Remembering Guantánamo through the lives of the Haitians held there

A nationwide project to recount the history of the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba makes its South Florida debut.

08/16/2014 12:00 AM

09/08/2014 8:07 PM

Before it became a maximum-security prison camp for terror suspects, Guantánamo housed thousands of Haitian refugees fleeing the violence and military junta that had overthrown their president.

What life was like, and the faces of the men, women and children who called the U.S. naval base home, will be on display Thursday as part of a national effort to remember Guantánamo’s history.

Known as the Guantánamo Public Memory Project, the traveling exhibit makes its debut in South Florida on Thursday at the Little Haiti Cultural Center, 212 NE 59th Ter. From 6 to 9 p.m., visitors will be able to view a multi-media history of “GTMO,” dating as far back as 1898 and through its most recent history as a holding place for Haitian and Cuban refugees trying to get to the United States.

By the time Cuban balseros arrived in Guantánamo in 1994, 15,000 Haitians were already there. They had been denied asylum by the Clinton administration while fleeing Haiti’s political turmoil. And while the balsero Cubans were ultimately allowed to enter the United States, most Haitians were repatriated.

The memory project features video testimonies and images of the people who worked, lived, served or were held at the U.S. naval base in Cuba before it gained notoriety as a maximum security prison for hunger strikers and terror suspects.

Among the exhibits on display at the Little Haiti Cultural Center will be the work of Miami Herald photojournalist Carl Juste, “Havana and Haiti: Two Cultures, One Community.”

Since 2012, more than 400,000 people across the United States have visited the Guantánamo Public Memory Project exhibits and participated in community dialogues. In South Florida, five institutions have joined together to hold similar talks on the history of the base, its memories and legacy. The project is based at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights and is aimed at building public awareness about the longtime base on Cuban soil.

Other events connected with the Guantánamo Public Memory Project in South Florida are:

Community Collecting Day: HistoryMiami and the Smithsonian Institution invite anyone with memories of GTMO to share their stories, photographs and other objects from 10 am to 5 pm on Aug. 23 at HistoryMiami, 101 W. Flagler St.

“Revisiting the Balsero Crisis and Its Aftermath, Twenty Years After:” Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute will host a symposium featuring scholars, artists and others at 2 p.m. Sept. 4 at FIU’s South campus, Graham Center 150, 11200 S.W. Eighth St.

Guantánamo: Kept At Bay exhibit opening, 6 to 9 p.m. Sept. 10, the Frost Art Museum at Florida International University, 10975 S.W. 17th St. The exhibit will be on view through Oct. 19.

Guantánamo Public Memory Project traveling exhibit opening, Sept. 22 at the University of Miami’s College of Arts and Sciences Gallery, 1210 Stanford Dr., Coral Gables. On view through Oct. 31.

For more information about the project, visit http://www.gitmomemory.org

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