Haitian Refugees and the Guantánamo Public Memory Project: Remembering Haitian Refugees

The United States military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, came under scrutiny in the early 1990s when it served as the site of detention for Haitian and Cuban refugees brought there following their interdiction at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard. Typically, after a few months at Guantánamo, Cuban refugees were taken to the U.S. mainland, where they received political asylum because they were seen as refugees fleeing a communist nation. Haitian refugees often languished much longer at Guantánamo, and few were granted asylum in the United States. Most often, Haitians would be repatriated even though they were escaping brutal violence due to political conflict.1 One of the obstacles that Haitian refugees faced was that they systematically were not seen as political refugees in the U.S. asylum process. By allowing a space for Haitian refugee testimony, the Guantánamo Public Memory Project attempts to, among other things, rectify the governmental silencing of Haitian refugee voices and complicate U.S. “public memory” by gathering oral histories of those people who were detained at Guantánamo.2 Individual memory is highly contested: shaped by trauma, language, and the passage of time, the memories archived in this public memory project cannot ever fully capture Haitian refugee experiences at Guantánamo.3 Moreover, refugee testimonies share the same digital space of the project with those who worked at the naval base, whether as U.S. military personnel or as Cuban workers. I examine the Guantánamo Public Memory Project by contrasting the fragmented testimonies of Haitian refugees with the authoritative linear oral history of a U.S. military commander at the Guantánamo military detention center.

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