Guantánamo Public Memory Project

Guantánamo the Eye Opener

In 1971, war broke out in South Asia. East Pakistan struggled to break away from its Western counterpart and become a separate entity, but lacked the resources to do so. India was caught in the crossfire, geographically and quite literally as it bore the brunt of East Pakistan’s weakness – its refuges flocked to India’s bordering states. India not only granted these refuges asylum, but also set to battle against West Pakistan by providing East Pakistan with economic and military support, which eventually led to its victory and the creation of the independent state of Bangladesh.

A Haitian refugee and US soldier meet at the holding camps at Guantánamo. Photo courtesy of Merrill Smith.

A Haitian refugee and US soldier meet at the holding camps at Guantánamo. Photo courtesy of Merrill Smith.

What connection does this event have to Guantanamo? Not much, but having grown up in India with little exposure to the Guantanamo ordeal, I find it to be a useful point of comparison to help put Guantanamo’s refugees, the Cuban Independence war and most importantly the US’s reactions into perspective. More than teaching me about Guantanamo, the readings I have done for this project have made me see the US in a different light. Guantanamo is an example of the US’s hypocrisy, in contrast to the image of the benevolent superpower which it portrays to the the world. It attests to the concept of “American Exceptionalism” that scholars talk about, where the laws that apply to everyone else, which the US itself enforces, don’t apply to it.

Unlike the US, India is a developing country, with a GDP per capita 1/11th that of the US. But in 1971, it housed 10 million refugees in 800 camps from East Pakistan, and helped the country achieve freedom without stealing any credit for it.  On the other hand, the US fought “the Spanish War” not so much to aid the Cubans, who were already on the path to victory, but more to further its own economic interests in the Caribbean. It gave the Cuban rebels no credit for the victory, but instead saw them as forever indebted to the US for its help.

When it comes to the refugee influx that began in the 1900s, the first world nation of America wasn’t half as gracious as India was, especially in the case of the Haitian refugees.  Thus the naval base of Guantanamo, strategically located, grew in eminence, as it turned into a detention space for all the refugees that the US caught sailing around its shores, attempting to get to Florida’s coast.

Why did the US not want to even entertain the idea of allowing these refugees, specifically the Haitian ones, into its borders? In trying to answer this question, I was able to understand a lot about the significance of Guantanamo bay. Race could have been a factor – the US did want these dark skinned “boat people” entering its shores, but at the same time it welcomed the Cubans, who were of the same race, with open arms. The fact that many Haitians tested HIV positive may have also been a reason – a way for the US, as it would explain, to keep this lethal, little understood disease literally at bay.

The lawless land of Guantamo seemed an ideal location for the US to illegally detain a group of innocent people on the basis of their race and illness. It granted Cubans the status of refugees, because doing so helped insulate the Cuba from the US’ foremost enemy—communism. It didn’t need to take such precautions for Haiti, where the US itself had set up a puppet government. Thus granting Haitians the status of political refugees would equal admitting its own failure to put Haiti in safe hands.

I found the US’ categorization of Haitians as “economic refugees” particularly interesting, since their poor economic status was linked to poor political governance by president Duvalier. Furthermore, it was interesting to learn how the US chose which laws applied to it and when, as per its convenience. For instance, the Geneva Convention states that if one is sick, one is allowed refuge in a country. But the US, its signatory, was not willing to allow the Haitians and their “contagion”, set foot in its land, thus turning Guantanamo into “nothing more than an HIV prison camp.” Guantanamo was a place where detainees lacked both positive and negative freedoms; they neither had access to the rights of the US constitution, since the US did not see Guantanamo as part of its territory, nor those ordained by international law, because the US conveniently chose not to grant those to them.

One could argue, as some newspaper propaganda does, that the US took this harsh stance against the Haitian refugees for the sake of its own people – their entry would have led to a reallocation of resources away from US citizens. But the US is a land of immigrants—it is a new world, a melting pot, composed of and made successful by the hard work of “refugees” from all over the world. Far from tackling the Haitian refugee crisis in Guantanamo, one that it was responsible for creating, the US ignored it, and exploited Guantanamo’s ambiguous status to torture an entire race of people. If a country like India, which is still tackling with problems of overpopulation, poverty and corrupt governance, and struggling daily to meet the needs of its own people, could grant asylum to desperate refugees in need of political and economic stability, there is no reason why the US, a world superpower, could and should not have done so.

Ria Mirchandani is an Undergraduate Student at Brown University

Brown 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.


Creative: Picture Projects & Tronvig Group