Guantánamo May Become an Ocean Research Center

If President Obama is finally successful in his plan to shut down the notorious detention center at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base (aka Gitmo), it could be used for a much more positive purpose.

Ocean experts Joe Roman, a conservation biologist and fellow in the Gund Institute, and James Kraska, a law professor at the US Naval War College, are proposing it becomes what they envision as “a state-of-the-art marine research institution and peace park.”

“Guantánamo could become the Woods Hole of the Caribbean,” said Roman, referring to the ocean research center in Massachusetts. “This could be a powerful way for the Obama administration to achieve the president’s 2008 campaign promise to close the prison — while protecting a de facto nature reserve and some of the most important coral reefs in the world.”

The timing couldn’t be better, with the restoration of diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba, the return of direct airline flights between the two nations, and the possibility of an end to the economic embargo.

But these changes may bring with them new development along Cuba’s more than 3,000 miles of coastline, which is home to coral reefs, wetlands and tropical wet forests — what Roman called “an accidental Eden.” The ecosystem is thriving not only because of Cuba’s isolation, he said, but because of the nation’s dedication to preserving the pristine environment.

“We propose an approach to protect Cuba’s coastal ecosystems and enhance conservation and ecological research throughout the Caribbean,” wrote Roman and Kraska in their proposal. It was published March 17 in the journal Science, three days before the Obama family’s historic trip to Cuba.

Gitmo’s location is ideal for the proposed center, especially since it is surrounded by nesting grounds for endangered turtles and other marine life.

The existing buildings could be used as labs and meeting rooms that are partly powered by four existing wind turbines. A peace park would provide “a conservation zone to help resolve conflicts,” Kraska and Roman wrote.

“Our view is that the proposal looks down range to what might be possible or beneficial for the natural environment and for the Pentagon,” Kraska said. The Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, located on 45 square miles of land and sea, is a prime candidate for closure by the Department of Defense, Kraska said, and “could generate positive externalities.”

The United States has had control of Gitmo since its Spanish-American War victory in the late 1800s. Under 1901′s Platt Amendment, American troops left Cuba in return for a long-term lease for the base.

The base’s military prison opened in 2002. Stories about the torture and mistreatment of detainees started circulating a few years later.

Shortly after he was inaugurated in January 2009, President Obama issued an executive order to close the base’s detention facilities. Over six years later, it remains open, due to resistance from Republicans and the Pentagon. In late February, Obama again sent Congress a plan to close the prison, which, again, will likely be rejected.

Cuban President Raul Castro wants Gitmo returned to the control of Cuba, he told Obama during a press conference in Havana March 21. The White House and Secretary of State John Kerry have stated there are no plans to relinquish control.

Who will ultimately control the base is still uncertain, as is what the future holds in store for Cuba. It could become like Cancun, “with high-rise hotels as far as the eye can see,” Roman said, or it could follow “a sustainable, eco-friendly path,” continuing its tradition of protecting the environment.

Transforming Gitmo into an ocean research center would not only unite rather than separate Cuba and the United States, but it would also “meet the challenges of climate change, mass extinction and declining coral reefs,” wrote Roman and Kraska.

“For the next generation, the name ‘Guantánamo’ could become associated with redemption and efforts to preserve and repair the environment and international relationships.”