Haitian Rhythms Under Scrutiny: Guantánamo Bay Bio-surveillance and Blackness at the Border

Shamira Ibrahim

In 1994, President Joe Biden, then a senator on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said during an interview, “If Haiti—a God-awful thing to say—if Haiti just quietly sunk into the Caribbean or rose up three hundred feet, Haiti wouldn’t matter a whole lot in terms of our interest.” During this time, his party’s administration was detaining Haitians in Guantánamo Bay and enacting an intrusive regime of bio-surveillance, examining their blood for the presence of HIV/AIDS. This state-sanctioned insistence on narrating Black Haitian movement into the United States as a biological and legal threat to the sanctity of white democracy undergirds contemporary immigration surveillance practices and modes of social classification. Biden’s remarkably callous statement situated abjection as the Haitian origin story. It also concealed the role of US foreign policy in re-entrenching and extending the legacy of Western colonialism in Haiti. 

Haitian countermemories of Western empire direct us away from supposed disrepair toward Black freedom dreaming. Going back to the story of Bois Caïman—the legend of the first gathering of enslaved Blacks in the lead-up to the Haitian Revolution, collectively making a blood pact to organize against their oppressors—the Haitian story has been one of solidarity and culturally rooted resistance to authoritarian regimes. 

The work of seminal Black studies scholar Christina Sharpe helps make sense of Biden's statement and shows that, conversely, the colonial terror to which Haitians are subjected transforms Haitians into the carriers of terror. 1 The horrific conditions produced by American foreign policy, leading Haitians to flee their homeland en masse, become viral Haitian dysfunction. American multiculturalism in the 1990s avoided explicit endorsement of eugenics, as outside of acceptable discourse, and yet Haitian blood was legally codified as a threat to public safety. Formal public health policy identified “four Hs” as the primary mechanisms through which HIV/AIDS was spread in the United States: “homosexuals,” “heroin addicts,” hemophiliacs, and Haitians. Though the identification of the first three groups was heavily mediated by race and nationality, Haitians were the only risk category explicitly defined in such terms. Entering Haiti into the ledger as a contagion thus authorized constraints on Black Haitian mobility as a medical necessity. 

Modernizing Colonial Legacies 

Haitians’ classification as an oceanic virus would be productive for a bloodstained American empire. The US occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934 saddled the island nation with heavy economic debts, displaced thousands of Haitian nationals of their land, and subjected Haitians to a gamut of human rights abuses under martial law. 

Haitian persecution was accepted as the nominal price to pay for Cold War politicking: the physical location of Haiti in the Atlantic made it a key frontier to suppress the expansion of communism in the West. As a result, the US administration worked in conjunction with the oppressive Haitian regimes of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, in turn. US dollars funded their violent and exploitative dictatorships and facilitated the hereditary transfer of power in exchange for containment of their Cuban neighbors; the fact that Haitian livelihood was at stake was of little concern. 

“It is because the United States has fostered Haiti’s unlivable conditions that it refuses to recognize Haitians’ claims,” writes humanities scholar Naomi Paik. “Because the United States supported Haiti’s (violently repressive) governments that serviced (exploitative) economic structures and Cold War ideologies, it made the Haitian refugee an impossibility.” Left unchallenged, the purportedly “unlivable conditions” of Haiti were continuously posited by American administrations as scientific fact, as if suffering were built into the soil. In truth, as Black studies scholar Bedour Alagraa articulates, it is “a way of life imposed as a form of political and social domination.”

Three years prior to Biden’s remarks, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, only eight months into his term as the first democratically elected president in the country’s history, had been deposed by military coup. In the wake of his overthrow, tens of thousands of Haitians fled the country. The US Coast Guard—exhibiting a combination of xenophobia and racism—would intercept many of them at sea, inviting Haitians to come aboard Coast Guard vessels only to set the refugees’ small boats on fire, along with whatever possessions remained in them. Haitians were subsequently returned directly to Haiti or detained at Guantánamo Bay—now infamous for its function as a post-9/11 prisoner-of-war torture site operated by the United States. By June 1993, forty thousand Haitians had been detained; 269 tested positive for HIV and were segregated in what was effectively a concentration camp—Camp Bulkeley.

