UPR-RP co-sponsors international conference on camps & Guantánamo
By Don E. Walicek
The University of Puerto Rico’s Río Piedras Campus (UPR-RP) recently co-sponsored a conference with the Karl-Franzens University of Graz (KFUG) in Austria. Titled “Camps, (In)justice, & Solidarity in the Americas,” it took place at the end of May and attracted the participation of graduate students, academics, lawyers and human rights advocates from more than 20 countries.
The conference was organized by the Department of English in the College of Humanities at UPR-RP and the Center for Inter-American Studies at KFUG. Marking the 20th anniversary of detention operations at the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, it contextualized Guantánamo in terms of humanistic thought and a broad history of camps in the Caribbean and North and South America.
Invited guests included numerous academic experts and three former Guantánamo detainees who have written books about their experiences: Mohamedou Houbeini, Ahmed Errachidi and Lakhdar Boumediene. They spoke about their experiences in prison and how they have worked to rebuild their lives and raise awareness about injustice since their release.
Two additional authors, Moazzam Begg and Mansoor Adayfi, participated in online events because they have not been allowed to hold a passport since their release. Each spoke about the importance of preserving basic human rights and of the law.
At the opening ceremony, Houbeini, author of the international bestseller “Guantánamo Diary,” sang one of the songs that gave prisoners hope during some of the most unbearable moments of their confinement. He also commented on Puerto Rican guards, explaining that they stood out because they repeatedly demonstrated kindness and assured him that he would eventually be reunited with his family.
Errachidi worked as a cook for 18 years in the U.K. but now lives in his native Morocco. At a public reading, he called for reconciliation and healing, issuing an open invitation to the thousands who served as his guards during his confinement. He hopes that they will allow him to treat them to dinner at Terrase Blvd., the restaurant overlooking the Rock of Gibraltar that he now owns.
Boumediene, who was imprisoned at Guantánamo for seven years, explained that the U.S. government refused to tell him why he was detained. He responded with a hunger strike lasting more than two years. Boumediene was the lead plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court case Boumediene vs. Bush (2008). The case, which he won, gave detainees and other foreign nationals the right to file writs of habeas corpus in federal courts. While Boumediene stated that the ruling affirmed his humanity, he questioned why authorities tortured him after the victory.
The conference cultivated dialogue among a diverse group of humanists — students and scholars of literature, linguistics, cultural studies and other fields. One of the participants was José Ramón Sánchez from Guantánamo City, Cuba, a poet who has written dozens of poems about the base and military prison within it. Historian Jana Lipman of Tulane University gave a presentation in which she compared refugee and detention camps at Guantánamo Bay to those at Puerto Rico’s Camp Allen, where Haitian refugees were held in the early 1980s.
Numerous U.S. government reports note that hundreds of men detained in Guantánamo have been subjected to torture and solitary confinement, and denied basic rights such as religious freedom, access to lawyers and due process.
Retired Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert, the officer responsible for building the makeshift camps in which men were held in the wake of 9-11, has repeatedly called for the closure of the prison. Lehnert continues to repeat a statement he made during a 2016 visit to the Institute of Caribbean Studies at UPR-RP: “As long as the prison remains open, it will “undermine America’s security and status as a land where human rights and the rule of law matter.”
Even though U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order to close the prison within a year, it remains open today. A total of 37 men are detained there. Two have been convicted, five are held without charges as “forever prisoners,” 12 have been charged with war crimes, and 20 continue to be held even though they have been approved for release.
The idea to hold the conference stems from an earlier project called “Guantánamo and the Empire of Freedom” conceptualized by professor Jessica Adams and myself, of the College of General Studies and the College of Humanities, respectively. Concrete planning began when I served as Fulbright Scholar in Austria in 2019.
Supported by the Office of the Dean of Graduate Studies and Research and the Office of the Dean of Humanities, the conference contributes to the internationalization of academic activities and to the development of research by graduate students and faculty. It will result in two peer-reviewed publications and collaborative projects directed at the general public.
Organizers are looking forward to a second joint conference in Puerto Rico in 2024.
Don E. Walicek is a professor of English and Linguistics at the UPR-RP. He is the co-editor of “Guantánamo & American Empire: The Humanities Respond” and the Sargasso volume “Guantánamo, What’s Next?”