Guantanamo's Other HistoryRoundup
tags: Haiti, refugees, Guantanamo Bay, Caribbean history
Jeffrey S. Kahn is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Davis, and author of Islands of Sovereignty: Haitian Migration and the Borders of Empire.
When photos of mounted U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents chasing down Haitians in Del Rio, Texas, emerged last month, the public outcry was immediate. In the most iconic of the images taken by photographer Paul Ratje, what looks to be a white border agent, his face locked in an expression of apparent anger, reaches down from his horse to grab the shirt of a Black Haitian immigrant. It was as if Ratje had captured the essence of what some of the more ardent critics of U.S. immigration policy had suspected for some time—that the events unfolding at the southern border were the most recent act in a much longer racist drama of settler colonial violence and enslavement. Vice President Kamala Harris acknowledged the power of this symbolism, remarking that the encounter “evoked images of some of the worst moments of our history where that kind of behavior has been used against the indigenous people of our country [and] has been used against African Americans during times of slavery.”
As the Biden administration worked to contain the fallout from the images, a twist in the story developed. Reporters from NBC took note of a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) bid solicitation for unarmed security contractors at the Migrant Operations Center at Guantánamo Bay. The announcement mentioned that to be successful, a contractor would need Creole speakers among its roster of guards. Leaning on that detail, NBC published a short piece asking whether Biden was reviving Trump-era proposals to relocate migrants from the border to the naval base. Forbes followed with the headline, “Biden Administration Eyes Guantánamo Bay to Hold Migrants,” and Business Insider ran a post alluding to a “proposed Guantanamo move.” Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez responded to the NBC article via tweet, calling it “utterly shameful.”
The possibility of adding Guantánamo and all its connotations—torture, indefinite detention—to the mix of the unfolding border fiasco had caused the NBC story to morph from coverage of a suspicious government bid announcement to a revelation of a startling policy shift already in the making. But when asked about this prospect during an NPR interview, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas replied that “Guantánamo was a place that historically has been used to return individuals who are interdicted at sea. That is not applicable to the individuals whom we are encountering along the southern border.” With that denial, the Guantánamo angle dropped out of the larger discussion of the surge in Haitian asylum seekers arriving from Mexico.
The “nothing to see here” tone of Secretary Mayorkas’s response attempts to deflect criticism, but the denial divulges facts that are alarming in their own right. Even if the Biden administration was never planning to ship Haitians from Del Rio to Guantánamo, anyone following these events should be concerned about the mere existence of a Migrant Operations Center at Guantánamo Bay. What exactly is it, for one, and why is DHS seeking Creole-speaking contractors to run it now? Does Guantánamo and the detention of asylum seekers there really have nothing to do with the southern border? There is a menacing history of secrecy, abuse, and institutional forms that makes the answers to these questions more complicated than Secretary Mayorkas was letting on.
The story of detention at Guantánamo is inextricably tied to the remarkable sea journeys Haitians made across the northern Caribbean in the 1970s as they sought refuge in the United States from the repressive violence and economic devastation wrought by the dictatorships of François Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude. Journalists’ accounts of these voyages often focus on the decrepit state of the vessels, the ruthlessness of the smugglers, and the wretchedness of those crammed aboard. One hears much less about Haiti’s master boat builders and the skilled Haitian captains who have long navigated complicated inter-island routes by compass, star, and memory. Nonetheless, it is true that seafarers who had once carried cargo on working sail vessels turned to transporting passengers northward in what were admittedly harrowing attempts to reach the United States. It is also true that as a result of these voyages, U.S. border control policies—and, eventually, border control policies across the globe—would never be the same.