Surveilling Haitian Blood

In The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses, African feminist scholar Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí writes, “The cultural logic of Western social categories is founded on an ideology of biological determinism: the conception that biology provides the rationale for the organization of the social world.” Once the US government decided Haitians biologically constituted viral risk, they built a set of legal, data, and medical practices ensuring Haitian unhealth and unfreedom. 

“Haitians were portrayed as ragged, wretched, and pathetic and were said to be illiterate, superstitious, disease-ridden and backward peasants,” writes medical anthropologist Paul Farmer. “They became visible scapegoats for the failure of U.S. capitalism.” This depiction would position Haitians as what feminist scholar Neel Ahuja describes as “uniquely contagious transborder vectors in need of militarized exclusion.” The real-life consequence of this fiction was that Haitian nationals in the United States could not get work regardless of legal eligibility and, when seeking asylum, were subsequently sent to detention centers. A nascent tourism industry was decimated; sales of Haitian goods plummeted in the United States; Haitians struggled to buy and sell their homes. 

The process for establishing the Haitian “risk factor” made it an urgent matter to produce data that could overcome the disjuncture between hyperbolic claims of uniquely Haitian contagiousness and the relatively low recorded incidence of HIV/AIDS among Haitian immigrants to the United States and Canada. 

From 1981 to 1983, less than two hundred cases of Haitian immigrants living with HIV/AIDs were reported in the United States and Canada, during which time two hundred thousand Haitian immigrants arrived in the country—an infection rate of under 0.1 percent. Despite being unable to solidify a linear correlation between Haitian citizenship and rates of infection, public health officials proclaimed Haitians as biologically unknowable, at the same time that they declared them a known viral risk. This designation as poisonous was rooted in colonial discourse of Africa as the “dark continent.” This sequence of events illustrates Simone Browne’s concept of dark matter—“the surveillance of blackness as often unperceivable within the study of surveillance, all the while blackness being that non-nameable matter that matters the racialized disciplinary society.

Epidemiologist Jacques Pépin was a key architect of a public health strategy that substituted the libidinal economy of white tourism—the true cause of transmission—with Black Haitian desperation as the cause of HIV/AIDS transmission. Against mounting evidence to the contrary, he alleged that Haitians working in 1960s post-independence Democratic Republic of Congo brought the virus to Haiti, which in turn spread as poor Haitians sold their blood to plasma centers such as Hemo-Caribbean.2 Although Paul Farmer quickly debunked this argument by pointing out how the first cases of HIV arrived in Haiti in the 1970s, attempts to publicly undermine Pépin’s racist narrative proved an uphill battle. Public health policy and surveillance redoubled their efforts to substantiate the fiction about Black Haitian blood contaminating white purity.

Farmer worked with Haitian medical experts to gain insights about the contributing factors to HIV infections.3 “Sufficient data now exist to support the assertion that economically driven male prostitution, catering to a North American clientele, played a major role in the introduction of HIV to Haiti,” Farmer wrote. “In a country as poor as Haiti—‘the poorest country in the hemisphere’—AIDS might be thought of as an occupational hazard for workers in the tourist industry.”4 Academic and regulatory infrastructure worked to criminalize Haitian life; anti-Blackness caused and legitimated a concrete set of actions. As sociologist Ruha Benjamin emphasizes in Race After Technology, if racism subordinates and causes suffering for some, it is productive and life affirming for others. Inverting cause and effect for HIV/AIDS transmission, the state-sanctioned mythos translated desires for white innocence as scientific fact—even as these tenuously cobbled together facts failed to hold water.

