Before I was introduced to this project, I knew very little about the historical circumstances surrounding the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay (GTMO). I was aware of its location in Cuba and connection to the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, but understood next to nothing about the site’s legacy of political and military intermittence. This perspective, I quickly realized, is important for me to keep in mind when approaching the Guantánamo Public Memory Project. And now that I know more, the piece that resonates with me the most is the vast array of differing roles people played at the base, and how those roles affect their personal narratives. For example, in her memoir Memories of Guantanamo Bay 1960-1962, Janet Miller, the wife of a soldier stationed at GTMO in the early 1960s, recalls the place in terms of her domestic routine, failing marriage, and efforts to aid Cubans. Her reaction forms a single thread in the wider storyline: a U.S. civilian’s bittersweet reminiscences of a paradise corrupted. On the other hand, Sergio Lastres, an artist and former Cuban refugee, remembers his experience with GTMO in an entirely different way during an interview at the University of Miami. His reflection is based on an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty and physical turmoil in the base, which was not prepared to house thousands of refugees. These feelings, Elizabeth Campisi argues in her PhD dissertation entitled Guantanamo: Trauma, Culture and the Cuban Rafter Crisis 1994-1996, created a traumatic event in his memory and post-traumatic narrative.
Both of these differing cases serve to demonstrate the countless vested interests in a holistic portrayal of Guantanamo’s past, present, and significance. The issue of roles and perspective seems an obvious one, but I believe it illuminates many aspects of GTMO’s history and contemporary dialogue surrounding the Public Memory Project. Clearly, the existence of disparate experience reflects on the role of the place itself: constantly in flux, taking on new meanings for different groups, and moving in and out of the media spotlight accordingly. For many young people in New York, whose background on Guantanamo is probably similar to mine, these accounts can help historicize the events after 9/11. Furthermore, perspectives in general can teach much about the benefit of stepping into another’s shoes and the personal side of history, which is never absolute.
I believe the greatest potential of interpreting this history at Guantánamo is related to methods of learning. In my opinion, connecting the roles we play in our lives with those at GTMO is an extremely effective way to feel more invested in the material. What would we have done in their situation, and how does that translate to our understanding of memory? However, this desire to highlight the experiences of many individuals and events can be a negative as well, because there will inevitably be those that feel undercut. There is also a danger in losing sight of the whole by focusing too closely on the specific. Nevertheless, the first step in overcoming these challenges is recognizing their existence, and I believe, in the end, this project will emerge as intellectually stimulating and emotionally powerful.
Posted by Max Staudacher – M.A. Candidate at New York University