Monday, March 16, 2009

Jana K. Lipman

Jana K. Lipman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Tulane University.

Her new book is Guantánamo: A Working-Class History between Empire and Revolution. She generously responded to several questions of mine:

Zeringue: For better or worse, many readers really do judge a book by its cover. Would you explain your cover and comment on how it conveys what the reader will find in the pages?

Lipman: The cover image illustrates a member of the US military patting down a Cuban base worker as he is either leaving or entering the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay in 1960 (the year after the Cuban revolution). First, there’s such friction and tension in the photograph. The US man literally has his hands on the Cuban worker, but both are determinedly looking past each other. It seemed to symbolically represent the unequal, yet interconnected, relationship between the two countries. Second, the book is about the base workers and their stories. In one image, the cover captures the awkward and often tense proximity between the US military and the Cuban men and women who worked on the base.

Zeringue: You started your research on the book well before 9/11 and the subsequent creation of the detention facilities at the U.S. Naval base at Guantánamo Bay (GTMO). I imagine you must be grateful for the explosion in attention to what goes on at the naval base and the communities around it. But the post-9/11 detentions are a marginal part of your robust history of the local and imported workers on the base. Are you more surprised that relatively few residents of Guantánamo (and other nearby Cuba cities) were interested in the detention of alleged Al Qaeda terrorists at the base, or that relatively few Americans are aware of the history of labor relations at the base?

Lipman: When readers think of “Guantánamo,” most probably think of the iconic images of men in orange jumpsuits and barbed wire cages, and very few know of the Cuban city of Guantánamo. The working-class history of the base demonstrates the long term consequences of US military installations around the world and the unintended consequences for both the United States and local communities. The book explains how and why the US military base in Guantánamo Bay became an enclave, detached from the nearby Cuban community and legal structures. I argue that this isolation enabled the United States to transform the base into a detention camp.

I attribute the relatively few conversations I had with men and women in Guantánamo about the detainees to the lack of contact between the community and the base for more than 50 years. One cannot see the base from the city, yet no one is alive today who can remember a time before the base. I believe that most accept the base as an ongoing reality, but also have distanced themselves from what goes on so close to their homes and families.

Zeringue: One of the many surprising things I learned from your book was that the extensive interaction between GTMO and the local population did not end with the Cuban Revolution but over the 1964 Water Crisis. Given Cold War logic—and paranoia—how do you explain the five year lag between the Revolution and the change in base policy?

Lipman: This is one of the most important points of the book. Most people in the United States and in Cuba have a rigid sense of politics defined “before” and “after” the 1959 Cuban revolution. The fact that Cuban men and women kept working on the base throughout the most volatile years of US-Cuban relations reveals an alternative history. First, it shows that the “revolution” was not defined immediately, but was rather debated and worked out within Cuba. While Fidel Castro eventually consolidated his control over the country, for many men and women in Guantánamo there was no initial inconsistency between being a good revolutionary and being a good base worker.

Second, the lives of working people often display unexpected contradictions in traditional diplomatic history. It moves foreign relations out of the State Department and high level communiqués and into men and women’s daily experiences. When workers were able to weather the initial international hostilities, they became one of the few groups who regularly interacted with both the US and Cuban governments. It wasn’t until 1964 when LBJ over-reacted to a relatively minor crisis that the United States pro-actively fired the majority of Cuban workers. Narrowly, this can be attributed to LBJ’s lack of international policy experience. However, more broadly it conveys how base workers’ stories show a far more dynamic and complex understanding of how “revolution” and “foreign relations” happened on the ground.

Zeringue: I suppose the three most famous personalities associated with Guantánamo and the base must be the eponymous "girl from Guantánamo" in the famous song Guantanamera, Col. Nathan R. Jessep (the fictional character portrayed by Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men), and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed ("the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks," according to the 9/11 Commission Report). Much of your history is told in the stories of local workers. If you could add one character from your history to our popular consciousness, who would it be and why?

Lipman: In 1954, Lorenzo Salomón was a Cuban worker who allegedly stole approximately $1500 of cigarettes from the Navy Exchange. Typically when workers were suspected of petty theft, the US remanded them to the local courts in Guantánamo and Santiago. However, in this case, US base officials detained workers on the base for 2 weeks. When he was released, he claimed he had been beaten repeatedly, forced to stand for hours on end, given rotten food, and been severely mistreated. He eventually signed a confession that he had stolen the cigarettes, but added that in order to stop the beatings and go home, he would have confessed to killing Abraham Lincoln as well.

Base workers rallied around Salomón and sharply criticized the United States. They did not defend Salomón as “innocent,” but insisted that Cuban workers did not lose their rights to due process just because they worked on the base. In newsletters and radio bulletins, they went so far as to compare the base intelligence techniques to those used by Germany and the Soviet Union: “We could not conceive that in a naval establishment of the most powerful nation in the world, champion of democracy, things like this could happen.”

When I read these documents in the US National Archive and then the newspaper reports in Cuba, I almost jumped out of my chair. Allegations of torture and unlawful detention resonated so strongly with current events that I was truly shocked. But just as importantly, the base workers themselves were arguing that Cuban men and women did not lose their rights to due process and a fair trial just because they worked on the base. Local labor leaders like Angel Calzado and José Perez Repilado vehemently argued for the rule of law to govern the base and demanded that the US live up to its own democratic principles.

This solidified my belief that base workers were astute international actors. To my knowledge, after this 1954 controversy, the US did not try and detain any other workers on the base. In fact, the US had Lorenzo Salomón prosecuted in Santiago de Cuba, and he eventually ended up serving a 6 month sentence in Cuba. The Salomón case is a key example of how base workers forced the base to be accountable to its workers and the rule of law, and in many ways, eerily anticipated questions about detention and due process that emerged after September 11th.

Zeringue: You've said that the United States ought to close down not only the detention facilities at GTMO but the entire base itself. And yet one might guess from your book that many of the Cubans living around the base would like to see it remain if the Navy returned to past practices and hired locally and participated in the area economy. Is that a fair assessment of local sentiment? Is it possible to have an interdependent, mutually-beneficial relationship between Cubans and the U.S. Navy at Guantánamo, or is the situation an inescapably unjust one?

Lipman: This is a point where I may respectfully disagree with many of the men and women I met. Some might see improved diplomatic relations bringing more jobs, rather than closing the base. Also, as a historian, I spoke mostly with elderly men and women, and I do not have a good sense of how younger Cubans in Guantánamo feel about the base. Furthermore, Cuba’s economic troubles are intense due to both the US embargo and Cuba’s failed economic policies, and I suspect almost any opportunity to earn US dollars would be welcome.

However, the origins of the US naval base in Guantánamo Bay are rooted in 19th century US imperialism, and the base currently serves no military purpose outside extraterritorial detention. The US-Cuba relationship could easily be more productive and would benefit from increased contact and exchange. The US acquired the base through a coercive treaty based on unequal terms, and it has impeded good relations between the US and Cuba since the beginning.

The US naval base in Guantanamo Bay is a symbolic and living site of US empire. The base continues to exhibit the disturbing potential of unchecked power and hinders US foreign policy goals. I maintain that the US should close the naval base in its entirety and end this chapter of its history.
Learn more about Guantánamo: A Working-Class History between Empire and Revolution at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue