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  • Technologies of BloodAsylum, Medicine, and Biopolitics
  • Cathy Hannabach (bio)

On September 29, 1991, democratically elected Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in a bloody military-led coup d’état. Fleeing the brutal violence targeting Aristide supporters and members of his leftist political party, Organisation Politique Lavalas (Lavalas Political Organization), several thousand Haitians left their country by boat only to run into another military force: the United States Coast Guard. Requesting asylum from political persecution—a status that would allow them to stay in the United States and be protected by the US government—the Haitian refugees were detained on coast guard vessels while the George H. W. Bush administration debated what to do. The administration did not want to allow them entry into the United States as political refugees but was also bound by the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees to not return asylum seekers with a well-founded fear of persecution to their countries of origin. The Bush administration decided that the best place to detain the refugees while such international legal questions and public relations battles were settled would be the US naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba—a space the administration considered exempt from US immigration, asylum, and constitutional law. Incarcerated in makeshift camps, the refugees were interrogated about their activities in Haiti to determine whether they were under a credible threat of political persecution and were thus eligible to apply for asylum based on one of the five categories recognized by US law: race, nationality, [End Page 22] religion, membership in a particular social group, and political opinion. Those found worthy were subjected to a second round of questioning and a medical exam, including a mandatory blood test. Soon after this testing, several hundred refugees were moved to a separate facility surrounded by razor wire and armed guards. The blood of these refugees had tested positive for HIV, and Camp Bulkeley, where they were detained, was set up as what Michael Ratner calls “the world’s first and only detention camp for refugees with HIV” (1998: 187). Subsequently, the women in that facility who were found to be HIV positive were subjected to forced permanent or semipermanent sterilization (Farmer 2003: 62; Goldstein 2005: 154; Ordover 2003: 181).

In our contemporary moment this incarceration has been all but forgotten, as the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base (GBNB) has become synonymous with the incarceration of a new group of racialized and gendered bodies: those of suspected “terrorists.” Intervening in exceptionalist narratives of the base and US state making that ignore their gendered, racial, and sexual histories, this essay argues that sites and practices of detention have been key in producing the US body politic over the course of the twentieth century, including what is imagined to count as “domestic” and “foreign.” Indeed, as I explore, the penal archipelago linking the GBNB to other spaces of punishment is a crucial legal and medical technology that has helped to construct the boundaries of the US nation-state and its body politic in a transnational frame. While much recent work has impressively articulated the ways that the base is being positioned legally and culturally as a “space of exception” for the purposes of indefinite detention (see, e.g., Kaplan 2005; and McClintock 2009), an examination of this earlier period reveals that this space and the technologies of law and medicine enacted there have a much longer history and are not unique to the contemporary war on terror. In fact, the treatment of the Haitian refugees in the 1990s has been instrumental in enabling twenty-first-century incarceration at the base. Further, their treatment was crucial in overturning the twenty-three-year-old ban on HIV-positive migrants entering the United States, making this 1990s event a vital, if underexamined, node in histories of medical and legal technologies as they shape the production of US national identity.

Toward this end, this article examines the various legal, medical, and cultural technologies that produced these Haitian refugees’ blood—and specifically Haitian women’s blood—as a site of international anxiety over legal sovereignty, biopolitics, and reproductive rights. Technologies here are sites of contestation and struggle, and...


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