Issues of Race: Cuban and Haitian Refugees at GTMO

By Rebecca Berg

Camp McCalla, 1991 - two Haitian refugees standing outside port a potties at refugee camp. Courtesy of Carol Halebian, 1991.

Camp McCalla, 1991 – two Haitian refugees standing outside port a potties at refugee camp. Courtesy of Carol Halebian, 1991.

Guantanamo Bay is a naval base that is leased by the U.S. and that has been used since the 1990’s to hold refugees and most recently terrorist suspects (CNN World). Haitian and Cuban refugees in the 1990’s found themselves at Guantanamo Bay for very similar reasons. Refugees of both nationalities set off for America to flee political persecution, violence and retaliation. However, the stories of the Cuban and Haitian refugees differ in the treatment and discrimination they faced on the base. HIV positive Haitians were isolated from the rest of the refugees on the base and were not given the same accommodations as healthy refugees. On average, more Haitian minors reported abusive treatment than Cuban refugees (Landay 2). Many historians blame the unequal treatment of refugees on the history of racism in the U.S. military and government. It is necessary to note the importance race and racial discrimination play in both Haitian and Cuban histories. Both of these countries had their own histories of racism that conditioned the racial discrimination refugees experienced at Guantanamo. Refugees and many outsiders identify Guantanamo with its harsh and unfair treatment of refugees on the base, which ultimately links back to racist ideologies of the U.S. military and government.

Haiti has historically been seen as a nation actively striving for racial integration. The Haitian Revolution resulted in the first postcolonial nation to be established in the Americas by people of African descent (Bebeto 1). The revolution began with a rebellion of African slaves in 1791. Haiti had been the source of half the world’s sugar and coffee supply (Bebeto 1). These rich resources brought more African slaves over to Haiti than many other Latin American countries. These resources during the revolution also meant a disconnection in the system of trade routes, plantations and investments that connected the world for several centuries (Bebeto 1). Today, many outsiders discriminate against Haitians. After the Haitian earthquake in 2010, many international officials tried to prevent Haitian earthquake refugees from entering their countries (Golash-Boza). The Dominican Republic deported over 6,000 Haitians who crossed the border after the earthquake (Pou & Epstein). These Haitian refugees were forced to go back to homes devastated by the earthquake. If Dominican Republic officials thought that someone looked Haitian, that person was immediately placed on the immigration bus and forced back to Haiti without documentation (Pou & Epstein). Haitians believe that the Dominican Republic targets Haitians because of their race. There were over 1 million undocumented Haitians in the country in 2010, which is 10 percent of the population, and about 2,000 more entered after the earthquake (Pou & Epstein). Dominican officials reported that the spillover of Haitian refugees caused crowded hospitals and schools, took jobs away from Dominicans and brought cholera across the border (Pou & Epstein). These Haitian refugees were forced to go back to their country while it was going through a cholera epidemic. Haitians believe that the earthquake allowed Dominicans to racially discriminate because of the natural disaster and the epidemic they were facing (Pou & Epstein).

According to the book, Race in Cuba by Esteban M. Dominquez, the Cuban Revolution made dramatic changes to equality and social justice by outlawing racial discrimination in all areas of life (Dominquez 17). However, Dominquez argues that, although racism is outlawed, it is seen in many aspects of life following the Cuban Revolution (Dominquez 18). Dominquez mentions there is a continuing pattern of “silence” as the new practice of racism in Cuba. It is seen in many forms, including research, media, education, and politics (Dominquez 19). He argues that racism appears daily in the legal system due to the racist attitudes of police (Dominquez 19). This is directly related to the disproportionate rate of incarceration of black people (Dominquez 19). It may seem that racism disappeared after the revolution, but in reality it has not. Racism has remained within the culture, individual mindsets, and several institutions (Dominquez 19). For centuries, blacks have occupied the lowest class in Cuban society: first colonial and then neo-colonial society (Dominquez 19). According to Dominquez, we cannot assume that in less than a century, the black population of Cuba can rise from their situation of living a lower class lifestyle (Dominquez 20). In the 1980’s, Cuba hit an economic downfall, and racism became prominent in society again, in part because the economic shift affected the black communities the most (Dominquez 20). Over the past couple of centuries, lower class citizens have made many advances in society that have lifted them out of poverty and achieved social justice (Dominquez 20). Despite the racism that still exists in Cuban society, Dominquez argues that the black and mulatto population in Cuba is the most educated and well-off group of African Americans in Latin America today (Dominquez 22). He also argues that no country in Latin America has made such efforts to eliminate discrimination in their country as Cuba has (Nimitz & Morlaes 22).

