Guantanamo Bay Exhibit Opens At Phoenix Public Library

October 18, 2013

(Photo by Steve Shadley-KJZZ)
Victor Caldee performs a traditional Cuban song in his Phoenix home.

A small replica of Guantanamo Bay is coming to Phoenix. It is part of an exhibit at the Burton Barr Library that explores the history of the U.S. Naval Base in Cuba. The “Guantanamo Public Memory Project” travels around the nation, but it also has ties to Arizona. 

You can easily find the exhibit because it sticks out. On the second floor of the library, you will see a tall, metal cage with a sign that reads, “Guantanamo.” Phoenix Public Library’s Kathy Husser is standing at the center of the exhibit.

“You’re looking at a chain linked fenced in area to give you the sense of imprisonment or detainment," Husser said. 

Husser is pointing to a series of photos and illustrations of Guantanamo over the past century. The U.S. has operated the Naval Base since 1898. It gets a lot of attention nowadays because of the hundreds of suspected terrorists the U.S. is holding there.

"We hope it creates a dialog. I mean, you’re always going to have very strong views one way or another on government and laws and human rights," Husser said.

The exhibit includes a series of lectures over the next month, and you can even meet a man who was detained at Guantanamo Bay.

Victor Caldee plays guitar and sings in Spanish. He performs in the dining room of his Phoenix home. He is wearing an American Flag t-shirt and he closes his eyes and grins as he plays guitar.

Caldee moved to Phoenix from Cuba 20 years ago. He fled when Fidel Castro allowed masses of people to leave the country voluntarily.  Caldee said he built a raft out of old oil barrels. It carried 19 members of his family from Cuba 90 miles across the ocean to Key West, Fl.

“27 hours in the raft. 27 hours," Caldee said.  

 But before they landed, the U.S. Coast Guard caught them and sent his family to the American base at Guantanamo. Speaking through an interpreter, Caldee said for more than a year he lived in a crowded tent surrounded by barbed wire and land mines that kept detainees from escaping, but still even so he learned something there.

“When I arrived there to Guantanamo I realized the soldiers were the same as those in Cuba, young people, full of life, you understand? I thought, they aren't bad, because when you say army you think, "Ah!" Caldee said. "But (they were) the same people, young people, full of desire to live, friendly. My mentality changed a lot."

Caldee was allowed to create art at Guantanamo. One of his works is painted on the canvas from his tent at the base. It was in this artwork that he was able to express some of the vulnerability he felt.

“We were naked. We didn't have laws that protected us," Caldee said. "We didn't have protection from any country. So I felt like that, like a naked person."

Now Caldee is middle-aged, is an architect and does some political cartoon work. He is eager to talk about his Guantanamo experiences at the exhibit next month. 

Arizona State University history professor Nancy Dallett wants the Guantanamo Memory Project to bring attention to modern day detainees, the ones who were waterboarded and suffered other forms of torture by U.S. authorities.

“We seem to be looking out at the rest of the world and noting human rights violations everywhere, but we don’t seem to be as aware of the ones we are committing on a daily basis and what’s being done in our names," Dallet said.

The Guantanamo Public Memory Project started at Columbia University in 2009. It was brought to the valley by ASU and the Phoenix Public Library. The exhibit opens Saturday and runs through November 24. Then it goes to Miami and on to New Orleans.