Brad Stearns of the US Food and Drug Administration noted in 1990 that there was no ideal way to identify potential transmission in heterosexual activity. “Haitians are not a higher risk group per se,” Stearns said. “But we don’t have effective screening devices.” And so the United States attempted to produce a set of “truths” about the risk of HIV in Haitians through policies mandating intensive bio-surveillance.5

Reading against Recordkeeping

In 1993, the detainees at Bulkeley went on a hunger strike as the legal team at Yale University and the Haitian Centers Council brought a case before the Eastern District of New York. Having been robbed of their humanity and agency, it was their chance to create awareness of the false pretense of humanitarianism the United States was presenting to the world while they were suffering in concentration camps. The presence of HIV antigens was used as a basis for quarantine—despite it being a bloodborne pathogen not requiring social isolation—with reports of numerous false positives. Prisoners’ white blood cell counts were monitored regularly to see whether T cell levels dropped below 13 percent—the diagnostic criterion for AIDS by the CDC at the time. The facility lacked proper resources to treat opportunistic infections, or to perform CAT scans for advanced stages of the virus—and HIV-positive refugees were often uncertain regarding their serostatuses, treatments, and futures in detention. Data collection was clearly structured in service of containment, not of Haitian well-being. 

Ultimately, the Eastern District ordered all the detainees released from imprisonment; their serostatuses and T cell counts determined whether they were granted asylum in the United States or deported to Haiti. Despite the US government’s racial animus toward Haitians, they were legally compelled to provide relocation to the United States for any Haitians diagnosed with HIV/AIDS by their Guantánamo doctors. It was a mistake they made certain never to forget: prison clinicians were instructed not to test future detainees for any diagnosable conditions like HIV/AIDS for which the government could be legally forced to grant asylum status if positive. 

Bio-surveillance and intake records on Guantánamo detainees helped launder imperial mythmaking as scientific evidence. Literary and cultural scholar Saidiya Hartman’s commentary on plantation account books remain salient for making sense of these surveillant archives and their management of Haitian exclusion. In “Venus In Two Acts,” Hartman discusses the “account books that identified them as units of value, the invoices that claimed them as property, and the banal chronicles that stripped them of human features.” Locating the origins of contemporary surveillance protocols in methods of controlling Black life—as Browne does in Dark Matters—shifts the paradigm away from the white libertarian anxieties dominating surveillance studies. 

In the essay “A Very Stern Discipline,” the celebrated writer Ralph Ellison expressed, “Any people who could endure all of that brutalization and keep together, who could undergo such dismemberment, resuscitate itself, and endure until it could take the initiative in achieving its own freedom is obviously more than the sum of its brutalization.”6 The story of slavery is a story of freedom; in kind, the story of immigration and prison surveillance is a story of freedom as well. As Browne reminds us, “unfinished emancipation suggests that slavery matters and the archive of transatlantic slavery must be engaged if we are to create a surveillance studies that grapples with its constitutive genealogies.”7 Immigration surveillance falls directly under that purview.

Flexible Blood, Shifting Earth 

In 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake would reveal how flexibly Haitian blood could be redefined to meet the needs of white adoptive parents. Natural disaster became a social enterprise as millions of dollars poured into the coffers of Western nongovernmental organizations—most infamously the International Red Cross, who raised 500 million dollars for “relief but only built six homes.”

Within days of the disaster, the State Department announced that orphaned children from Haiti who were believed to be eligible for US adoption would be allowed to enter the country temporarily, on a case-by-case basis, to ensure they received proper care. “While we remain focused on family reunification in Haiti, authorizing the use of humanitarian parole for orphans who are eligible for adoption in the United States will allow them to receive the care they need here,” said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Prospective US foster parents in turn demanded that embassies expedite the relocation of Haitian children to the United States for adoption. Immigration processes that made Haitian movement across US borders otherwise impossible were now subverted. Vital paperwork destroyed in the earthquake created a data vacuum in which genealogies could be speculatively reconstructed in order to meet the desires of white adoptive parents. The Joint Council on International Children’s Services (JCICS), a US advocacy group, constructed a database containing information on the adoption processes of each family, warning that “bringing children into the US either by airlift or new adoption during a time of national emergency can open the door for fraud, abuse and trafficking.”8 “The vast majority of the children currently on their own still have family members alive who will be desperate to be reunited with them,” said Jasmine Whitbread, Save the Children’s chief executive. “Taking children out of the country would permanently separate thousands of children from their families—a separation that would compound the acute trauma they are already suffering.” 

