Haiti’s Connection to Guantanamo Bay

Written by Rebecca Obounou

I had the opportunity to attend a small documentary screening at the Irish International Immigration Center (IIIC) in May for Haitian Heritage Month. This documentary was produced by Lindsay Day, a student at Northeastern University. The short film is informative. It talks of how the US mishandled its first real refugee crisis. Haitian’s fleeing political instability in Haiti from 1991-1994 arrived in the United States mostly in boats by the tens of thousands. The short documentary treats the US government’s management of this situation. Eventually, the refugees that were not deported to Haiti, were held at Guantanamo Bay.

At the event, I learned a bit about the irony of Guantanamo Bay. Frederick Douglass, the first black United States ambassador to Haiti from 1889-1891, was sent on a mission to convince, the Haitian government to sell the US the port of Mole St. Nicolas, in the Northwest part of Haiti. The United States’ intention was to build a naval base there. The Haitian Government refused. Their refusal angered the US government. Eventually, they were able to negotiate such an arrangement with Cuba where they constructed the Guantanamo Bay naval base. Mole St. Nicolas would have been US’ Guantanamo Bay today.

During his time as an ambassador, Frederick Douglass grew a great respect for Haiti. Many in the US government rose against him when he was unable to convince Haiti to sell Mole St. Nicolas. Douglass discusses Mole St. Nicolas along with other impressions that Haiti left upon him in this 1893 speech at the dedication of the Haitian Pavilion at the World’s Fair in Jackson Park, Chicago, Illinois.

During the event at the IIIC, Leticia Ripalda, who is the Program Coordinator of the Massachusetts Cuban/Haitian entrant program for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), spoke. She spoke of how she has been working to remove the contradictions that exist between the Cuban and Haitian refugee policies. The program is 90% federally funded. According to her, Massachusetts holds the fourth largest population of Haitians in the United States. The program receives additional federal funding for just the Haitian immigration population. The Cuban/Haitian entrant program handles the recently granted Haitian Family Reunification Parole Program (HFRPP) in Massachusetts. In 2012, Massachusetts State Representative – now State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry, led the charge in Massachusetts in gathering approximately 7,000 signatures requesting that President Obama and Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, give Haitians the same privileges that Cuban refugees get in the United States. Over 100,000 people in Haiti have been approved for visas to enter the US and join their families living in the US but have not been allowed to travel to the US. Cubans have not encountered this problem. In fall, 2014, the US conceded to approve a small number of Haitian visa holders to reunite with their families. To date, the implementation of the policy revision is still in progress.

The event at the IIIC was a prime opportunity to bring Haitians and supporters of Haiti together to have a thoughtful dialogue of the challenges Haitians have faced in history and face today. It also gave us an opportunity to discuss way to address them. Brian Concannon also spoke at length about how the Institute of Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) is addressing some of the obstacles Haitians are facing today.

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