History is repeating itself at Guantánamo Bay

History is repeating itself at Guantánamo Bay.

The detainees there today are not the first to be held indefinitely there, nor are they the first to stage a hunger strike to protest their detention.

Twenty years ago today, Haitian refugees were released following a hunger strike and Gitmo was closed. Crews began dismantling camps that had been holding people at Gitmo indefinitely outside of U.S. law.

“We are celebrating,” said camp leader Michel Vilsaint at the time, “because the U.S. is finally showing it is a democracy.”

Haitian refugees provide critical lesson

How was Gitmo closed before?  And how did it re-open so soon?  The current debate in congress over “closing Guantanámo” leaves the place wide open for future uses:  It focuses on the current detainees, but does not address the government’s right to indefinitely detain people there.

Last week the House of Representatives made this explicit, voting to allow the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens, if they are deemed a threat.

The story of Haitian refugees at Gitmo – and our failure to remember it — provides critical lessons for the struggle to close Guantánamo today.

In 1991, thousands of Haitians who had supported deposed Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide took to the sea to escape persecution from the new regime.  Some 34,000 were rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard and sent to GTMO – a space outside U.S. law designed for 5000 people.  Seeking freedom and sanctuary, their first encounter with America was being held behind barbed wire, under armed guard, in hastily-constructed tent cities never meant to hold so many people for so long.

As the months wore on, hurricanes swept some to their deaths; sanitary conditions grew atrocious.

A threat to public health and safety

For the George H.W. Bush Administration, Haitians posed a threat to both politics and public health.  Admitting such a large number of immigrants could cause native backlash; and Haitians had been unscientifically associated with HIV.  Gitmo’s legal ambiguity allowed the government to hold them there indefinitely while their asylum cases were reviewed, and while they were tested for HIV.

The vast majority were returned to Haiti, their asylum cases denied.  By July 1992, only 233 remained, trapped in a legal limbo.  Cleared for entry into the U.S., they tested positive for HIV – or had a family member there who did – and were therefore barred from entering by a recent law prohibiting HIV+ immigrants.  With nowhere to go, these detainees faced an indefinite stay at Gitmo.

In protest, the remaining Haitian refugees started a hunger strike in January 1993.  At great personal sacrifice, they captured the attention of the world.  ACT-UP and others organized a stateside social movement, including protests outside the UN.  GTMO swarmed with media, and national leaders like Jesse Jackson took on the fight.

At the same time, a grinding legal battle was being fought on behalf of the detainees. On June 8, 1993, a team of human rights lawyers and Yale University law students – led by Harold Koh, now legal advisor to the Obama State Department — scored a major victory, when U.S. District Court Judge Sterling Johnson condemned the detention program as “nothing more than an HIV prison camp.”  Within weeks the newly-installed Clinton administration – which campaigned on closing the camp, but then defended its right to keep it open – closed the camp and transferred the detainees to the U.S.

But closing the camp did not close off Gitmo as a space to hold people indefinitely outside U.S. law.  Clinton’s Justice Department had the Haitian court decision vacated, so that it could not act as a precedent in future cases.  While the individuals were freed, the government maintained its right to hold others in their place.

‘Legal black hole’

The 1903 lease that created Guantánamo’s “legal black hole” is also indefinite.  It grants Cuba total sovereignty, but the U.S. “total jurisdiction and control” – creating a space where neither country’s laws clearly apply – until both countries agree to terminate it.

Just one year after Camp Bulkeley was closed, 30,000 Cuban refugees were detained at another Gitmo facility, while President Clinton renegotiated longstanding Cuban immigration policy.  In 1999, Clinton ordered 20,000 Kosovar refugees transported to Gitmo.  Policymakers and advocates who remembered the Haitian and Cuban experiences stopped the plan.  But today, new facilities to house a potential 25,000 refugees were recently completed.

The history of Gitmo’s previous detainees is well within recent memory.  While post-9-11 evidence has been closely guarded, there has been no systematic effort to silence Gitmo’s refugee stories.  Rather, there has been a broad public failure – by policymakers and voters alike — to remember Guantánamo.  Only by remembering Guantánamo can we imagine the possibilities for its future – and responsibly shape what happens next.

Liz Sevcenko, Director, Guantanamo Public Memory Project, Columbia University. And Garry Pierre-Pierre is the executive director of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism’s Center for Community and Ethnic Media and a former NYT reporter

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