Gitmo Actually Was a Prison Camp Before

Haitian refugee camp at Guantanamo

Historian Jonathan M. Hansen has a unique and wonderfully written piece today in the New York Times about Guantánamo — the base itself, not the terror-war prison camp. In it, he reminds us of the century-long imperialist project just a puddle-jumper ride from Miami, planned from the start as an evisceration of Cuban sovereignty. From the time McKinley stole the War for Cuban Independence from the revolutionaries who had almost won against the Spanish (we call it the “Spanish-American War”) the US sought to actually strong-arm Cuba into asking for full annexation — a “choice” Washington didn’t even bother extending to Puerto Rico and many other former Spanish possessions.

Hansen, author of a book on the base, Guantánamo: An American History, makes the argument that the US should finally hand GTMO back to Cuba and be done with it. This might even help relations between our countries — this of course naively assumes Washington operates in good faith in such matters. There’s nothing objectionable, but I do find it odd that neither in this piece nor in all the “Tenth Anniversary” articles on terror-Gitmo I have seen, the base’s immediately previous existence was a de facto prison camp.

I am old enough to remember when Guantánamo was where the Coast Guard held Cuban and Haitian refugees who tried to make the marine dash to Florida, but didn’t quite make it.

Reagan established the refugee center to throw away Haitians after it was decided “too many” were making it to the US and staying. In 1994, when Fidel Castro told Cubans they would not be stopped if they wanted to leave the island, thousands of rafters streamed toward Florida. Clinton ordered those apprehended sent to Guantánamo.

In this 1994 Philadelphia Inquirer piece, the miserable daily life of some forty thousand people, about two-thirds Cuban, the rest Haitian, is detailed. They couldn’t go home; they weren’t allowed in the US despite that many had relatives in Florida willing to help them on this side of the Straits. By 1995, the Haitians had gone home after the US reinstalled Aristide as president; by 1996, the Cubans were allowed into the US after months of lobbying from influential Cuban-Americans.

It’s perfectly consistent that the Bush administration would choose Gitmo as a prison camp for its uniquely limbo-like legal qualities. But it seems equally likely Rumsfeld would have valued the base staff’s previous two decades of practice on refugees.

10 thoughts on “Gitmo Actually Was a Prison Camp Before”

  1. [Hansen] makes the argument that the US should finally hand GTMO back to Cuba and be done with it.

    Even if this were to ever happen (which we know it won't), I can only imagine what kind of condition the land is in after over a century of Amerikan "stewardship." The phrase "environmentalist's nightmare" comes readily to mind. I would hope too that the Cubans ever do reclaim what has always rightfully been theirs that they have a crack minesweeping contingent on hand. It will certainly be needed to clean up all of the "gifts" that they' would find embedded in the waters and strips of land bordering one of Pax Americana's longest-held imperial possessions.

  2. The 1994 GTMO excursion was called Operation Sea Signal and involved all five branches (JTF-160). I was at the Cuban camps – we Marines mostly did external security – walking around the concertina wire or standing in a guard tower. The Army would do internal security – say if there was a problem like a fight they would go in and sort things out. When we arrived we carried M16's initially and were told not to speak to the refugees – but after our first initial 'riot' where we suited up in riot gear and were marched to the outside of one camp with our empty M16's, well, the Cubans knew and we knew there was no way we were going to shoot them. Our CO later had us trade out our rifles for nightsticks, the Cubans seemed to respect them more but what they respected the most was when the Army MP's would bring in the German Shepherds to, say, stop a beatdown of a refugee by other refugees.

    Now the camp that we guarded was mostly young males with a few females. This never made sense [my guess would be 50:1 or so]. They finally did get the phones – they were right outside the entrance.

    An interesting thing was that we had the same living conditions and we lived across the dirt road the the camp: Same GP-tents (no A/C – the sides roll-up), same food, MRE's, same cots, rows of Port-a-Pottys. …all except for the concertina wire. A few who escaped decided that running through cactus at night in flip-flops, shorts and a tank-top was not a good idea and snuck back in – the Army guys would sometimes rush in making a show of looking for the guy – but it's relatively easy to disappear at night in a camp of 1000-2000.

    Last few anecdotes:

    A higher up decided we Marines weren't viewed too humanitarian-ly so it was arranged for us to take a tour of Camp Bravo, the family camp. We finally interacted with the families and later back at Camp November (the mostly male camp) I got to talking with a group who had gathered at a chainlink fence – we traded pics of g/f's and talked about America ('Chicago's near Miami, right?').

    According to memory, GTMO is surrounded by *our* minefield and then Cuba's minefield.

    During one our 'get to know your refugees' classes, an old guy was presented and told his story: he was in the freakin' U.S. Army in the late '50's and decided to go back to Cuba to visit relatives – Castro put him in prison and had him tortured for years – his arm was gnarled from a badly-healed fracture. To top it off, he showed us his *dogtags*.

    Anyway, it's good to know most of them were allowed in in '96 – I didn't know that.

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