- 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.
The Haitian American siblings Natalie and Gregory Beaubrun offer testimonies to their childhood experiences of becoming boat refugees seeking asylum in the United States in 1994. Their segment, titled “memories of remembering,” demonstrates the fractures surrounding their distant memories. Gregory recalls moments of the precarious sea journey and the violence that his family experienced in Haiti, and Natalie’s recollections focus mostly on a book about her family, A Haitian Family, that she encountered when it was assigned reading in her U.S. elementary classroom. The book is a kind of anthropological text meant to educate U.S. schoolchildren about Haitian refugees; as such, it holds a powerful textual authority endorsed by the U.S. education system. Natalie recalls, “It feels weird that everybody is telling your history and you don’t even know about it?” She later declares, “I don’t have memory about it, but reading it . . . I put myself there, too.” Discovering a version of her [End Page 555] family’s life represented in the book forced Natalie to see her family through American eyes. Her statement reveals how memory is as much about what has been recorded textually as it is about lived experience.
Visitors to the Guantánamo Public Memory Project website do not see the brother and sister giving their testimony but only hear them. Visitors instead see a video of white/light-skinned hands flipping through A Haitian Family. The video emphasizes the narrative authority that the book holds over the Beaubruns’ identity, as we hear Gregory speaking of his memories of not wanting to reveal his Haitian identity in the United States because of the discrimination against Haitians.
The Guantánamo Public Memory Project also presents the oral history of U.S. Brigadier General George Walls, the first commander in charge of the camp for Haitian refugees at Guantánamo (1991–92). Unlike the Beaubrun siblings, he authoritatively narrates his recollection of the past. Memory becomes attached to this authority. For example, Walls remembers the Haitian refugees’ request for art supplies. As he speaks of the plethora of art created by the refugees, it becomes clear that art was a form of testimony in the camps. While he condescendingly speaks off-camera of the “gratitude” of Haitian refugees—even those who were repatriated by the U.S. Coast Guard—viewers see an animation of Dronette Albert’s painting Situation Haı¨tiens Gtmo Cuba that was given to Walls...