June 1993

BY Paul DeRienzo

The simmering crisis in the Caribbean nation of Haiti is reaching a boiling point, presenting President Bill Clinton with one of the first quagmires of his administration. Nearly 300 Haitian refugees who tested positive for HIV, the virus linked to AIDS, are being held at a US military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. In January, the refugees went on a hunger strike to protest their conditions and pressure the Clinton administration to allow them into the United States.

Thousands of Haitians who risked death at sea fleeing their homeland in rickety boats to escape bloody repression were intercepted by the US Coast Guard and interned at Guantanamo under orders from then-President George Bush. Most were forcibly returned to Haiti, but several refugees testing positive for HIV have been kept in detention because of a US policy excluding people with AIDS from entering this country. These refugees are among the few who could "prove" realistic fear of political persecution in Haiti, and cannot be legally returned yet they are now in legal limbo, unable to enter the United States.

Refugee inmates at Guantanamo's HIV detainment area, known as Camp Bulkeley, say they are being held under 24-hour guard in ramshackle wooden barracks surrounded by barbed wire. Conditions at the camp sparked a rebellion last July, in which a three-monthold infant died. The father blamed the child's death on US military. authorities who command more than 200 troops in a joint task force of Army, Navy and Air Force police that runs the camp. Authorities denied charges that soldiers struck the inmates. claiming the infant died from AIDS complications.

The refugees told a team of journalists and attorneys led by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), who won a legal battle to gain access to Camp Bulkeley, that they were protesting the dismal conditions at the camp. One member of the team, attorney Michael Wishni, reported of rat-infested overcrowded barracks and said medical care is virtually nonexistent. He said blood tests needed to monitor AIDS are sent to the United States, and months pass before results are returned.

One former guard indicts conditions at the camp. Air Force Security Police Officer Don Cole was arrested and disciplined for refusing an order to pick up his rifle during the July disturbance at Camp Bulkeley. Cole says he was within his rights to refuse the order because he believes it was unlawful. Cole claims the riot was started when soldiers beat a refugee demonstrator who tried to run past a cordon of military police.

Cole was slapped with an Article 15 bad conduct report, fined $500 and put on probation. Cole claims he was told by his commanding officer; "If you are ordered to napalm a school. you do it."

After three days in the brigg at Guantanamo. Cole was shipped back to the United States and handed a discharge. The Air Force says Cole's discharge was not based on the Camp Bulkeley incident, but the number of bad conduct reports in his file.

Cole maintains that he is a victim of racism. Cole contacted the NAACP to demand the Air Force investigate the incident, claiming his superiors routinely humiliated and harassed the refugees at Camp Bulkeley. The Air Force called their own subsequent internal investigation "inconclusive."

Cole says he thought he was going to Guantanamo on a "humanitarian mission," but found that his duties were more like those of a POW camp guard. Cole charges white officers at Camp Bulkeley with beating refugees, rubbing the face of a Haitian youth in mud because he urinated in the wrong place, drinking on duty and provoking the refugees during protests staged against their internment. He claims the violence at the camp last July could have been avoided if the sergeants in charge hadn't been spoiling for a fight.

An Air Force spokesperson told this reporter that a judgment of whether a command is illegal can only be made by a commanding officer and not by an individual soldier. But Cole insists it was prudent not to "comply with an illegal order and escalate unnecessary violence."

Cole says his good relations with Haitians in the camp often prompted the military to use him as a spokesperson when the media came. During one visit by a CNN camera crew, Cole says his commanders "told me I wasn’t to say anything bad about the military. If I had to lie. I was supposed to lie.

The existence of the HIV camp, which was set up in February 1992, has drawn sharp international criticism. Michael Ratner of CCR, who represents the refugees in a federal suit against the HIV exclusion rule, charges that the policy is arbitrary and discriminatory use of the law.- He points out that Cuban refugees are never tested for HIV when they enter the US.

Shortly after President Clinton reaffirmed his campaign pledge to overturn the HIV exclusion rule, the Senate voted by a wide margin to make the exclusion a law. A law, unlike a rule, cannot be overturned by presidential decree. As we go to press, the new law is being considered by the House of Representatives. If passed, it remains to be seen if Clinton will veto it.

email Paul DeRienzo

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