Cultural Divide at Guantanamo Poses Challenge
As one of the elected leaders of Haitian Camp No. 4, Declacin St. Paulin vows he is prepared to live in the U.S. military tent city here for years if necessary, as long as it takes for his country to be liberated.
In the new Cuban camp erected on the other side of the point on the southeastern coast of Cuba, Jesus Diaz, a 31-year-old engineer from Havana, says staying here very long is inconceivable.
The difference may reflect the impact of time on the two, quite different communities--Haitian and Cuban--being established at the United States’ oldest overseas military base.
St. Paulin fled Haiti more than two months ago and has come to regard the idle days, sweltering tents and aluminum-and-nylon cots as home.
Diaz and his fellow Cuban boat people have been here less than a week, since President Clinton declared he would not grant political asylum to the thousands fleeing their country after Cuban leader Fidel Castro began allowing escapes by sea.
But their different attitudes also reflect starkly different cultures and circumstances between the 14,000 Haitians and the roughly equal number of Cubans who have transformed this once sleepy paradise of a naval base into a massive refugee camp.
Those two cultures present different sets of challenges for the roughly 6,000 U.S. troops who are responsible for running the camps and who are expected to turn the base into a canvas-tent metropolis of perhaps 70,000 people.
A remarkable number of the Cubans are professionals--lawyers, doctors, teachers, dentists, engineers. Camp Alpha, one of the Cuban camps, has 26 doctors among its approximately 2,000 residents, according to its leader, Reynoldo Valido.
Among the Haitians spread across seven camps, U.S. officials have identified no doctors, said the officer in charge of the Haitian operation, Col. Michael A. Pearson.
Among the Cubans, the most serious crime so far has been cutting in line for food, said Army Capt. Brian Feser, the commander of the Cuban camps.
Among the Haitians, there have been cases of rape, assault, theft and more. U.S. soldiers have been hurt, though not seriously, breaking up fights, said Brig. Gen. Mike Williams, commander of the task force in charge of the operation.
The circumstances each group has left behind are different as well.
In a story repeated in various forms throughout Camp Alpha and the other Cuban areas, Valido says he had a large house and a good wage as a teacher in Cuba.
His head tilted in worry over conditions at the camp, his blue eyes reddened with exhaustion, he says he left to gain intellectual freedom.
“The main repression was here, in the mind. When you teach the children in Cuba, as I did, you must speak what Castro says. You never speak your own words. That is the biggest jail. The jail of the mind.
“When you are a math teacher and someone says something in class that is considered politically improper, you must stop teaching math and have a discussion about politics and what is proper political philosophy,” he said.
The jail of the mind was stifling enough, apparently, for Valido and the others to set out across the Florida Straits with children and babies in craft that most Americans would not take into a swimming pool.
The stories each Haitian tells are more horrible.
Menar Medat, the 24-year-old president of Camp 6, fled Haiti and had to leave his wife and child behind after his house was burned to the ground and he was hunted for being a supporter of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
To this day, his wife and child do not know if he died at sea.
It is a story heard over and over. “Where is your family?” a visitor asks a 10-year-old boy.
“My father dead. My brother dead.”
“Where is your mother?”
“I don’t know. Maybe dead.”
“How did you get to Guantanamo?”
“My older brother.”
For these Haitians, there is only one way to return home: revolution.
Of the 14,000 Haitians here, only 71 qualify for political asylum or immigration. The others await the return of Aristide or an offer of haven in some other country.
There are Cubans in these camps who can recite the wording of the latest resolutions from the U.S. Senate about their situation.
The Haitians, for the most part, believe that having lived under military strongmen, Bill Clinton is the biggest strongman of all, and that he could decide who is president of Haiti with a phone call.
“Clinton is the one holding the power in Haiti,” said Henry Claude, leader of Haitian Camp 5. “All problems are because of the white man,” said Cola Joubert, a resident of Camp 4. “Every time you promise to do something for Haiti, nothing ever happens.”
“Don’t ever tell them the U.S. cannot help them,” said Staff Sgt. Fritz Beauzile, an Army translator who was born in Haiti and lived there until age 11. “To them, the U.S. is like God. Deeply inside their hearts, they believe that.”
Beauzile now lives in Ft. Stewart, Ga.
In the Haitian camps, protests and demonstrations are common. A particular issue is food.
The U.S. troops have tried yams, pork and beans, baked beans and found nothing that everyone from the various regions of Haiti will eat. They are now down to red beans and rice with either beef, pork or chicken and have enlisted 28 Haitians to help with the cooking, but that still has not helped.
The latest demonstration, a three-day hunger strike among 60 Haitians that ended Saturday, protested the menu.
Food among the Haitians is passed out in a controlled area fenced off by barbed wire to maintain security. Food among the Cubans is handed out to designated representatives, who in turn hand it out among the other Cubans.
“I think there is a great deal of discontent and a great deal of frustration as well” among the Haitians, Williams acknowledged, though he characterized that as not unexpected.
It raises the question whether time, familiarity and the rising expectations that go along with thinking of a tent camp as a community will bring similar frustrations among the Cubans.
If so, then this base, “a little bit of paradise,” in the words of one soldier, itself may well become a tense, permanent refuge on the edge of communist Cuba.