Revisiting the U.S. Naval Station, Guantánamo Bay, through the Duke University Libraries’ Caribbean Sea Migration Digital Collection

A “Mata de Navidad” (Christmas bush), constructed by Cuban detainees in a Guantánamo Bay tent city, 1994-1995.

When you hear the word “Guantánamo,” you probably don’t think of tent cities with families and children, religious festivals, and locally run newspapers.

But the Guantánamo Bay of the 1990s differed in many ways from the place Americans came to know after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Images of this earlier Guantánamo and its inhabitants, recently digitized by the Duke University Libraries, will soon be touring the country as part of an exhibit developed by the Guantánamo Public Memory Project, an initiative based at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University. The exhibit, opening in New York City on December 13 and touring the United States through 2014, explores the complex and controversial history of “Gitmo.”

Two Haitian boys are given a medical exam aboard the US Coast Guard cutter Chase by Chief Warrant Officer Paul Healey, in October 1981.

“We were fortunate to have advance access to the [Caribbean Sea Migration] collection, so that nearly 100 students at 11 universities across the country could use it extensively to prepare our traveling exhibit on the long history of the U.S. Naval Station at Guantánamo,” said Liz Ševčenko, Founding Director of the Guantánamo Public Memory Project and faculty member at the Institute. “It’s a tremendous resource for researchers and the general public.”

During the years 1991-1993 and again in 1994, tens of thousands of Haitians, fleeing political upheaval and repression, were interdicted by the U.S. Coast Guard and removed to the U.S. Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. While they awaited decisions on whether they would be repatriated to Haiti or allowed to apply for asylum in the U.S., the Haitians made a life in the tent cities established for them by the U.S. military.

In 1994 over 30,000 Cubans set out from Cuba by sea for the United States. Among them was Pavel Rodríguez, a nine-year-old boy who, along with his family, was interdicted by the U.S. Coast Guard and taken to Guantánamo. Pavel, who years later would enroll at Duke University Medical School, remembers both the anxiety arising from prolonged detention at GTMO and the sense of community among the refugees. Pavel recalls fellow Cubans at GTMO forming a newspaper at the camp and opening an art gallery, along with his own memories of “chasing iguanas and flying kites behind barbed wires and fences guarded by heavily armed soldiers.”

Draft of a news release for the camp publication Sa K’Pase, announcing an American-style summer camp for children in Guantánamo Camp IIA, 1992.

Stories like Pavel’s, and those of many others like him, make up the recently digitized Caribbean Sea Migration Collection, which documents the experiences of the more than 200,000 Haitians, Cubans and Dominicans who traversed the Caribbean Sea in the late 20th century, fleeing political instability in their home countries. Materials in this collection provide varying perspectives on Guantánamo in the late 20th century: from military personnel running the camps, to publishers of and contributors to community newspapers, to detainee-artists creating works reflective of their experience.

For more on the Guantánamo Public Memory Project traveling exhibit, visit their website and blog.

To learn more about the Caribbean Sea Migration and other collections digitized by the Duke University Libraries—which are made freely available for teaching, learning, and research—visit our digital collections website.

 

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One Response to A New View of “Gitmo”

  1. Dave says:

    Great information here…thanks for sharing.

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