It is perhaps fitting that this post is being written on the day memorialized as the “discovery” of the New World by Christopher Columbus. The celebration of Columbus’ landing has less to do with historical truth and is, instead, an essential cornerstone in the construction of the narrative of American exceptionalism. Haitian scholar Michael-Rolph Trouillot, in his seminal work Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1997), prefers to use the term “Castillian invasion of the Bahamas” as opposed to “discovery” when referring to Columbus’ voyage. His decision to rephrase the event resonates with his firm belief that “names set up a field of power,” often concealing a particular political purpose.
In a similar vein, we learned in our reading of Amy Kaplan’s “Where is Guantánamo?” that there was a serious debate within U.S. Courts on whether to term the thousands of Haitians fleeing their country, after the 1991 coup deposed Aristide’s democratically elected government, as either economic or political refugees. Legally conceptualizing the Haitian “boat people” simply as seeking economic opportunity in the U.S. abjures the federal government from responsibilities to harbor political refugees as stipulated by the 1951 Geneva Convention. Despite overwhelming evidence from media reports and other sources of political repression occurring in the post-Aristide military regime, the U.S. judiciary system placed most fleeing Haitians under the category of economic refugees. This allowed the INS to more quickly process Haitians placed in GTMO and, in spite of protests from detained Haitians fearing violent reprisal, send them back to Port-Au-Prince. The ability to categorize, exclude and apply a generalized condition to a group of people is directly tied in to power relations and reflects the politics of empire. Additionally, the blanket depiction of Haitians as purely economic refugees flat-out denies or, rather, silences the legitimacy of the experience of pro-Aristide refugees fleeing Haiti out of fear and suffering.
When we first began researching our topic, the other four members of our group and I were unaware that GTMO was once used as a politically ambiguous holding center for thousands of Haitian refugees and, for a much longer period of time, the several hundred of those refugees found to be HIV-positive. Our group’s first ideas on how to depict the situation of Haitian refugees in GTMO, more or less, mirrored the narrative I’ve provided in the above paragraphs- one focused on the fierce, imperialist streak in U.S. policy and the various silences produced thereof. In doing so, however, we realized we’d be creating a different set of silences that critically neglects the experience and voices of different groups of Haitians detained at GTMO. Motivated by Trouillot’s expressed purpose in writing Silencing the Past to “trace the lines of power,” we found it beneficial to not only tell a story of Haitians being excluded and dehumanized by the U.S. but also one that illuminates struggle and protest from Haitians confined within the boundaries of Camp Bulkeley. To highlight resistance is, in a sense, a very small yet significant way to counter narratives provided from the standpoint of an oppressor and, hopefully, fill in silenced gaps. One of the most daunting challenges of our project, though, is finding oral accounts from Haitians in our local community associated in some way to the detention of refugees held in GTMO.
Posted by Emilio Gae Leanza, 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.