THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Bad Blood

Haiti and the mythology of AIDS

by Andrew Deck

Illustration by Bryn Brunnstrom

published April 21, 2017


 

The Windward Passage spans the distance between Port-au-Prince and Santiago de Cuba. It’s the strait left between the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola as their eastern and northwestern coasts stretch towards each other. American boats have long navigated this body of water as they travel on commercial and military trips from the Panama Canal up the Caribbean Sea to the eastern seaboard. But in the early months of 1992, the Windward Passage wasn’t only filled with cargo ships of Dole pineapples and Chiquita bananas or American gunboats, but with boats sailed by Haitian refugees. 

A coup in September 1991 had pushed tens of thousands of Haitians into poorly constructed dinghies on a dangerous journey to the Florida Coast. They were fleeing violence and the persecution of political dissidents following the removal of Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. They would find little relief from the American government, and many refugees were soon entangled in the xenophobic policies and a larger political fight over the legal status of HIV+ immigrants. Rejecting the label of refugees, US media named them, simply, “the Haitian boat people.” 

Within several months of the coup, over 34,000 Haitian refugees had entered international waters seeking asylum. In response, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and Bush Sr.’s administration sent National Coast Guard convoys to intercept boats before they could leave the Windward Passage. It was an effort to void the legal rights afforded to refugees who reached American shores—the right to a lawyer, due process, and equal protections under the law—while sidestepping the public relations fallout of turning away political refugees. 

Instead of receiving the refugees in Miami, the American government established an immigration processing center on a little known naval base, which was exceptional for its ambiguous legal status on the question of constitutional protections. A decade before the same grounds would become infamous for waterboarding and extraordinary rendition, an immigration detention center for “the Haitian boat people” was erected at Guantanamo Bay. 

 

+++

 

Most Haitians were deemed “economic immigrants” at the processing center, a category legally unworthy of political asylum. They were sent back to Haiti, the place they had risked their lives to leave. The remaining Haitians eligible for political asylum were caught in the liminal grounds of Guantanamo: in American military custody, but far from American soil where they could claim their international rights as refugees. 

Yolande Jean was one of those caught in the in-between. Before the coup, Jean was a grassroots organizer who ran underground adult literacy programs in the face of the military’s efforts to subdue democratic mobilizations of the poor. She was three months pregnant when the military police arrested her. For five days she underwent torture and physical beatings as retribution for educating the illiterate. In interviews since and in her profile in medical anthropologist Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power, Jean says that when she left military jail, she left with the resolve to escape Haiti at any cost. Within weeks, she found herself detained again by a different military on a different island, but only 200 miles from Port-au-Prince. At Guantanamo, her resolve was reconfigured but remained unwavering. 

In the press, the American government called the Guantanamo processing center a “humanitarian mission.” Under this pretense, all refugees considered for political asylum underwent mandatory medical inspections—including blood tests. “There were people who refused to have their blood drawn,” Jean recalls. “Soldiers came to handcuff them, tie them up in order to draw their blood.” The sometimes-forced extraction of blood by the military was not merely to improve medical treatment of refugees, but to expose illness and disability. Blood could assist INS officials in identifying those with conditions deemed unfit for entrance into the US populace. Using these samples, 267 of the refugees, Jean included, were diagnosed as HIV+. 

This diagnosis not only endangered Jean’s life, but also her claim to asylum. In 1991, the US was one of the only countries in the world with an HIV immigration ban. The World Health Organization and CDC had both published memos calling the public health risk of HIV+ immigrants negligible. But the fear of HIV+ bodies engendered at the height of the AIDS epidemic would entrench the ban for over 22 years—it was only fully lifted in 2009. 

While the immigration status of each refugee was heard in court, Jean and 266 refugees were quarantined, and moved to a separate facility on Guantanamo called Camp Bulkeley. There, she received a new brightly-colored identification wristband that marked her HIV+ status. Although the Bush administration continued to use the word “humanitarian” in the press to describe Bulkeley, Haitians detained there have called Bulkeley a “concentration camp” and a “prison.” From 1991 to 1993, the 267 HIV+ Haitians were held on Guantanamo—some for months, others for years—trapped in their dual status as political refugees and “AIDS carriers.” Camp Bulkeley became the first detention center in the world for HIV+ immigrants. 

