Remembering Haitian Internment in Trump’s America

July 19, 2018

The Trump administration’s ongoing detention and deportation of asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border has echoes of the U.S. internment of over 40,000 Haitians fleeing violence in their homeland in the early 1990s.

A marine carries a Haitian refugee child at Camp McCalla in Guantánamo Bay in 1992 (US Coast Guard/Wikimedia Commons)

While the U.S. body politic flounders to tease out the exceptional from the troublingly normal in Trump’s America, those inclined to even the most critical forms of pre-2016 nostalgia might forget that for countless historically marginalized groups, the United States has long functioned more or less the same way.

For Haitian refugees, Trump is not a new abomination, or even a reincarnation of former Haitian exclusion, but rather a continuation of persecution against Haitians fleeing instability that U.S. empire has itself contributed to over the course of the twentieth century. From a 19-year military occupation beginning in 1915 that all but forced the island nation to accrue massive amounts of American debt to its financial support of the regimes of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son and successor Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier who surveilled, extorted, and disappeared tens of thousands of Haitians, the United States has long played a role in creating the conditions in Haiti that produce the waves of immigrants it then aggressively seeks to exclude. The flagrant racism undergirding Trump’s dismissal of Haitian refugees as hailing from a “shit-hole country,” where people “all have AIDS” demonstrates a willingness to voice the bigoted positions that U.S. empire typically holds silently. Yet the current administration’s brazenness is only possible because it stands on the shoulders of equally xenophobic but comparatively tightlipped predecessors.

Barack Obama, for instance, did extend the policy of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to approximately 50,000 Haitians following the 2010 earthquake that devastated the island nation. The TPS designation, first established in 1990, permits migrants from countries destabilized by natural disasters and political conflict to legally live and work in the United States pending renewal every 18 months. But Obama also deported 2.5 million people during his tenure, more than any U.S. president before him, earning him the moniker “deporter-in-chief.” And with the Trump administration’s recent decision to end the TPS program, the 59,000 Haitians who have since made their homes in the United States since are now facing expulsion.

Trump is also reviving some of U.S. history’s most shameful tactics in hopes of stanching the flow of immigration into the country with the criminalization of all migrants, in many cases even asylum-seekers who cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Some have aptly compared Trump’s May 7 “zero-tolerance” policy that has contributed to the separation of thousands of immigrant children from their parents at the southwestern border to the forced separation of families during slavery. Others have sounded similar historical echoes in relation to the practice of removing Indigenous children from their homes to be forced into assimilating “Indian schools,” a policy that persisted as recently as the 1970s.

Charting a genealogy of the militarization and imprisonment practices that have come to characterize the most aggressive anti-immigrant policies under Trump also demands a consideration of one of the bleakest forbearers to the current crisis—the internment of over 40,000 Haitian migrants at the U.S. navy base at Guantánamo Bay (GTMO) between 1991 and 1993 following the coup d’état that ousted Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The Haitian internment, which constitutes the first time GTMO was used for the purposes of mass incarceration, provides a disturbingly familiar reminder that while Trump’s policies must not be dismissed or normalized, they do not represent a break from history.

 

Ninaj Raoul knows this all too well. A co-founder of the organization Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, based in the Flatbush neighborhood of south Brooklyn, home to a large West Indian immigrant population, Raoul’s long career as an activist and organizer began when she answered a call from the Department of Justice seeking Kreyòl translators to help conduct asylum interviews for Haitian migrants passing through Guantánamo in early 1992. At the time, Raoul was working as a fashion journalist in New York. Her time at Guantánamo changed all that.

Raoul quickly realized that what she thought was a humanitarian mission intended to facilitate safe passage into the United States for asylum seekers was anything but. Instead, thousands of migrants fleeing violence and persecution following the bloody military overthrow of Aristide in September of 1991 were intercepted at sea by the U.S. Navy or Coast Guard and brought to the Guantánamo base. Upon arrival, they were held in conditions without potable water, sanitation, and exposed to eastern Cuba’s extreme heat, in some cases for years at a time, according to findings from scholar Amy Kaplan. 

During her first stint at the base in the early months of 1992, Raoul learned about the HIV prison camp, Camp Bulkeley, where migrants discovered to be HIV-positive during required health examinations were detained separately along with some of their family members. Camp Bulkeley was utilized as a holdover for the internment of approximately 300 Haitian nationals until June 1993, when a court order declared it unconstitutional. The highly-militarized Bulkeley had almost as many Marines guarding over migrants as migrants themselves, Raoul recalled, and remained open after the thousands of other migrants held at the main camp, McCalla, were granted asylum in the United States or else forcibly repatriated to Haiti.

Much like the state violence against Central American asylum-seekers and immigrants under Trump, what ought to have been a humanitarian endeavor following Haiti’s coup instead was a case of hyper-militarization. Raoul and I first spoke in January of 2018, only a few days before President Trump announced his executive order to keep open the War on Terror military prison at GTMO in a stark contrast from Barack Obama’s unfulfilled campaign pledge to close it. In that first conversation, Raoul emphasized that much like immigrants facing the abuses of ICE and the Department of Homeland Security today, Haitian migrants “were being treated like prisoners of war.”

As in today’s immigration abuses, race has been an ever-present factor in U.S. policies towards Haitian migrants and asylum seekers. Haiti is itself the product of the Western Hemisphere’s first successful slave revolt, one that gave way to the world’s first black republic in 1804. In the ‘90s, the racialization of operations at GTMO were palpable, not only to Raoul, who told me the camps called back to “slavery days,” but also to other people of color deployed to the base to oversee the internment.

Donovan Cole, a former Air Force policeman stationed at the base during the Haitian migrant crisis, told me that aggressive racialization complicated his allegiances and inhibited his ability to perform his duty. Cole, who is black, had been stationed at GTMO for three days when he saw an officer kick a migrant “in the chest while he was down on the ground on his knees.” It was at that point, he said, that he began to realize something was very wrong. “It was as though the Klan had been sent to help the civil rights workers of 1968,” Cole said about operations ostensibly intended to fulfill legal obligations to provide refugee status and safe passage to asylum seekers.

That same dynamic pushed Cole to refuse an order to use his weapon during a scuffle between some of the Haitians and a group of airmen overseeing them. “I wasn’t mentally stable enough to accept my weapon, because to be honest, the way I saw them treat those Haitians, I wasn’t sure who I was going to shoot at the time,” said Cole. The Marines swiftly removed Cole from his position and discharged him for disobeying a lawful order. Cole’s role as both a U.S. military officer as well as an internal voice of dissent complicates simple notions of how imperialism continues to function today.

 

In stark contrast to Cole’s rebuke of the racialized militarization at GTMO, Greg Beaubrun’s time at the base sowed in him an entirely different relationship to U.S. empire. Beaubrun was five years old when he boarded a small boat with his family and set off from the coast of western Haiti across the Windward Passage, a strait that connects the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba. The night he spent seasick aboard the rickety vessel was the most frightened he felt over the course of his immigration to the United States—even more distressing than his internment behind Guantánamo’s barbed wire, he told me. After a night of rough seas, a Navy ship intercepted Beaubrun’s family’s boat somewhere between Havana and Miami, expeditiously sank the small vessel, and deposited them at the U.S. navy base on Cuba’s southeastern shore.

Beaubrun’s memories of the internment are hazy to him now, some two and a half decades after the fact, but the stories he does recount lack the violence that Raoul, Cole, and countless others who lived through the internment recall. Beaubrun remembers medical assessments and vaccinations and unrelenting Caribbean rainstorms. He remembers the interminable time spent waiting for his family’s name to be called over a loud speaker, indicating that Immigration and Naturalization Services had located one of his relatives in New York or Miami who would provide a ticket out of GTMO and into the United States.

But while the militarization and violence of the internment remain absent from Beaubrun’s childhood memories, they nevertheless prove an almost poetic through-line to the life he led upon emigrating to the United States. At 17, Beaubrun received a call from an army recruiter, and much to his mother’s dismay—“this is not even your country,” he recalls her saying— joined the marines. When he described his two tours of duty in Iraq, I asked him if he drew any parallels between his internment at GTMO and his time in the armed forces. He seemed puzzled and replied that he’d never really considered the connection. As the conversation drew on, however, Beaubrun excavated parallels that had clearly been relegated to the deeper recesses of his memory.

The first was the beige plastic wrapper of a Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE). During his basic training for the Iraq War, he ate the prepackaged military ration and recalled at the time being fed MREs during the internment. Other connections emerged as our interview drew on: Greg’s first ever flight was in a C-130 military cargo plane that transported the Beaubrun family from Guantánamo to Miami once they had been granted asylum; the memory of his first flight came back to him when he boarded a C-130 in Iraq. And the cots Greg slept in in Kuwait were, he recalled, just like those he slept in during his own internment.

The early days of the War on Terror sparked much scholarship on the connections between U.S. empire in the Caribbean and Latin America and the violent interventions that have come to characterize U.S. presence in the Middle East. Indeed, as Greg Grandin’s Empire’s Workshop reminds us, the interventionist impulse that has unendingly entrenched a U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan following 9/11 first found its legs in Latin America, where U.S. empire flagrantly and violently disregarded national sovereignty in the region as early as the nineteenth century. Remarkably, in Beaubrun’s case, this genealogy was not merely a story of international relations and realpolitik: it was his life.

And as these same mechanisms of destabilization, militarization, and exclusion draw on today, Beaubrun’s story is a helpful reminder that the fascist immigration policies we see today will prove equally transformative in the lives of those it touches. Beaubrun hardly thinks of the internment, he told me—it is in the past and he has come to terms with it. Yet his U.S. citizenship, his military career, and his family’s new life in Flatbush, Brooklyn, are all a result of their time at Guantánamo.

A brief walk away from the Flatbush home where Beaubrun grew up, Ninaj Raoul works tirelessly at the offices of Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees to defend asylum seekers and longtime U.S. residents from the life-altering, virulent policies that have jeopardized all they’ve sacrificed for an ostensibly safer and more stable life in the United States. As for Donovan Cole, the horrors he witnessed at Guantánamo return to him unrelentingly. “I think about it every day,” he told me.

For those Haitians currently facing expulsion under the cancellation of TPS, every day is a reminder of the political persecution and precariousness that has come to shape their lives. So too for those parents detained and prosecuted for crossing the border, whose children have been torn from their arms and held in detention facilities not unlike the immigrant internment camps at Guantánamo. These traumas will shape their lives as much as they shape the dark legacy of U.S. empire—a political behemoth whose inherent inhumanity fits Donald Trump’s disposition like a glove.


Miriam Pensack is a writer and researcher with a focus on Latin America and U.S. foreign policy, human rights, and national security. Her writing and translations have appeared in The Intercept and the Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies, among other publications. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in Latin American history at New York University, where her research focuses on U.S. empire in Latin America, Cold War insurgency, and the rise of neoliberalism.

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