Guantanamero. Guajiro, Guantanamero.

The song has travelled the world, and is recognizable worldwide as a classic Cuban folk tune about a local girl.

Except that’s not what it was always about.

Although the song was first written by José Fernández Diaz around 1929, the modern lyrics can be traced back to a poem, Versos Sencillos, written by a Cuban nationalist named José Martí (1853-1895).

Martí, who studied law in Spain while in exile from Cuba, served as joint consul for Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina in New York in 1881. He actively lobbied for Cuban independence from American ambitions to annex the island.

The political nature of the poem is frequently overlooked,

Y antes de morirme quiero
Echar mis versos del alma

[And before I die I want
To pour out my verses from my soul]

The deeper meanings beyond a forbidden love with a girl from Guanatanamo Bay were frequently invoked during the Spanish-American War (1898), the Cuban-American Treaty (1903), all the way up to the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), when the song entered the mainstream through the peace movement.

But Guantanamo Bay has a different legal meaning in today’s world, and one of not unimportant significance.

I had breakfast this morning with Major David Frakt, a graduate of Harvard Law and currently a faculty member at Western State University, and Dennis Edney, a defence lawyer from Edmonton, Alberta.

Both lawyers are representing child soldiers held at Guantanamo Bay; Frakt as a military lawyer for an illiterate Afghan teen named Mohammed Jawad, and Edney for the only known Canadian citizen at Guantanamo, Omar Khadr.

Frakt explained to me the legal blackhole that has been created by Guantanamo. Two-thirds will never be charged with any offences, and therefore cannot effectively challenge their detention in any way. For the remaining third, there are enormous discovery issues, and limitations that prevent counsel from providing effective representation.

In addition to a legal system that doesn’t resemble anything ever known to the common law, the lawyers have the difficulty of not having any precedent to draw from.

When Frakt related his client’s experiences he choked up with emotion. Despite not believing in suicide as a moral option, Jawad had considered it to escape the horrors of his situation.

Edney elaborated further on the type of conditions these individuals had to endure,

When being transported, they were not given any food for three days… They were given water only for a day and a half, just enough to sustain their bodies… the reason was so they did not use the toilet while in transit.

I suggest that if you were to treat any pet in this manner you would quickly be brought up on animal cruelty charges. And these people, these human beings, are being treated worse than animals.

In closing arguments earlier this year Frakt stated,

February 7, 2002. America lost a little of its greatness that day. We lost our position as the world’s leading defender of human rights, as the champion of justice and fairness and the rule of law. But it is a testament to the continuing greatness of this nation, that I, a lowly Air Force Reserve Major, can stand here before you today, with the world watching, without fear of retribution, retaliation or reprisal, and speak truth to power. I can call a spade a spade, and I can call torture, torture.

Edney was quite clear that Canada was complicit in this abuse, and did not allow Harper any reprieve for his inaction. He is currently bringing a suit against him for it (n.b., he does hold Liberals just as responsible).

Both indicated that this is the legal issue of our generation. Frakt suggested that just as Japanese internment was recognized retrospectively as a xenophobic overreaction, so will many of the measures currently undertaken be sorely regretted in hindsight.

And that’s why I’m going on for so long about this, because as legal professions it is something that should be on the forefront of our minds. The Canadian Bar Association has come out in support of this issue, but there is more that all of us can do.

So what are the reasons for inaction in Canada?

This is a slightly different case of social justice coming at the expense of professional success. Lawyers and firms speaking out on this issue have been clearly threatened with economic sanctions.

Few of us would willingly espouse the philosophy expressed by Martí’s closing lines,

Con los pobres de la tierra
Quiero yo mi suerte echar

[With the poor people of the earth
I want to share my fate]

As a law student I don’t have to concern myself as much with those considerations right now, and can get away with highly opinionated pieces. And a firm too afraid to take on this issue probably wouldn’t do a very good job advocating for any client in the face of adversity.

I take my inspiration from Rabbi Hillel, a lawyer and teacher of the 1st c. CE, and it’s something I feel that can motivate us all beyond any threats by the executive office of another country.

According to Pirkei Avot (1:14), Hillel asked three questions:

  1. If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
  2. And if I am for myself alone, what am I?
  3. And if not now, when?


  1. That there is a wonderful post.

    Thanks a lot, Omar.

  2. In the first poem excerpt you have matched up the excerpt with the translation of a different part of Marti’s poem — the part you excerpted means “And before I die I want / To share the poems of my soul.” (The part you wanted to excerpt, I think, was “Mi verso es de un verde claro /
    Y de un carmín encendido.”)

