Guantánamo Public Memory Project

The Politics of Nostalgia

Detained Haitians Protest at Guantánamo. Photo courtesy of Miami Herald.

Detained Haitians Protest at Guantánamo. Photo courtesy of Miami Herald.

 

Is there any danger in fond remembrance? Most people look back on some point in their lives with happiness or even wistfulness; their memories of that time constitute an essential part of their self-understanding. Memory is vital to both the personal/individual and political/collective human experience: oral history projects across the globe have shown us that individual memories of certain events can be powerful tools in combating “official histories” that silence unsavory aspects of nation-building projects.

But nostalgia and memory can be insidious. Consider the nostalgia of American Southerners (and Northerners, and Midwesterners, and Westerners) who have Confederate flag bumper stickers on their cars. These men and women often claim that their love for the Dixie flag has nothing to do with racism or slavery and everything to do with states’ rights, independence, rebellion against an overbearing federal government. They, ostensibly, see their forebears as brave souls who stood up to the bullying Union—the Southerners were David to the North’s Goliath (http://www.scv.org/). But I, as a black woman with deep roots in the American South, see things differently. My heart starts beating faster in fear when I see a Confederate flag, and I would do everything in my power to avoid speaking to a person in possession of one.

I see memories of Guantánamo as similarly politicized. As a student of Cuban history, I was shocked, for example, to hear the story of Anita Isom, an American base employee in the 1960s and 1970s. She remembered the base as a kind of paradise, where everyone knew everyone, there was no crime, and it was “summer all year long.”[1] I was more familiar with Jana Lipman’s portrayal of life for Cubans on and off the base: as difficult, sometimes dangerous, and increasingly humiliating once Cuban-American relations devolved after 1959.[2] How could Anita Isom not understand that her idyll was built on the back of imperial subjugation of the Cuban government and the Cuban people?

My self-righteousness became more difficult to sustain, however, when I heard Conrado Basulto speak about his time as a balsero refugee on the base in the mid-nineties. Here was a Cuban man who spoke about his detainment on the base as a period of artistic and personal development![3] He had been on both sides of the fence; surely he had more basis on which to judge both than I did, but I could not resolve his optimism and positivity with what I understood to be the illegality and the moral wrongness of the continued existence of the Guantánamo base. Besides, didn’t he know what the Haitians on the base were going through right around the time he arrived?[4]

I know that people are not history books and their memories are not political statements, but I think that we have a responsibility to challenge understandings of the past that are sanitized or one-sided. This is true of any aspect of world history; but Guantánamo, with its very real fences and borders between Americans and Cubans, between Cubans and Haitians, between HIV-positive and negative people, between soldiers and “terrorists,” illustrates the contradictions of personal memory more acutely than most geographical sites.

Posted by Anasa Hicks—Ph.D. candidate at New York University


[2] Jana Lipman, Guantánamo:  A Working-Class History Between Empire and Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), Chapters 2-3.

[3] Conrado Basulto, “Behind the Cactus Curtain,” University of Miami student film for Guantánamo Public Memory Project, 2012.

[4] Jonathan Hansen. Guantanamo: An American History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011), Chapter  8.

 

 

New York 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.

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5 Comments to: The Politics of Nostalgia

October 10, 2012 5:16 pmleann.do wrote:

Anasa, I especially agree with the final paragraph of your post. I cannot speak for the many others collaborating on this project, but I do feel as if we have been assigned a task to reveal the multiple voices in the history of Guantánamo in a manner that will bring people from awareness to action. As you said, the history of the base is often one-sided and flattened in which the American public in the post 9/11 world considers it a place of detention for “enemy combatants” in the War on Terror. This brings to mind an observation our Museum Studies Practicum class at UC Riverside has made in regards to a Guardian article from 2010 written by Ruth Abram. Abram suggests that Guantánamo be turned into a site of conscience in order to engage the public in discussion of the base’s historic functions and facilitate reflection. (FN 1)

Unfortunately, I fear that your concern of Guantánamo’s history as being short-sighted and media-influenced is proven to some extent in the article’s comments section. I normally do not look for insightful meaning when reading randomly posted and often uninvestigated assertions on the internet, but I think we can at least consider the people of the comments section from Ruth Abram’s piece to be a part (albeit small part) of the public who this project hopes to reach. Not to repost some of the more unpleasant comments made by some, it is reasonable to conclude that many people misinterpreted the term “sites of conscience” and cannot help comparing which sites and/or events in history are more deserving of the public’s attention. Some seem to view it as a place in which such irrefutable acts of evil has taken place that everyone must be made aware so it can never happen again. Therefore, how dare Abram or anyone else suggest that the United States ought to be grouped under this category? Because many people have either subjectively made up their minds about the legitimacy of Guantánamo, it is a daunting task to facilitate questions and discourse about its history while being careful to not openly encourage taking any one side.

I recognize when I must bracket preconceptions and prejudices before coming to a conclusion from a primary or secondary source. You mention your own struggles with seeing the Confederate flag and feelings of self-righteousness in reaction to the experiences of Anita Islom and Conrado Balsuto. People’s interpretations of certain issues are informed by their backgrounds and when memory and nostalgia are added to the mix, it may be difficult to challenge their preconceived notions. Michael Frisch, the American oral historian and promoter of “shared authority” history in which historians and their sources (oftentimes interviewees) work together to produce a narrative, states that “contemporary pressures and sensitivities encourage people to screen their memories in a selective, protective, and above all didactic fashion.” (FN 2) When people recall their memories, something that has been constructed over a period of time to be claimed as part of one’s identity, it is to reinforce a particular self-image. By no means am I advocating that this project’s objective is to completely shatter the carefully constructed conceptions of the Anita Isloms and “kikithefrogs” of the world. But, indeed, we have a responsibility ahead to challenge the public’s awareness of Guantánamo by demonstrating its powerful history.

