United States initially thought that they were saving money by hiring the Jamaican workers but in the end it became a problematic situation.
Jamaican workers fought to negotiate for rights and benefits at the naval base, the situation the United States was trying to avoid when it fired the Cuban workforce. However, the spread of the Cuban Revolution had influenced other nations and groups such as the Jamaican workers to fight for their rights. The Cuban and Jamaican Revolutions took place during the 1960s, coinciding with the U.S. civil rights movement. Jamaican workers’ efforts on the base allowed them to secure greater rights and protections.
The relationship between the personnel on the naval base and the Jamaicans became extremely strained. U.S. naval personnel labeled the Jamaican workers “troublemakers,” and portrayed them as difficult to work with, under-skilled, ungrateful, disorderly, and rude employees. Some Jamaican workers made comments about taking violent actions toward the base unless given fair treatment. The Navy fired and deported the group of workers who had threatened the base.
The base also reflected the United States’ own racial tensions. Many white U.S. navy personnel had already formed their opinions about people of African descent. On U.S. soil, African Americans fought for equal rights; on Cuban soil the same thing was happening with Jamaican workers.
In the 1960s, the officers at GTMO established the annual Jamaican Independence Day celebration in order to celebrate what was believed to be a mutually beneficial relationship between the United States and Jamaica. The United States recognized Jamaican independence because the Jamaican government was an ally of the United States during the Cold War; the naval base had to recognize the Jamaican workers because they had replaced Cuban workers. In the 2000s both Jamaicans and Filipinos made up the naval workforce. The United States also established an annual celebration of the Philippines’ Independence Day.
It is important for people to recognize Jamaican workers in history because they represent another case of a group of people fighting for their rights to be acknowledged by the United States. Some would argue that because they are contract workers, the Jamaicans do not have rights. They are not on U.S. soil, nor are they U.S. citizens. Because the workers are not on U.S. soil, they are not protected by U.S. labor laws. Yet the Jamaicans were under the control of the U.S. naval base, which means they should have the right to fight for better work conditions and wages. This was an opportunity for the minority to question the majority in what was considered right and wrong.
Posted by Antoinette H. Strickland – MA Candidate at Rutgers University
Rutgers University is participating in the Guantánamo Public Memory Project‘s National Dialogue and Traveling Exhibit. Opening at NYU’s Kimmel Center for University Life Windows Gallery in December 2012 and traveling to 9 sites (and counting) across the country through at least 2014, the exhibit will explore GTMO’s history from US occupation in 1898 to today’s debates and visions for its future. The exhibit is being developed through a unique collaboration among a growing number of universities as a dialogue among their students, communities, and people with first-hand experience at GTMO.