The history of American involvement in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba is long and fantastically complex – based on numerous conversations I have had in recent weeks, much more so than most people realize. Over the past month, my personal knowledge of Guantánamo Bay has grown exponentially, and I know it will continue to do so the more I delve into accounts and discussions of this history.
On the most basic level, I have been inundated with facts and figures: about the different facades Guantánamo Bay has assumed over the past century, the number of Cuban Balseros who passed through on their journey stateside, the details of the lease that allows US occupation of the space – the list can go on. But that’s me, a student in a class dedicated to deconstructing and understanding this history. What does the average person know about Guantánamo Bay and its history, and where do these facts come from?
Most people I have spoken with know of Guantánamo Bay primarily as the site of the post-9/11 war on terrorism’s detention center for enemy combatants. The much larger pre-9/11 history continues to be shadowed by the stream of news reports about the Guantánamo of today, signified by the use of the acronym GTMO. Even when more facts are available, how often do we take them at face value, not bothering to question their origin or larger significance? It is easy to overlook the inherent subjectivity of narratives, both historic and contemporary; often the facts that build up these narratives may not truly be “facts,” as we understand them to be. Regardless of time or place, narratives are built on accepted paradigms and facts become malleable, reshaped to fit as needed.
One of the challenges we face in organizing an exhibit about the history of Guantánamo Bay, then, is making the facts of this history more than just straight facts and figures for the public. The question for our exhibit is two-fold: how do we get the story of Guantánamo Bay across to our audience in a digestible, coherent way, and how do we make the multitude of facts that construct our narrative mean something? How can we use the facts to engage our audience, to encourage them to question the narratives they are being told (even by us)? Facts need to be interrogated, stories need to be doubted, in order to make them a viable force of social significance.
Posted by Kelly Gauvin – M.A. Candidate, New York University
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.