Bringing Guantánamo Home

July 18, 2013

Last June, I interviewed a former resident of the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (or GTMO). In the oddly formal setting of the downstairs sitting room at the public humanities center, she shared memories of high school, friends and the close-knit community at the base. For her, GTMO epitomized the post-WWII all-American small town. It represented what is best about this country.

For many others, GTMO means something more sinister: a place of detention, isolation, imperialism, and fear. This has been the experience of many people throughout GTMO’s history, including Cuban rafters, Jamaican workers, Haitian refugees, and, most recently, alleged al-Qaeda members detained after September 11.

These stories raise specific questions – how do we reconcile such different accounts? – as well as broad concerns about the rights of refugees and the incarcerated, human rights, the tensions between national security and civil liberties, and U.S. foreign policy since 9/11. Throughout its history, GTMO has been a place where the rights of people who do not fit into existing categories are continually contested – Haitians fleeing persecution in their homeland but barred from entering the U.S., Cuban workers with their jobs on one side of razor wire and their families on the other, enemy combatants denied the protections of prisoners of war, and more.

For the past year, a group of Brown undergraduates and Public Humanities graduate students have wrestled with GTMO’s implications as part of the Guantánamo Public Memory Project, which seeks to tell the story of the naval base through the voices of people who have been there. Last fall, five undergraduates contributed to a national traveling exhibit by developing a panel on the experiences of Haitian refugees detained at the base in the 1990s.  That exhibit is now traveling across the U.S. Three other M.A. students – Abby Ettelman, Hillary Brady, and Raina Fox – and I added to the Project’s website. We developed a timeline that highlights moments of resistance to U.S. policies at GTMO, and we used oral histories provided by students at the University of West Florida to create “audio portraits” of three of GTMO’s past residents.

 The traveling exhibit will arrive in Providence in the fall of 2014. To coincide with the installation, we have begun to plan programs and look for partners on and off campus to participate in events, educational programs, and dialogue about what GTMO represents and what it means in the context of Providence in 2014.

Seeking in some sense to bring GTMO here – exploring how and why that place might matter to us in this place – means dealing with issues of authority, access, and privilege. We recognize that fundamentally, the history of GTMO is a story of power. And that includes the power as public historians to tell GTMO’s story. That’s not just wordplay, but responsibility: to the narrators whose memories form the core of the exhibit, to our audience, to our partners – a responsibility to foster an open, respectful dialogue that leaves everyone who comes through the door knowing something more about GTMO.

GTMO stories tend to be discomforting. They challenge what we think we already know, raise difficult questions, reveal unpleasant sides of our country, our policies, even ourselves. We don’t have to agree or sympathize with the tellers. But whether the voice is someone who spent years at GTMO or someone reflecting on its meanings for the first time, these stories require something of us. We need to listen. We need to do them justice.

Guest blogger, Nate Weisenberg  is a current student in the MA Program in Public Humanities, class of 2014.  To learn more about the Center's participation in the Guantánamo Public Memor Project, visit our Initiatives page.

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