Haitians wanted to keep their children and had domestic institutions to care for kids who had truly lost their biological parents, but American and white desires superseded Haitian safety and the sanctity of family ties—an epigenetic wound that reverberates for centuries. In the following months, 1,150 children were shipped from Haiti to the United States—more than had come in the previous three years—under the auspices of “humanitarian parole.” 

“[Haiti is] not full of unwanted children. It’s full of children whose families are too poor to provide for them.” Even this counternarrative elided America’s role in impoverishing Haitian families and how the economic aftermath was exploited vis-à-vis severance of Haitian children from their families for the benefit of American ones. This destructive colonialism masquerading as humanitarian saviorism is echoed by the present-day separation of families at the US–Mexico border.

Some of the orphanages that were emptied had been untouched by the earthquake but merely profited from the advantageous timing; children were released in the absence of legal documents confirming they were indeed orphans, a plague common to the international adoption market. The preservation of the adoption market is preconditioned on maintaining Haiti as a condemned state, abdicating duties of care washed away first by natural disaster and then by humanitarian force. Some arrived to America on the premise of adoption only to be funneled into separate carceral systems like foster care or juvenile detention after struggling to adjust.

The New York Times reported, “The requirements were written so broadly, adoption experts said, that almost any child in an orphanage could qualify as long as there were emails, letters or photographs showing that the child had some connection to a family in the United States.” If we understand the state-sanctioned collection of detained Haitian blood as data—and the data lacunae produced by subsequent policies, from seropositivity to the adoption rush—as the formation of an archive, we can also recognize it as a technocratic method of storytelling.

These shifting imperial logics, rooted in anti-Blackness and colonialism, have only ever served to induce calamity in Haiti. But the narrative of the power and danger of Haitian blood is not defined by disrepair; rather, it is reinforced in the afterlives of Bois Caïman, a tale that sits at the threshold of myth and history. In the story, the blood is not the threat or the weapon; it is the commitment of Haitian resistance to European violence and capture via ritual.. The narrative is passed down over centuries throughout the diaspora, serving as a legacy of Haitian pride via blood inheritance, every retelling contributing to the formation of an archive of counternarratives that reject the claim that Haitians are destined for disrepair. 

The Complexion for Protection: Colorism Archives

“To be a Haitian asylum-seeker knocking at the door of the U.S. is to stand at perhaps the most visible convergence of race and empire imaginable in this hemisphere,” writes historian Miriam Pensack. “Citizens of the first free Black republic in the Americas, Haitian migrants have endured all of America’s rampant anti-Blackness, as well as its often deadly and racially motivated immigrant exclusion.”

Black Haitians are continuously rendered hypervisible as not-quite-human metaphors for human suffering; simultaneously, the visual lexicon of conventional immigration advocacy implies that light-skinned mestizos are the modal protagonists fighting the everyday horror of US immigration policies. While slavery is regularly referenced in abolitionist discussions of modern policing’s historical roots, dominant conceptions of immigration by immigration justice advocates temporally abstract away from Hartman’s crucial reminder regarding “the ongoingness of slavery.” Likewise, the story told about Guantánamo Bay typically begins with September 11, 2001. Images of light-skinned Arabs are the visual signifier of War on Terror logics, despite the indefinite detention of Muslim Somalis during that period, or of Haitians a decade earlier. 

