The Legacy of Guantánamo | The Nation


The Legacy of Guantánamo

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The new camp was "hell," to quote the refugees, a barren plot surrounded by heavily armed Marines and a wall of barbed wire. The conditions were squalid, and despite the Haitians' immune-compromised systems, they were cramped into makeshift barracks that provided neither protection nor privacy. The Assistant Secretary for Health and Human Services, James Mason, and the Centers for Disease Control both warned the INS of a potential public health disaster, and even the military cautioned that there could be "a serious medical problem if any type of infectious disease hits the camp."

* The names of some of the refugees have been changes to protect them from the still-vibrant stigma of Guantánamo.

About the Author

Lizzy Ratner
Lizzy Ratner is a senior editor at The Nation, where she oversees the Cities Rising series. 

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But the INS ignored these warnings and refused to close the camp or to airlift the sickest refugees, like Joel Saintil, to hospitals in the United States. When asked by reporters why it ignored the refugees' medical plight, an INS spokesman, Duane "Duke" Austin, responded with unrepentant candor: "They're going to die anyway, aren't they?"

Such brutal disregard typified the refugees' treatment at Guantánamo, the less-than-human status the INS and Marines accorded them. Under their watch, and at their insistence, the refugees endured hunger and humiliation, and a strict curfew, and were manpipulated into Depo-Provera injections (a form of female birth control with potentially serious side-effects). At least four of the refugees attempted suicide. Others organized protests. Drawing on their activist roots, the refugees launched demonstrations and strikes, which the Marines met with attack dogs, batons and tanks.

"I have lost in the struggle for life," wrote Elsa Fils in a letter that was smuggled to her family in Haiti on the eve of a six-week hunger strike. "There is nothing left for me. Take care of my children, so they have strength to continue my struggle..... I have lost hope. I am alone in my distress."

This distress was pervasive, and it followed many of the refugees to the United States, as they settled, largely, in New York and Miami. And with little trauma counseling, rage, depression and domestic violence ran rampant, says Sabine Albert, who worked with the refugees at the Haitian Women's Center.

So did denial. Because of the way the Haitians had learned they had HIV--they were never shown their test results but simply "informed" of them one day over a loudspeaker--many refugees had difficulty believing they had the virus. Others accepted the diagnosis but rejected treatment all the same because they didn't trust US doctors (after all, it was US doctors who had plied them with Depo-Provera and other suspect medications). The result was that many refugees died too quickly, according to Betty Williams, an AIDS housing activist who became a foster mother to two children in the camp. "There were a huge number of unnecessarily early deaths," she laments.

Today, approximately half the refugees are dead, Williams estimates. Of those who remain, a number have managed to build new lives for themselves. But a good number still struggle--like Avril, who wiles away his days in a psychiatric institution; or Raoul Surpris, who struggles with drug addiction and is homeless.

Then, there are the refugees still in immigration limbo. All the children who were born on Guantánamo are effectively stateless, since the camp authorities would not give them US birth certificates and Haiti has not extended citizenship rights to them either. "Their status is still hanging in the air," says Pierre-Louis.

As for the adults, many are still waiting for their asylum applications to be processed, still waiting to find out if they can live in the United States or will be sent back to Haiti. And while the asylum process can drag on for any applicant, many refugees see their wait as more evidence of discrimination. "So many bad people have a place, but I'm not official," says Fils, who applied for asylum in 1994 and whose HIV-negative sons and parents have already gained refugee and permanent-resident status. One son even joined the Marines. "Why I give my son to fight for this country and I can't have a place here?"

Ten years later, questions like these remain unanswered, and the hard lessons of Guantánamo have yet to be learned, while many of the old mistakes are being repeated.

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