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February 11, 2016

Exhibit: When Guantanamo Wasn’t Always So Controversial, and Its Present and Future

Courtesy Alex Macleod, 1980

Courtesy Alex Macleod, 1980

For a younger generation that became aware of the word “Guantanamo” only after the naval base’s prison turned internationally infamous and politically divisive in Congress, the images of earlier times at the island Navy facility are jarring: children playing tug of war, or jumping rope.

Those images and others — some jarring in other ways — are coming to Rayburn House Office Building Monday, June 23 as part of a touring exhibit by the Guantanamo Public Memory Project. The exhibit is making its first trip to Washington, D.C., and for only one day at Rayburn, accompanied by a reception featuring people who have worked at the base, were detained at the base or who cover the base.

“As we’re locked in the debate on how to move forward on Gitmo, we’re bringing in a new perspective by looking at the past,” said the project’s director, Liz Sevcenko. “A lot of people in the current debate on Gitmo, there’s little reflection on how it has been closed before only to be reopened, used and reused, again and again in many different ways by Republican and Democratic administrations alike for over a century.”

The exhibit — drawn from the work of students from 15 universities, led by Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, and an amalgamation of videos, artwork and informational banners — is coming at the invitation of Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison. Ellison, Sevcenko said, had learned of the exhibit after it came to his home state of Minnesota. So far, the exhibit has recorded 400,000 visitors.

“”This important exhibit should cause all Members of Congress to reevaluate Guantanamo Bay and consider the damage done by indefinite detentions to U.S. national security,” said Ellison in a prepared statement about the project.

But Sevcenko said the project does not advocate for a particular policy solution to Guantanamo. One way or another, the base is going to be around for years to come, she said. And it has served a wide variety of purposes already — as a more standard military community where children who grew up on it now remark that they “never felt so free, never felt so safe” as when they were there, or during other controversial periods like when it housed Haitian refugees.

“The lease with Cuba is indefinite,” she said. “Even if the last prisoner is released from the detention center, it’s open and available for future uses. We want to open a new dialogue for how we think about it.”

The evening reception features speeches from Virgilio Franqui, who was held at Guantanamo from 1993-94 as a Cuban refugee in a large tent city; Judge Sterling Johnson, who in 1993 released more than 200 Haitian refugees with HIV who were being held indefinitely there; Maj. Gen. Michael Lehnert, who built the first post-9/11 detention facilities on the base and had commanded refugee camps in 1995; and Carol Rosenberg, the Miami Herald’s beat reporter for Guantanamo Bay.

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