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 wasnt 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