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.
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.