Mainstream immigration advocacy organizations have increasingly worked to publish in-depth reports documenting the tech procurement contracts of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the ecosystem of academic and industry ties that maintain their capacity to surveil. In December 2022, the Action Center on Race and the Economy, LittleSis, MediaJustice, and the Immigrant Defense Project published an investigation into militarized policing and surveillance that analyzes the technical architecture and the subsequent “War on Terror.” “Through our research,” its authors report, “we found that DHS [Department of Homeland Security] fueled a massive influx of money into surveillance and policing in our cities, under a banner of emergency response and counterterrorism—and with the support of its corporate partners like Microsoft, LexisNexis, ShotSpotter, Palantir, and Motorola Solutions.” In their analysis, 9/11 is the inflection point that codified an institutional link between immigration and terrorism, giving permission to reorient DHS resources to “secure the homeland” via a “war on Black and Brown neighborhoods.” The report proceeds to explain how the collusion between public and private interests has created “data fusion centers”—a core feature of the data-brokerage market, under the auspices of a counterterrorism response. These “black boxes of public-private data collection” are used to enhance multiple prongs of surveillance—racialized policing, mass surveillance, government spying on social movements, targeting of Muslims, detention and deportation.

Similarly, in 2018 Mijente, the National Immigration Project, and the Immigrant Defense Project published the report Who’s Behind ICE? The Tech Companies Fueling Deportations, as part of Mijente’s No Tech for Ice Campaign. The report details how immigration surveillance practices were transformed in 2002 with an escalation of public–private partnerships. The government’s move towards cloud services has been the result of the “cloud industrial complex,” the report reads. “A public–private partnership among industry lobbyists, tech executives, key federal legislators, and tech executives–turned–government officials.” These reports confront the growing power of ICE with requisite diligence and attention to detail. However, by locating the origin of digital surveillance practices in the twenty-first century, under-attending to slavery, Black rhythms, and dreams of autonomy, they continuously produce incomplete maps of enclosures with no possibility for escape. When reports do include the surveillance to which Black communities are uniquely subjected, it is all too often viewed as distinct from the deportation machine. Rather, anti-Black modes of digital scrutiny are typically linked to gang databases or monitoring of Black Lives Matter activists. 

As Black theorists Sylvia Wynter and Bedour Alagraa observe, we must consider how the urgent tempo of “crisis” and the “unprecedented” structure the colorist imagination around which people moving across borders are designated as worthy immigrants, criminally viral, or enslaved, outside of the historical record. Following this provocation, and building on Timnit Gebru and Joy Buolamwini’s Gender Shades, we can then ask: Which technologies—digital and otherwise—recognize dark-skinned people, and to what end?

1. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Duke University Press, 2016), 15. 2.  This plasma was sold abroad, particularly to American companies. Since opening in 1971, Hemo-Carribbean exported 1,600 gallons of plasma to the United States monthly : Donald G. McNeil Jr., “H.I.V. Arrived in the U.S. Long Before ‘Patient Zero,’” New York Times, October 26, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/27/health/hiv-patient-zero-genetic-analysis.html. Corporations were capitalizing off of a market imbalance by harvesting plasma from undernourished Haitians with a demand so great that the company went from processing 350 people a day to 850: Richard Severo, “Impoverished Haitians Sell Plasma for Use in the U.S.,” New York Times, January 28, 1972, https://www.nytimes.com/1972/01/28/archives/impoverished-haitians-sell-plasma-for-use-in-the-us.html

3. On February 4, 2022, Farmer was one of thirty-eight professors who signed an open letter questioning the misconduct investigations into Harvard professor of African and African American Studies and Anthropology John L. Comaroff, who was placed on unpaid leave for violating Harvard’s sexual and professional conduct policies. He retracted his support on February 11. 4. Farmer, AIDS and Accusation, 244. 5. Ibid, 348.

6. Ralph Ellison, Going to the Territory, (New York. Random, 1986) 275.

7.  Browne, Dark Matters, 13.

8. “Orphaned Haitian Children”; Peter Selman, “Intercountry Adoption after the Haiti Earthquake: Rescue or Robbery?,” Adoption and Fostering, December 22, 2011, available at https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Intercountry+adoption+after+the+Haiti+earthquake%3A+rescue+or+robbery%3F-a0277270824.

Shamira Ibrahim is a Brooklyn-based writer by way of Harlem, Canada, and East Africa, who explores identity, cultural production, and technology.

This piece appears in Logic's upcoming issue 19, "supa dupa skies (move slow and heal things)." Subscribe today to receive the issue as part of a subscription, or preorder at our store in print or digital formats.