Guantánamo Public Memory Project

The Importance of Knowing Your “Enemy”

When we reflect upon the Cold War at Guantánamo it is easy to focus on tensions on the global stage. We often forget that there were Americans and Cubans at the site who were living out these tensions in their daily lives. Although Cuba and the United States were openly hostile to each other, the military dependents that lived on the US naval station at Guantánamo Bay reveal through their stories that some of them had close relationships with Cubans who lived locally, especially those that worked on the base. The relationships that Navy dependents formed with Cubans allowed them to view Cubans as individuals and not as part of a group of hated enemies. Knowing base workers also helped these dependents understand that Cubans were individual people that had political and social agency––many of whom actively resisted Castro’s revolution and preferred to live on U.S. territory.

American and Cuban friends at dining room table. Naval Station. Guantanamo Bay Cuba. 1961-1963. Owned and Provided by Frances Matlock.

Cuban base workers suffered numerous indignities – from strip searches conducted by the American side to the reduction of their pay via the Cuban government’s requirement that base workers trade their U.S. dollars for pesos. Some Cuban families, however, used their precarious existence on the border of a global conflict to better the lives of their children. Jan Arguelles Spencer was a dependent who lived on the base from 1966-1968. In an interview that I recorded with her in September 2012, she noted that, interestingly, a few of her classmates were Cuban refugees who had been adopted by American families. One of her classmates, Bart, was sent by his family at an early age to swim to GTMO – possibly on his own – in the hopes that he would have a better life than the one he might have in Cuba. Having Cuban classmates exposed base dependents to Cuban culture and illustrated that the Cuban people and the Cuban government were separate entities. Another way that students at W. T. Sampson School were exposed to Cuban culture was through a play that they performed, in Spanish, for the Cuban base workers in their community. The thought of a group of American students performing for Cubans, despite the dark cloud of global conflict hanging over everyone in the room, is particularly touching.

We can learn something from the cultural encounters between Cubans and Americans in Guantánamo; namely, that it is important to view them as individual citizens of the country and the government that rules them. When we encounter Afghani immigrants in our community, or when a U.S. soldier encounters an Iraqi family as they fight overseas, we should not assume that they represent anyone other than themselves. The War on Terror has shown us that it is often easier to demonize those who appear to be on the other side of a conflict than it is to get to know them as an individual. We forget that there are people caught in the middle of these conflicts who do not neatly fit into one side or the other; in doing so we dehumanize everyone, including ourselves.

Posted by Brandie Cline – M.A. Candidate at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

The University of North Carolina at Greensboro 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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2 Comments to: The Importance of Knowing Your “Enemy”

November 15, 2012 3:29 amMichael Jordan wrote:

Two of the greatest barriers to peace and recognition of human rights are ignorance and misunderstanding. Too often we hear unfair characterizations of “Muslims” or “illegal immigrants” that simply spread misinformation and fear. As Brandie Cline points out, Cubans during the Cold War were largely cast as Communist subversives, and even those workers who had been at Guantanamo for years were suddenly viewed with suspicion. It’s a cliché saying, but we would all be better off if we tried to get to know one another before jumping to conclusions. As Cline observes, the Americans living on Guantanamo who developed relationships with the Cuban workers there had a very different perspective on “Cubans” than Americans living in the US. For every radical, extremist terrorist shown on television there are thousands more who are peaceful practitioners of their religion unfairly lumped together as the “enemy”.

People often have the same desires in life, happiness and prosperity chief among them. The Communist leaders in Cuba believed themselves to be fighting for a more just society following years of dictatorship and vast landed inequality (in part maintained by the disproportionate dominance of US sugar companies on the island and US support of said dictators). While one might disagree with their means of addressing those inequities, a more fruitful discussion is one that addresses those elements that drove them to revolution and communism. What drive extremists in the Middle East today?

By asking those questions of what motivates individual action and by placing ourselves in the shoes of the people we too often demonize, we might realize that we are not so different. We must abandon the saying, “If you aren’t with us, then you’re against us,” and presuming that our way of governance and economy are the best for the rest of the world. If we truly want to spread democracy and self-sovereignty we cannot mandate adherence to our way of doing things. We shouldn’t abandon peoples suffering oppression, but we also shouldn’t presume to be world police. The United Nations and coordinated international efforts that benefit from a variety of perspectives should protect human rights worldwide. We should “know our enemy” as Cline notes, but also take a good look at ourselves and how our policies affect other nations.

Michael Jordan, M.A. Candidate at New York University

December 14, 2012 10:52 amNick Gleason wrote:

I was at Guantanamo aboard a US Navy ship during the missel crisis. At anchor aboard ship I rigged anti swimmer lights around the hull while the deck crew walked the deck perimeter carring loaded m-1’s. At night all the lights did was attract tarpon to the bait fish attracted to the lights. We tried unsuccessfully to catch a tarpon; it was great fun. Ashore on the base it was dull, nothing to do but drink. I remember the 100’s of Cubans who would walk the boardwalk from town to work on base. On one occasion, i and a group of shipmates were walking a boardwalk near where the Cubans passed on their boardwalk on their daily trek to the base. Several Cubans asked us to exchange Cuban dollars for US dollars. I was the only sailor that day who exchanged money through the fence separating us. A Cuban woman gave me one of her dollars for one of mine. I still have and cherish that dollar. My shipmates said i would get in trouble doing that, however, i said that she needs the dollar more than I. I never got in trouble for doing that. Those Cuban workers were nice people.

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