Indefinite detention shouldn’t be definitive

A recent article by Jeff Sparrow draws comparisons between the US base at Guantánamo Bay, and the Broadmeadows detention centre in suburban Victoria, underlining that the cruelty of keeping detainees in the limbo of ‘indefinite detention’ has led to hunger strikes at both sites.

Sparrow’s attention to the plight of both groups of detainees is timely, as is his concern over the transnational spread of the practice of indefinite detention. His choice of comparison, however, highlights a widespread tendency to dehistoricise Guantánamo, and in doing so to reduce it to a static, unchanging place, and to a byword for various forms of cruelty and abuse.

The history of the U.S. base at Guantánamo spans more than a century, beginning with U.S. intervention in the Cuban War of Independence in 1898. The US demanded and received an open-ended lease of Guantánamo Bay soon after Cuba gained full independence in 1902.

For over 50 years, the base and the neighbouring Cuban town of Guantánamo tolerated, and even cooperated with one another. Cuban workers filled many of the jobs on the base. Relations quickly deteriorated after the Cuban Revolution: land mines were laid and a ‘cactus curtain’ was planted along the base border, sealing Guantánamo (the base) off from the rest of the island.

A new use for Guantánamo was found in 1991, as Haitians fleeing a violent military coup took to the seas in hope of finding asylum in the U.S. The U.S. Coast Guard interdicted many of these asylum-seekers, and held them at Guantánamo. Soon afterwards, when Fidel Castro lifted a ban of emigration, tens of thousands of Cubans also took the sea, and were interdicted and brought to Guantánamo.

The vast majority of the 32,000 Cubans that were detained at Guantánamo were eventually admitted to the U.S. The majority of the over 34,000 Haitians were returned to Haiti: acknowledging that the Haitians were political refugees would have cast a shadow over the U.S.’s ties to the military regime.

The base is best known for the uses to which it was put after 9/11, but even these have changed with time. Camp X-Ray, the complex of chain-link fences and outdoor cells that provided some of the best-known images of the site, was used for less than six months in 2002. The ‘War on Terror’ detainees still housed at Guantánamo are kept at Camp 6, a medium security facility. Detainees are no longer interrogated for intelligence, but are still subjected to painful treatment, such a force-feeding during the current hunger strike.

Which chapters, which moments from this history can be said to stand for and symbolise Guantánamo? When we compare or liken Guantánamo to some other place in the world – Australia’s Guantánamo, Israel’s Guantánamo, Afghanistan’s Guantánamo – what exactly are we including in our image of the base?

Indefinite detention has taken place on and off at Guantánamo for twenty years. Extraordinary rendition and interrogation for intelligence occurred for roughly 6 years. Hunger strikes at the base have taken place since at least 1993, when Haitian detainees protested their treatment by refusing food.

When we take these practices as a distillation of the entire history of Guantánamo, when we allow them to become the fixed image of the base, we refuse it any other possible fate or function. These painful, drawn-out moments become a part of the architecture, part of the geography of the site. Guantánamo stops being a place at which torture has occurred, and becomes a place for torture.

This is not to say that comparisons are always counterproductive, but rather that they must be carefully selected. It seems appropriate to compare the detention of Haitians at Guantánamo with the detention of Sri Lankans and others at Nauru, and to consider the influence Guantánamo in the 90s may have had on Australian immigration policy in the 2000s. Comparing the Clinton Administration’s closure of the Haitian camp to the Obama Administration repeated claim to want to ‘close Guantánamo’ seems similarly poignant. It may be useful to compare the Broadmeadows detention centre to some of the U.S.’s many urban and suburban detention facilities, like the Varick Street Detention Center in Lower Manhattan, and to ponder the lessons that can be learned from the closure of the Varick St. facility.

The challenge for those outraged by the abuses that have taken place at Guantánamo, and at other detention facilities around the world, is to insist upon the possibility of a different future. Guantánamo is not an unchanging zone of indefinite detention, hunger strikes and torture: it is a place at which these practices have taken place in specific contexts, but at which none of these practices are inherent or inevitable. A Guantánamo – as well as a Broadmeadows, a Nauru, a Varick St. – free of any cruelty or abuse is possible, and must be demanded.

Philip Johnson

Philip Johnson is a doctoral student in Political Science at the City University of New York and editor for the Guantánamo Public Memory Project. He is from Sydney but currently lives in Brooklyn. He tweets at @phillegitimate.

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  1. Interesting take on a place so imbued with controversy and hearsay. Had you couched your assertion in interpretation of the Geneva Conventions, the Law of Land Warfare, and past practice you would have made a much more convincing argument for end to “indefinite detention.” At the end of the First Gulf War, U.S. forces released thousands of lawful combatant Iraqi Prisoners of War, as per the Conventions and Law of War. During World War II, the United States held over 400,000 German and Italian lawful combatant Prisoners of War, and then released them, without charge or trial, at the end of hostilities, as per Geneva and the law. What then is so compellingly different about the Gitmo detainee situation that begs extra legal privileges and release for the detainees, for they are unlawful combatants with no rights according to the Conventions or Law of War? The recent self-starving stunt is nothing more than an attempt to manipulate U.S. political will. Gitmo is, and will always be, a stage for psychological warfare between the U.S. and Islamist extremists. We have released over 600 detainees, none executed, none headless or hacked to death, and all with the fingers and toes they came with (several were missing digits on arrival from war wounds). To even suggest Gitmo is anything but the absolute finest military detention facility in the world is complete fantasy. Until the Taliban, al Qaeda and other Islamist extremists surrender, turn in their weapons, and promise never to harm anyone again, or are all dead, Gitmo should remain open.

  2. Hi Montgomery, thanks for your comments (here and elsewhere).

    To say that “Gitmo is, and will always be, a stage for psychological warfare between the U.S. and Islamist extremists” seems to me to be another example of dehistoricising Guantánamo. Leaving aside the question of whether all who are detained there are ‘Islamist extremists’, it would be more accurate to say that the site has been a stage for psychological warfare of the current kind for about 12 years. It has been a stage for (pretty low-intensity) psychological warfare between (the current administration in) Cuba and the U.S. for over fifty years. In the early 90s it was a stage for psychological warfare between the U.S. and asylum seekers.

    As far as the future goes, I think it’s pretty hard to predict much, but given Prez Obama’s recent comments, it seems unlikely that this will become a theatre for perpetual psychological warfare. Guantánamo has been ‘closed’ before, and may be on the path to closure again (this of course says nothing about which parts of GTMO will be closed, or for how long).

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