A continuing source of controversy and disgrace in U.S. policy toward Haitian refugees is the camp at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where hundreds of Haitian asylum seekers who tested HIV-positive have been held by the U.S. military and I.N.S. In the fall of 1992, Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights reported on his visit to the “first HIV detention camp in history.”
The barbed wire wasn’t the worst thing. Nor was the stench at the military camp, nor the fear in the faces of the ragged group of prisoners. The worst thing wasn’t even the children, scared and coughing. The worst thing was the singing.
When we heard the refugees sing, we were on a U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for three days as part of a legal team interviewing nearly three hundred Haitians. The refugees were “screened-in,” which means they had been determined by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (I.N.S.) to be legitimate candidates for political asylum. These men, women, and children are not criminals, but the U.S. Government continues to hold them incommunicado, indefinitely, in a squalid cluster of wooden barracks. Because they allegedly tested positive for the HIV virus, they have become inmates in the first HIV detention camp in history.
For three weeks we’ been hearing their stories of fear and flight, of families torn apart, hellish camp conditions and failing health. Then it came time for us to leave. Knowing it would be difficult, we all gathered in an old airplane hangar for our goodbyes. The government would let us stay no longer and we didn’t know if we would ever return. The refugees did not know, as they still do not know today, whether their prison camp will be their permanent residence.
The group expressed their gratitude for our efforts, but felt abandoned. The entire group of prisoners, their children in their arms, began singing songs of thanks and songs of liberty. Their voices broke and singing turned to sobs and shrieks that lasted for twenty minutes as we all cried, and then turned to leave.
Tears are an understandable response for anyone who learns that she or he may have HIV. But these Haitian refugees are also furious, bewildered, terrified, and some even suicidal because of their imprisonment and treatment by U.S. military and I.N.S. officials at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
These refugees fled Haiti in the violent aftermath of the September 1991 military-led coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The U.S. does not have a policy to HIV-test many other refugees, Cubans for example. Yet, in February of 1992, the I.N.S. decided to test all Haitians, denying entry into the U.S. to those who tested HIV-positive.
Interdicted at sea, the Haitians were brought to Guantanamo, where after initial I.N.S. screening had determined those eligible for political asylum, they were tested for HIV. Last spring, a group of refugee families who had passed I.N.S. interviews were gathered in an old airplane hangar, to await final processing that would allow them to leave the camp. Military officials, over a loudspeaker, announced that all the assembled people had the virus which causes AIDS and that they would not be going to America. In fact, they would not be going anywhere.
And so, the families have lived in limbo, some of them for as long as a year. A legal team, including members from the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale University, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Simpson Thatcher & Bartlett, and the San Francisco Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, have been representing the prisoners, with support from a broad coalition of Haitian community groups, AIDS activists and human rights groups.
In March 1992, the collective groups filed a suit (Haitian Centers Council v. McNary) challenging the policy of detaining refugees, incommunicado at Guantanamo. The suit, filed in Federal District Court in New York, was heard by Judge Sterling Johnson, Jr., who issued a temporary restraining order on March 17, and then a preliminary injunction on April 6, preventing the repatriation of screened-in Haitians to Haiti before they were able to speak to lawyers.
Judge Johnson, who called the government’s conduct in the matter “unconscionable,” wrote, “…the screened-in plaintiffs are isolated from the world and treated in a manner worse than the treatment that would be afforded to a criminal defendant. Their access to the outside world, whether by telephone, mail, or otherwise has been completely restricted. They are con-fined in a camp surrounded by razor wire and are not free to leave, even if they have the financial capability to do so, to any country but Haiti, from which they flee for fear of political persecution, torture, and even death.”
The government failed in four attempts to stay Judge Johnson’s order. But on April 22, the Supreme Court stayed the preliminary injunction pending an appeal. As a result, eighty-nine of the HIV-positive refugees were forcibly returned to Haiti, where they were pushed off a Coast Guard cutter with firehoses.
On June 10, the Second Circuit affirmed the injunction granting Haitians at Guantanamo the right to counsel. Rather than allow lawyers to travel to counsel the clients, however, the government stopped processing the refugees, essentially leaving them to languish on Guantanamo. Yes, the government conceded, the Haitians had the right to seek counsel if they were facing deportation, but no, the U.S. would not initiate deportation hearings against the HIV-positive detainees. The razor wire remains in place.
Meanwhile, the camp conditions, deplorable under any circumstances, but especially dangerous for anyone fighting off illness, continue to deteriorate. Members of the legal team have made two trips to Guantanamo, and have returned appalled by the suffering these families are enduring. Refugees sleep on canvas cots in crowded wooden buildings with rain pouring in; snakes, scorpions, insects and rats abound.
In March of 1992, Dr. Paul Effler of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), warned of the “threat of an infections outbreak” if toilet and sanitary facilities at Guantanamo were not improved. The camp still lacks flushable toilets, and pools of stagnant water surround the sinks and showers. The refugees continue to be the victims of random brutality by the military police and peaceful demonstrations have been violently repressed.
The present medical staff does not include even one Creole-speaking doctor or counselor. Many of the refugees harbor doubts about their HIV status. Because of the careless, mass nature of the testing, the refugees are suspicious of the medicines they’re given, and unable to ask for what they do need. Dr. Effler, who wrote that “concentrating people known to have an infection that causes immunosuppression in a tent city is a potential public health disaster,” has urged policymakers to change the rules, noting that the CDC does not support a policy of quarantine for people who are HIV positive.
The only way to get out of the camp is to get sick or pregnant. We have persuaded the government that it does not have the facilities on Guantanamo to deliver babies of HIV pregnant women. They are brought to the U.S. mainland a month prior to delivery. A few others who got eye infections that could cause blindness were brought in for treatment. But even in the U.S. these so-called “lucky” Haitians are kept in custody. Sometimes it’s jail and sometimes less rigorous custodial conditions, but always under supervision. They are confined for only one reason; they are HIV positive.
The refugees have been treated like prisoners of war, for the “crime” of being HIV infected. Untreated, poorly fed, and denied the minimal dignity due any refugee, some of the Haitians have attempted suicide. Others live in terror that they, or their family members, will be repatriated forcibly. The I.N.S. itself recognized that all 274 screened-in refugees at Guantanamo have credible claims of political persecution in Haiti, the basis of the legal standard used to grant asylum. These people can be “paroled in” tomorrow to the United States, before more of them, desperate and abused, commit suicide or die from neglect.
Beyond the immediate step he must take to save the refugees now on Guantanamo, President-elect Bill Clinton can act to make simple humanity and medical common sense the norm for all U.S. immigration policy. The HIV exclusion itself has been denounced as scientifically groundless by the American Medical Association, the National Commission on AIDS, and virtually every other public health authority in this country.
In January 1991, the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan proposed removing HIV infection from the list of excludable diseases. Prior to his election, President Clinton promised that, if elected President, he would do so. The time is long overdue for this cruel and senseless policy to end.
The detention camp for HIV-positive people at Guantanamo is a symbol of shame for our nation. It should never have happened, and the refugees should not be there now. “We want our freedom,” the refugees sang, “Libert.”