 

+++

 

The imaginary of gay activists and intellectuals had always prophesied AIDS detention camps. ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a powerful New York-based AIDS research and political activist organization in the ’80s, had chosen as its symbol a pink triangle placed boldly against black. It signified the inverted pink triangles worn on the sleeves of “homosexuals” in concentration camps during the Holocaust. The triangles were inverted to mark “the transformation of a symbol of humiliation into one of solidarity and resistance.” Underneath the triangle was the equation, “SILENCE = DEATH.”

ACTUP’s iconography understood AIDS as more than a mere moral panic, but the foundations of genocide. The state had taken a passive role in these deaths—ignoring cries by the medical and queer communities for research funding and an expansive public health response for nearly a decade—but their culpability remained clear to many. And for ACT UP and other activist groups, it took little creativity to envision these concentration camps. British AIDS activist Simon Watney notes that in 1987, nearly 57 percent of News of the World readers in the UK were “in favor of the idea that ‘AIDS carriers’ should be ‘sterilized and given treatment to curb their sexual appetite.’” 51 percent supported the total recriminalization of homosexuality. 

But in prophesying their own futures, the white gay men heralded as the leaders of AIDS activism may have lost sight of others marked for detention. While the queer community was far from silent during the imprisonment of Haitian refugees at Guantanamo, it’s important to recognize that it wasn’t only HIV+ men who were quarantined and imprisoned, and ‘homosexuals’ were not the only ‘risk-group’ blamed for an epidemic.

 

+++

 

The first time I heard about AIDS I was in elementary school. We were standing on asphalt, waiting in line for our turn on the swings. My classmate leaned in to share a secret. He whispered in my ear, the way kids boast when they learn their first curse words, or what sex or divorce or masturbation “is.” He whispered: The first gay got AIDS when he had sex with a monkey in Africa.

I wasn’t the first or last to have this creation fable—the original sin of AIDS—whispered in their ear. There are countless adaptations. These myths originate in epidemiological studies that traced the strain of HIV most commonly found in America to chimpanzees in equatorial West Africa. Epidemiologists theorize that HIV was first transmitted to humans when people hunting these chimpanzees came in contact with their blood. But this epidemiological narrative has become twisted, laced with beastiality and racism in its turn towards mythology. 

While this origin story parallels and sustains the myth of a promiscuous and flamboyant Patient X, the target of its accusation and shame is different. It’s not just sexual deviancy, nor is it just homosexuality. It’s devolution, the absence of modernity. It’s Blackness and ‘Africa,’ the continental monolith. It’s ‘the jungle,’ with all its imperial implications of untamed wilderness and barbarity. Its disease-ridden, uncivilized people, the myth says. Ideology seeps into the cracks between the letters: The first gay got AIDS when he had sex with a monkey in Africa. 

Africa is reduced to a mere abstraction by those who practice the oral tradition of AIDS mythology, whispering stories furtively in the ears of children. In practice and policy, Americans would point their fingers much closer to home, towards an island once nicknamed little Africa off the coast of Florida. An island whose history as the first decolonized Black republic—like the mythology of AIDS origins—evokes a fear of Blackness in white America. In white America's gaze towards Haiti, these mythologies would mutate into policy. 

 

+++

 

In 1990, two years before the Haitian coup, the FDA passed an addendum to their blood donation recommendations. It banned the donations of anyone born or emigrated from Haiti, alongside anyone from the thirty-eight Sub-Saharan African countries. They publically reasoned that people from these countries were “high-risk” due to high incidences of HIV. But this time the FDA didn’t hide under the façade of Men Who Have Sex with Men (MSM) or “risky behavior.” The ban spoke explicitly and unequivocally to identity, not action. Every Haitian was a possible threat to the American public, the FDA said. As “AIDS carriers,” their blood could taint the purity of the American blood supply. 

