The Legacy of Guantanamo

Human Rights

Annette Baptiste* still cries when she thinks about what the United States did to her ten years ago on its Naval Base in Guantanamo, 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 Guantanamo every day," she says in Creole. "It's all in my head."

Guantanamo 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 Guantanamo, 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 Guantanamo 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 Guantanamo 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 Guantanamo, 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 Guantanamo, not far from where the Haitians were once detained, is hardly a coincidence. As the Justice Department argued in both cases, Guantanamo 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 Guantanamo 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 Guantanamo. 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.

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."

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 Guantanamo, the sub-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 and 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 whiles 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 Guantanamo 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 Guantanamo have yet to be learned, while many of the old mistakes are being repeated.

*Some of the names of refugees have been changed for their protection.

Lizzy Ratneris a freelance writer based in New York City.

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