The Legacy of Guantánamo
Annette Baptiste* still cries when she thinks about what the United States did to her ten years ago on its Naval Base in Guantánamo, Cuba. Sitting in her Brooklyn apartment, she recalls how the United States detained her and 276 fellow Haitians in the Alcatraz of refugee camps, imprisoning them for some eighteen months simply because they, or their loved ones, had HIV. "I relive Guantánamo every day," she says in Creole. "It's all in my head."
Guantánamo is also in Pierre Avril's* head, say the friends who looked after him in the United States. Avril was just 14 when he arrived at Guantánamo, and the trauma of the experience--the fear, the uncertainty, the stigma--left permanent damage. Today he is once again in detention, this time in a psychiatric correctional facility in upstate New York.
Joel Saintil* never even had the luxury of post-traumatic stress. He died just days after he was freed from the camp, at the age of 26. For months, human rights attorneys had begged the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to send Saintil and other gravely ill Haitians for treatment in the United States, but the agency had refused until a federal district court judge ordered the sickest released. Saintil was flown to his father's house in Florida, but it was already too late. He became one of the camp's first casualties.
This June marked the tenth anniversary of the closing of the Guantánamo HIV Camp, one of the world's first, and only, detention centers for people with HIV/AIDS. Today the story is all but forgotten, but at the time it captured people's conscience, and its demise made headlines.
On June 8, 1993, US District Court Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. declared the camp unconstitutional in a scathing opinion. "The Haitians' plight is a tragedy of immense proportion, and their continued detainment is totally unacceptable to this court," he wrote. It was a David-beats-Goliath victory--the culmination of a legal and grassroots battle waged by refugees, human rights attorneys and a coalition of Haitian immigrants and AIDS activists--and its impact was immediate. By June 18, the last of the refugees had arrived in New York and Miami to cheers and champagne.
Ten years later, however, few people remember this victory--or recognize that the complicated legacy of Guantánamo lives on. "The process has not been easy," says Dr. Marie Carmel Pierre-Louis, the director of the HIV/AIDS program of the Haitian Centers Council, who has been working with the refugees since their arrival. "A few people were able to pull their lives together. [But] a lot of them are still struggling."
At the same time, the INS continues to detain fleeing Haitian refugees--these days in detention centers in Florida and Pennsylvania--and the law that bars HIV-positive immigrants from coming to the United States is still in force. As for the naval base, it's back in use as a detention center, this time for alleged "enemy combatants" from the US terror wars. Today, some 680 men and boys languish on Guantánamo, detained in such dismal conditions and with so much uncertainty about their fate--the Bush Administration says it can hold these prisoners indefinitely, and rumors have begun to circulate of plans to build an execution chamber--that eighteen have attempted suicide, according to recent news reports.
The White House's decision to keep "enemy combatants" on Guantánamo, not far from where the Haitians were once detained, is hardly a coincidence. As the Justice Department argued in both cases, Guantánamo lies outside the jurisdiction of the United States and is, therefore, beyond the reach of the US Constitution. This is exactly the point. "The parallel between the Guantánamo HIV Camp and the current situation is that the United States wanted to have people in a place where they would not have any constitutional rights," says attorney Michael Ratner, who represented the Haitians in 1993 and represents several of the camp's current residents.
The grim irony, of course, is that "constitutional rights" were exactly what the Haitians were seeking when they wound up on Guantánamo. These people were political refugees, activists seeking freedom and safety who had fled Haiti in boats after a military regime overthrew the country's first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But before their boats could each Cuba, the Caribbean, or Florida--any port that would take them--they were plucked from the high seas by the US Coast Guard and forced to a large refugee-processing camp on Guantanamo Bay.
By right and precedent, the refugees should have been flown to the United States to apply for asylum, since they had all proved they had "credible fear of persecution" in Haiti. But before they were allowed into this country, the INS did something unprecedented: It tested them for HIV/AIDS and, under a 1987 statute barring HIV-positive immigrants, denied those found afflicted entry to the United States. Without even explaining why, it flung them and their relatives into a new refugee camp designed specifically for people with HIV/AIDS.