Similar to Cuba and Haiti, the U.S. military has its own cultural understandings and preconceptions of race that fueled a biased treatment of refugees at Guantanamo. Racism in the U.S. military and government is believed to link to the harsh treatment at Guantanamo and the discrimination of Haitian refugees especially. Racism is seen within the U.S. military itself as well as in its ideology and actions of prisoning and killing innocent people. The military was not completely segregated until 1948 (Starnes). Today, the Washington Post reports that 75 percent of African Americans in the U.S. military “complain that they have experienced racially offensive behavior, and less than half expressed confidence that the complaints of discrimination are thoroughly investigated,” (March Forward, Racism in the Military). Around 20 percent of African Americans and 13 percent of Latin Americans have claimed that they have been given minor assignments or mediocre evaluations due to their race (March Forward, Racism in the Military). In general, people of minorities are typically motivated to join the U.S. military because they feel that their ethnicity has a lack of education, jobs and job training, health care, and housing (March Forward, Racism in the Military). Hispanic members of the U.S. military are fighting for a country that is racist towards immigrants, especially from Mexico and Latin America (March Forward, Racism in the Military).

Race within the U.S. military became very prominent at the start of World War II. Segregation in everyday life at this time was reflected in the military as well. Most African Americans serving at the beginning of the war held duties such as maintenance, transportation and labor-intensive work (Taylor). They were never assigned to work on the front lines (Taylor). The air force and the marines had no African Americans enlisted in their forces (Taylor). Military leaders believed African Americans did not have the physical, mental or moral character to be on the frontline (Taylor). African Americans saw the draft as an opportunity to show that they are just as patriotic and prove they deserve equal rights.

Racism was also seen in the ideas and actions held by the U.S. military and government. After the Japanese navy attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, it set off an intense and extreme movement of racism amongst the U.S., especially the government and military (Daniels). Immediately following the attack, the U.S. military and government assumed that Japanese Americans would automatically support Japan rather than the U.S. in the war (Daniels). The U.S. military suspected that Japanese Americans were used as spies so the U.S. decided to punish the entire Japanese American population (Daniels). Due to racist ideas and discrimination the U.S. military revoked the rights of Japanese Americans, two-thirds of which were U.S. citizens (Daniels). In total, 112,000 Japanese Americans were sent to prison camps (Daniels). These camps were surrounded by barbed wire and the Japanese lived poorly in overcrowded barracks with no running water and poor sanitation (Daniels). No U.S. citizen or alien of Japanese decent was found guilty of being a spy or sabotaging the U.S. (Daniels). The prison camps were purely an act of racism, wartime panic and discrimination towards Japanese Americans. Racial discrimination against the Japanese Americans during World War II compares to the discrimination of Haitian refugees at Guantanamo. All refugees of Japanese, Haitian and Cuban decent were isolated behind barbed wires and given limited rights for unjust reasons. Refugees of all three decants were victimized for belonging to a specific race even if they were innocent of all actions.

Treatment of refugees at Guantanamo was partially determined by the color of the refugees’ skin. Havana, the capital of Cuba, is thought of as European, meaning that those living in Havana and the surrounding areas are often seen as more European and “white” (Latin American Newstand The Christian Science Publishing Society). Haiti has a larger number of people of African-descent and is typically perceived as more “African” than Cubans are (Latin American Newstand The Christian Science Publishing Society).

There was a clear and defined difference between the ways Haitian and Cuban refugees were treated on the base. Haitians were suspicious that Cubans were receiving better treatment and were more likely to be sent to the U.S. More Haitians were forced to return to Haiti than Cubans forced to return to Cuba (Landay 1). Cuban camps were provided with basic amenities such as clean running water, showers, recreational facilities and constant food deliveries (Landay 1). Not all Haitian refugee camps were provided with these amenities. Within a two-week span in 1994, 4,400 Haitians were forced to return home (Landay 1).

“We’ve been telling the Haitians all along, ‘Look, your option is to stay in safe haven status or go back to Haiti,”‘ said Maj. Rick Thomas, a spokesman for the joint military task force overseeing the camps, in a telephone interview (Sciolino). Haitians were not given the equal opportunity to go to the U.S. as Cubans were. The U.S. military was investigated for abusing Haitian minor refugees (Landay 2). Haitian children were complaining about being abused by U.S. soldiers until eventually investigations were done. A handful of Haitian children refugees reported that their hands and feet were handcuffed and they were forced to lie down on dirt as soldiers stepped on their backs (Landay 2). Another child reported that this happen to him because he wiped his face on a cloth hanging from the barbed wire (Landay 2). It took months until serious and professional investigations were done on these soldiers (Landay 2). One fourteen-year-old Haitian girl reported that she attempted suicide on the base and was denied prompt medical care (Landay 2). Cuban minors did not report such abusive behavior or delayed medical care as Haitians did.