    Note also that it’s not quite right to say that that’s what the song was “always” about. Marti’s poem was adapted to the tune, but the song was originally about what its chorus has always been — a guajira guantanamera, a country girl from the Guantanamo province. (I’d love to think it’s about a boy from Guantanamo, or “guajiro” as you have it, but it’d be a pretty hard sell!)

    Still, interesting post. First time I have seen the Cuban hero and a West Bank settler Web site linked side by side…

  3. Thanks for catching the switched verses – I’ll make the changes.
    And the guajira change was deliberate and contextual for this instance. The song has been used and appropriated in many different ways, including this contemporary version that I played off for the title by Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Softeware Movement (not that I’m in any way anti-IP),

    My cousin hated me;
    He was jealous of my career.
    They arrested him and he said
    I was a terrorist.

    Guantanaman, I’m a Guantanaman prisoner.
    Guantanaman, I’m a Guantanaman prisoner.

    The empire has decided
    To keep me in prison forever.
    The question is whether to do it
    With or without a fake trial.

    Guantanaman, I’m a Guantanaman prisoner.
    Guantanaman, I’m a Guantanaman prisoner.

    When they injure my body
    They say they are not torturing me.
    They cause me grave wounds
    Such as never heal.

    Guantanaman, I’m a Guantanaman prisoner.
    Guantanaman, I’m a Guantanaman prisoner.

    They don’t let me sleep:
    My end is no mystery.
    I will get out when I die
    Or the great empire falls.

    Guantanaman, I’m a Guantanaman prisoner.
    Guantanaman, I’m a Guantanaman prisoner.

  4. Spare me all the crap about Khadr .This terrorist was sent by his own family to train in an AL-QUEDA facility when he was 13 years old.He is in gitmo directly due to his own actions and will face justice (albeit military justice) His family has and still supports terrorism and three family members have paid a dear price for that support Father killed ,two sons in prison (ONE in GITMO, Another awaiting extradition to U.S. ) and one palalyzed (In the same firefight that killed their father) In various news reports DENNIS EDNEY has stated “THIS BOY (OMAR) IS NO TERRORIST!” This thug is the NEW POSTER BOY FOR TERROR!The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree does it.Instead of villifying the process,how about looking at the DIRECT EVIDENCE that will prove KHADR guilty?I’ve got my own little poem about OMAR “WENT TO AFGHANISTAN TO BE A HERO,WOUND UP IN GITMO ,NOW HE’S A ZERO!!!!

  5. Isn’t this the same flippant flipper who has taken on an online crusade to publicize his 3D nightmares about Omar Khar? You really should apply to work for CSIS, they pay!
    Your comments posted on reek of the same agenda of hateful Islamphobic arguments (see here)

    You know how to show your true colours without having the courage to show your true name. But character aside, I will give you free legal opinion: arguing family history is not DIRECT EVIDENCE to the actions that may or may not have been taken by Omar. If you accidentally stumbled upon any mainstream newspaper, you might learn that denying due process is sufficient to drop charges if only because it undermines the credibility of the justice system (including the quality of evidence obtained) and risk its abuse.

  6. Don’t feed the trolls, please. It just encourages them.

  7. Direct evidence means eye-witness accounts and statements by people who were actually there..In other words , the prosecution would not have to rely on KHADR’s own admission of guilt..Arguing family history was not to be construed as direct evidence but to show a past and present link to the terror organization of AL-QUEDA.In closing let me state something very clearly…KHADR will face trial on Oct.8th . His legal avenues have all been exhausted and any arguments as to his repatriation or incarceration will soon be rendered moot….Thks for the free legal advice ,but I didn’t commit any crimes!

  8. I agree with Alex that it’s not wise to feed the trolls.

    But at risk of not heeding my own advise, I would clarify that the concern here is that there will not be a trial by any mechanism previously known to the common law.

    U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon, who overlooks some of these cases, expressed his own concerns today.

    Hundreds of detainees are awaiting hearings in a Washington federal court in the coming months to determine whether they were properly labeled enemy combatants and imprisoned without being charged.

    Leon, who has said he wants to resolve the 24 cases assigned to him before the next president is sworn in, urged President Bush’s administration to find a way for at least part of those cases to be held in public.

    “If it can’t be done, I have great concern that these hearings will be virtually or exclusively classified, closed to the public and, I might add, to the detainees,” Leon said