Twenty years ago, Michel Vilsaint celebrated the first closing of Guantánamo. “We are cheering because the United States has finally shown itself to be a democracy,” he told the New York Times. Vilsaint was one of over 200 HIV-positive Haitian refugees caught in legal limbo — cleared for asylum, but barred by disease from entering the U.S. — whose 1993 hunger strike captured the world’s attention. The detention camps were closed and the refugees released, but U.S. courts upheld the government’s right to detain people indefinitely at the 45-square mile naval base in southeast Cuba. Soon enough, Guantánamo was repurposed for holding Cuban refugees (1994–96) and then “enemy combatants” in the War on Terror (2002–?). Over a decade later, more than 100 detainees — the majority long since cleared for release — found no recourse but to hold their own hunger strike, which inspired a stream of speeches and editorials and prompted President Barack Obama to renew efforts to “close Guantánamo” yet again.
Today GTMO is a symbol of American identity and values — and a battleground for defining them — but, as this slideshow reveals, the base has been a part of American policy and politics for more than a century. The oldest overseas naval base, it played a strategic role in defining U.S. hegemony in the Caribbean during the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). It has been a home for American military families and a source of jobs for Cubans, as well as a legal laboratory for issues ranging from immigration to public health to national security. An indefinite lease established in 1903 grants Cuba “total sovereignty” but the U.S. “complete jurisdiction and control,” creating an extralegal black hole that has been used to detain refugees and prisoners outside U.S. law. The recent construction of a major new refugee facility is a reminder that even if the current Guantánamo closes, another will open. The question is, why has GTMO been so rigorously and consistently forgotten?
The Guantánamo Public Memory Project aims to raise awareness of the site’s long history and foster dialogue on its future. In 2011, we brought together over a dozen universities to engage students in researching GTMO’s history and revealing it to the public. They created a website and traveling exhibit featuring audio portraits of people who worked, served or were held there, as well as archival photographs, an interactive map and public dialogues. At each stop, the exhibit asks: Why should we remember Guantánamo? Why does it matter to any of us here at home?
Organizers invite public conversation on the questions that resonate in each city, on how GTMO relates to local communities and their experiences, ranging from immigrant neighborhoods to prison complexes to retired military villages. In Indianapolis, students engaged the virulent debate about whether to admit Guantánamo prisoners to the state’s own Supermax prison. Southern California participants mapped “Geographies of Detention,” comparing Guantánamo with California overcrowded prisons. Phoenix attendees will delve into contemporary immigration policy and histories of Japanese internment on Arizona’s tribal lands. In the Twin Cities, the exhibit will prompt dialogues on refugee rights and the Islamophobia facing Somali immigrants; in Miami, on Haitian and Cuban refugee experiences; in Greensboro, North Carolina, on racial division and civil rights. We extend an open invitation to any community that wants to host the Guantánamo Public Memory Project and make it their own.