Non-working bathroom at Camp Bulkeley, taken 12.13.92. Courtesy of Carol Halebian.

Non-working bathroom at Camp Bulkeley, taken 12.13.92. Courtesy of Carol Halebian.

As Haitians entered Guantanamo they were given health examinations in which included a HIV test. Over two hundred and sixty Haitians were tested positive for HIV and were segregated in Camp Bulkel (Field, Public Memory Project). When AIDS was emerging as a new and mysterious disease, the CDC categorized Haitians as one of the top four high-risk groups (Paik 7). This was the first time in modern history that a disease was associated with a specific nation and its population (Paik 7). Haitians consisted of the only high-risk group whose risk was defined by the ethnicity of a population (Paik 7). As a result, the U.S. government and military associated HIV with Haitians and therefore racially discriminated against the Haitian refugees (Paik 7).

Haitians described Camp Bulkely as unsanitary. They were denied clean water and were immobilized (Field, Public Memory Project). According to Naomi Paik, The U.S. treated these refugees as “right-less subjects” (Paik 8). Those infected with HIV were not recognized as socially equal to other refugees (Paik 8). Paik states, “Instead they were treated as sources of pollution and objects of punitive practices that imprisoned and excluded them from human community,” (Paik 8). The HIV victims fled their own home because of political upheaval and when they arrived at Guantanamo they had no government to protect their rights (Paik 8). They were like exiles because they belonged to no specific country.

Many families were separated because of Camp Bulkely. Those who were isolated were not given updates of their family members who came to Guantanamo with them (Rohter 1). One mother was not told until five months later that her nine-year old son was sent to the U.S. by himself (Field, Public Memory Project). In 1993, under President Clinton, U.S. Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act in which prevented any HIV positive Haitians to enter U.S. territory (Rohter 1).

Camp Bulkely brings up a debate about the U.S. government role in public health and individual rights. AIDS/HIV activists argued that Camp Bulkeley and the isolation of HIV refugees in Guantanamo was part of a movement to educate the public about HIV (Field, Public Memory Project) However, Haitians as well as many Americans argued that this act was just a way of isolating Haitian refugees and keeping them out of the U.S. (Paik 8). HIV patients were not given much information about their own health status (Field, Public Memory Project). Many Haitians started to believe that they were not actually sick and that Camp Bulkley was just an excuse for the U.S. to isolate a large portion of Haitian Refugees (Field, Public Memory Project). Bob Brutus, a Haitian refugee who tested positive for HIV spoke out and said, “Being sick is not a crime. We have done nothing to deserve this treatment. They’ve kept us in prison for nothing” (Field, Public Memory Project).

Refugees set up sheets inside tents to give privacy, Camp Bulkeley 12.13.92. Courtesy of Carol Halebian.

Refugees set up sheets inside tents to give privacy, Camp Bulkeley 12.13.92. Courtesy of Carol Halebian.

Another Haitian refugee said, “They tell me that I have the virus, but they offer no proof. The first thing I am going to do is see a doctor and find out the truth,” (Field, Public Memory Project). HIV positive Haitian refugees were furious by the way they were treated. Many of these refugees protested by burning building, throwing stones at the camp guards, and going on a hunger strike (Field, Public Memory Project). These refugees strongly believed that Camp Bulkley was just a way for the U.S. government to isolate a group of refugees and prolong them from entering U.S. territory.

Race and racism has been a prominent idea throughout Cuban and Haitian histories is the base for why they are still discriminated against today. In the long journey to reach the U.S., a land in which was believed to be full of opportunities, refugees faced racial discrimination at Guantanamo Bay. Haitians especially were profiled for their darker color skin and for being infected with HIV. Cubans were in general given better treatment. More Haitian minor refugees reported being abused on the base. The underlying drive behind racial discrimination at Guantanamo traces back to the U.S. military and government. The U.S. military and government have a long history of racist ideologies and actions. The idea of racial segregation and discrimination on the base brings up the question as to whether the time spent at Guantanamo was really worthwhile for refugees. Some refugees believed that it was not worth their time because they escaped the persecution in their home countries only to come to Guantanamo and be persecuted again. Others believed their time at Guantanamo was worth it because they were eventually welcomed into the U.S. and given the freedom they would not have experienced in their home country.


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