Life at the Guanánamo Camps: Detention
“A big problem, from a psychological point of view, we were in Guantánamo illegally, we had not left Cuba; no one knew where we were going, either. We had no means of communications and, in other words, we had lost with our past and with our future. The soldiers called us ‘migrants’ and we called ourselves 'rafters'.”
– Jorge, Cuban rafter age 30
Cubans of all ages, races, and educational and professional backgrounds began arriving at Guantánamo on August 22, 1994. By the beginning of September, there were close to 20,000 Cuban refugees at the naval base, and their numbers reached over 30,000 before approximately 8,000 rafters accepted transfers to refugee camps at a U.S. military base in Panama.
In Guantánamo, Cubans were crowded into tents with dirt floors and encircled by barbed wire. Supplies of potable water were limited, and some reports indicate that there was one portable latrine for every ten Cubans, latrines that would overflow and fill the camps with their foul odor.
While the U.S. military provided food for the Cuban refugees, distributing that food proved a challenge and the meals lacked nutritional variety. Military medical staff struggled to attend to the needs of the Cuban rafters. But perhaps the most difficult circumstance that the Cuban rafters at Guantánamo faced in the early fall of 1994 was the lack of information.
The shift in American policy did not make clear what would happen to them, and there was no easy way to obtain news of the happenings beyond the camps’ boundaries. There were no newspapers or televisions, no mail or telephone calls. How long would they be detained at the U.S. naval base? Would they be forced to return to Cuba? Or would they be given passage to the United States?
“Guantánamo was like a waiting room, a purgatory in which you didn’t know what would happen. Heaven was Miami. Hell was Cuba. They were in the middle, waiting.”
– Cuban-American filmmaker Rafael Oller
Deployable Mass Population Identification and Tracking System (DMPITS) bracelet that was issued to all Cuban rafters interned at the U.S. Naval Base Guantánamo Bay. The DMPITS bracelet contains a transponder that recorded each refugee’s assigned ID number. (From the Guantánamo Base Collection)
Meals at the camps consisted of military rations known as MREs (Meals-Ready-to-Eat) or carmelitas because of the brown plastic packets in which they were delivered. Refugee artists melted the empty plastic enclosures and created a kind of clay that they used for sculptures and other art projects. Later, humanitarian rations were added to the camp menu.
Cuban rafters began working in the camp kitchens to help prepare food more palatable to their fellow refugees. Each rafter was given a meal ticket that they had to present to get their rations.
Struggling with the pressures of the idleness, uncertainty, and confinement of their indefinite and involuntary residence in Guantánamo, close to 1,000 Cuban rafters decided that it would be better to return to Cuba than to remain in the camps, subsequently requesting extradition to Cuba or attempting to escape the base. While some found safe passage back to the island, others were injured or died trying to cross the minefields outside the base boundaries.
This handbill warned Cubans of the minefields and the dangers of attempting to escape the base as well as reported the often-deadly fate of those trying to flee.
“Terrific. Close to the sea. A good breeze. Welcome to the dust!”
– Ernesto, Cuban rafter age 24
The Cuban rafters at Guantánamo faced terrible living conditions and seemingly endless days filled with dust, heat, mosquitoes, and uncertainty. Several members of the Cuban exile community in South Florida and humanitarian organizations visited the camps to observe camp conditions and to offer support to the refugees. These individuals and groups reported on the various problems facing the Cuban rafters and advocated for improvements in camp conditions.
In October 1994, the Clinton administration appointed an ombudsman to mediate between the rafters and U.S. military authorities at Guantánamo. Guarioné M. Diaz, director of the Miami based Cuban-American National Council, served as ombudsman for almost three months.
In his report Cuba’s Raft Exodus of 1994, Carmelo Mesa-Lago recognizes the following improvements achieved during Diaz’s tenure: “supply of daily fresh milk for small children; construction of wooden floors for thousands of tents; installation of regular toilets to replace portable ones; weekly visits by a team of physicians from Miami; and delivery of mail.” (p. 20)