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.