Leann Do, UC Riverside

[FN1] Ruth Abram, “Turn Guantánamo Bay into a site of conscience,” The Guardian, 29 April 2010, Accessed 2 October 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/libertycentral/2010/apr/29/guantanamo-bay-site-conscience.

[FN2] Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1990), p. 12.

December 6, 2013 5:56 pmcharpentierf wrote:

While listening to the Guantanamo Public Memory Project oral histories, I too was struck by the interviewees who reflected fondly on their time at Guantanamo. In addition to military dependents at Guantanamo prior to the 1990s, as Anasa Hicks points out, Cuban refugee Conrado Basulto also recalled positive aspects of his time spent on the base. In the midst of research on the Haitian Refugee Crisis, particularly reading about heinous conditions and unaccompanied minors, it becomes difficult to comprehend nostalgia for life on the naval base at Guantanamo. However, these seeming contradictions in human experience and memory are what make oral history so meaningful and for that matter, powerful.

In his blog post, Nathaniel Weisenberg notes that “[GPMP] isn’t about glorifying anything. It’s about reflecting that GTMO means different things to different people. It doesn’t mean that we have to agree or sympathize with others, or that we can’t judge them. But we do have to understand that their voices are part of GTMO’s history too.” It can indeed be difficult to comprehend these more positive, and possibly sanitized, reflections on GTMO when faced with overwhelmingly documentation of hardships experienced by Haitian refugees at the base. Yet the vast array of personal experiences that emerge in these oral histories powerfully illustrates how different people can experience a place in an entirely different manner, and how memories differ from individual to individual. The circumstances under which an individual finds themselves at Guantanamo, whether a detained refugee or a military dependent, can alter the Guantanamo Bay each person experienced. What I find most interesting about the narratives compiled by GPMP is the diversity of human experience, and what these drastically different experiences can teach us about one highly contested location in American history.

Faye Charpentier – MA Candidate at Northeastern University

December 11, 2013 7:47 pmpricej wrote:

“You raise a good point about remembering Guantanamo in the 1960s as “a paradise.” Such a memory does overlook the tense and, as you say, “humiliating” relationships between Cubans and American base workers. I do, however, think that factors other than nostalgia may be at work in this case. For Anita Isom, who called Guantanamo “paradise,” Guantanamo was home. She spent her childhood at the base, raised in a culture of fear. She grew up learning a patriotic, anti-Cuban mindset. This is not to say that her vision of the base wasn’t an over-simplified version of reality; it is however to say that childhood impressions are strong. While we learn to question facts as we grow older, we don’t always think to question “facts” or “truths” we have grown up with until we are confronted with an alternative truth.

I think this project is about presenting such alternate views. As your example of the Cuban refugee who saw Guantanamo as a site of personal artistic development proves , Guantanamo means radically different things even to individuals in similar situations. It is also, I think, important to remember that one-sided views do not always represent willful ignorance. Sometimes they simply reflect strong, unquestioned bias based personal experience. And while this does not justify ignorance, acknowledging this fact might provide a better starting point for using oral history to educate and challenge personal beliefs.

December 11, 2013 7:55 pmpricej wrote:

You raise a good point about remembering Guantanamo in the 1960s as “a paradise.” Such a memory does overlook the tense and, as you say, “humiliating” relationships between Cubans and American base workers. I do, however, think that factors other than nostalgia may be at work in this case. For Anita Isom, who called Guantanamo “paradise,” Guantanamo was home. She spent her childhood at the base, raised in a culture of fear. She grew up learning a patriotic, anti-Cuban mindset. This is not to say that her vision of the base wasn’t an over-simplified version of reality; it is however to say that childhood impressions are strong. While we learn to question facts as we grow older, we don’t always think to question “facts” or “truths” we have grown up with until we are confronted with an alternative truth.
I think this project is about presenting such alternate views. As your example of the Cuban refugee who saw Guantanamo as a site of personal artistic development proves , Guantanamo means radically different things even to individuals in similar situations. It is also, I think, important to remember that one-sided views do not always represent willful ignorance. Sometimes they simply reflect strong, unquestioned bias based personal experience. And while this does not justify ignorance, acknowledging this fact might provide a better starting point for using oral history to educate and challenge personal beliefs.

Jillian Price – MA Candidate at Northeastern University

January 27, 2014 11:18 amSarah Hudson wrote:

Is there any danger in fond remembrance? Should people be entitled to interpret their own historical experience? The answer to both questions, I think, is yes.

Memories of Guantanamo Bay as an oasis of “perpetual summer” or as the embarkation point for an artistic odyssey are distinctly different from what HIV-positive Haitian refugees experienced during their Guantanamo imprisonment. Does that difference make the memory of one experience more valid than another? Can we pick and choose which private experiences should become part of the public memory? And who has the right to make such a choice?

People are entitled to their own memories of Guantanamo—to deny people the right to remember their own experience is to stifle their sense of self. But the danger that often lies in fond remembrances is their lack of a broader historical context. As stewards of public memory, public historians in general and those involved with the Guantanamo Public Memory Project in particular, are obliged to facilitate conversations that temper personal experience with factual occurrence—to foster dialogue in order to challenge sanitized or one-sided understandings of the past.

However, no one has the right to invalidate private remembrances of Guantanamo, regardless of how much those reminiscences differ from the memory of the collective. Public and private memory are often distinct from one another; their differences should be recognized but do not have to be reconciled. Public historians must respect that people’s individual experiences—and their interpretations of those experiences—do not always reflect publicly sanctioned memory, and we must create a space for those voices to be heard.

Sarah Hudson – MA Candidate at Northeastern University

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