In the weeks after the new recommendations were published—a more rigorous version of the limited Haitian blood ban passed in the early 1980s—Haitian-Americans protested across the country. 5,000 in Miami. 90,000 in Manhattan. They called out the ban as racist and xenophobic. It didn’t take long for the FDA to revise its recommendations to more precisely filter out blood donors, rather than broadly sweeping aside people from predominantly Black nations of origin. But the implications of the ban had already settled into the public consciousness. 

The ban, like the MSM ban before it, pulled on a thread that had woven through the American public: the mythology of AIDS origins. It was more than a ban; it was an accusation.

 

+++

 

Soon after being moved to Camp Bulkeley, Yolande Jean was brought to a medical physician: “They gave me two pills and an injection,” Jean remembers. “I asked them, why the injection? Because you have a little cold, they replied. But it wasn’t a vaccine, it was an injection in the buttocks. And if you didn’t want it, you had no choice: they simply said, it’s for your own good. You have to accept it, or they call soldiers to come and hold you, force you to take it, or they put you in the brig and brings your pills to you there. I learned that the injection the doctor had given me was Depo-Provera.” Depo-Provera is a birth control shot that contains the hormone Progestin, which inhibits conception by preventing ovulation and thickening the cervical mucus. It’s also known for being long lasting, upwards of three months. “I began having heavy bleeding. I bled for three months,” Jean recalls. “There were other women who’d had the injection before me, but I didn’t know that.” 

Legally, no justification can be given for forcing hormonal contraceptives on a detained refugee. But neither is there a medical justification for administering contraceptives to treat HIV. In fact, during the administration of Depo-Provera at Guantanamo there was no concern for treating HIV+ patients or preventing the transmission of HIV to sexual partners. Cathy Hannabach has called the injection of Depo-Provera into female Haitian refugees at Guantanamo “semi-permanent sterilization,” since, ultimately, the goal of the procedure was to inhibit the reproductive abilities of Jean and the other Haitian women. 

Here, blame is not placed on the homosexual man, but on the HIV+ Black woman, reduced to her maternity and condemned for infecting her unborn child. The phantom of an “AIDS baby” is an upsetting reality that in recent years has been degraded to punchlines that populate the locker rooms of middle school boys. Here, it is imbued with political power. The physician’s foretelling of an HIV+ infant was used to rationalize the state’s control of these Haitian women’s reproductive autonomy. And in the context of America’s history of imperialism in the Caribbean, that sentiment can be taken a step further to say it was used to rationalize a colonization of the womb. 

But it is hard to read this event apart from other instances of state-sponsored sterilization. In the cruel history of eugenics, sterilization was a tool to advance selective reproduction. More specifically, it was used to advance racial hygiene—the promotion of a superior white race. After the height of the American eugenics movement, sterilization of women of color continued under new intellectual banners. Beginning in 1937, sterilization was used on Puerto Rican women without informed consent as a “population control” method. By 1965, one-third of all mothers ages 20-49 in Puerto Rico had undergone a hysterectomy or tubal ligation, making a Puerto Rican woman 10 times more likely to have undergone a sterilization procedure than a mainland American woman. Birth control and alternative forms of contraceptives have also been implicated in these histories of sterilization, including the implantation of Norplant—an injectable birth control—into incarcerated women. In 1991, a California judge required Darlene Johnson, a mother of four and welfare recipient, to receive Norplant as a term of her probation. The decision followed an editorial in The Philadelphia Inquirer a few months earlier: “Poverty and Norplant—Can Contraception Reduce the Underclass?” 

The sterilization of Haitian women at Guantanamo is distinct in its conflation of disease and race. The Camp Bulkeley physicians seemingly wanted to keep the blood of these women’s children “pure,” untainted by HIV. But in the toxic mythologies of AIDS, as HIV+ blood is entangled with histories of race-based violence, these physician’s pursuit of “blood purity” becomes an extension of these racist histories.   

 

ANDREW DECK B’17 wants you not to forget the word Bulkeley.