Climate

Redeeming Guantanamo: Two Scientists Propose New Mission For The Infamous Detention Center

CREDIT: AP Photo/Brennan Linsleyl, File

Since he was a presidential candidate, President Obama has called for the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba. Now, two academics have a unique idea for what the land could be used for if the center were to close: a marine research facility and international peace park.

In a piece published in the most recent issue of Science Magazine, the two scientists — Joe Roman, a conservation biologist at the University of Vermont, and James Kraska, a law professor at the U.S. Naval War College — argue that turning the detention center into a research facility would benefit the U.S., Cuba, and the local environment around Guantanamo. Because the land has been cut off from the rest of Cuba for so long, Roman told ClimateWire that it would be an ideal location to study various natural and ecological features of the area, including Cuba’s coral reefs and mangrove wetlands.

“It has a diversity of habitats that have been protected in part because the area is cut off from the rest of Cuba,” Roman said. “A majority of the land and waters are unoccupied, so therefore it has been great for a lot of the wildlife in the area.”

The land that the Guantanmo Bay detention center currently occupies is actually land that has been rented to the United States by the Cuban government for more than a century, though since the 1960s the Cuban government has treated the U.S. presence on the land as illegal. If the detention center is closed, some parties, like the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, have called for the land to be returned to Cuba.

But Roman and Kraska argue that since the United States has already said that it will not return the land to Cuba, the two countries should pursue a third option. The two argue that a marine research facility, jointly operated by both the United States and Cuba, would be a compromise that would give Cuban scientists financial support and access to facilities, while allowing the United States a chance to retain its presence in the area. The research station would “unite Cuba and the United States in joint management, rather than serve as a wedge between them, while helping meet the challenges of climate change, mass extinction, and declining coral reefs,” they write in Science Magazine.

The two note that the area provides habitat for a handful of creatures that are rare throughout the island, like the Cuban iguana or the West Indian manatee. The area also provides critical nesting grounds for the endangered green turtle and the critically endangered hawksbill turtle. There are also tropical dry forests on the base that are relatively rare throughout the rest of the island.

Roman and Kraska also argue that turning the area into a marine research station, and working to preserve its ecological systems, could be an important counterbalance to the influx of activity that is expected to come to the island as the United States begins to normalize its economic ties with the region. Thanks in part to previous sanctions, Cuba has seen lower rates of development in some areas, reducing the amount of industrial and agricultural damage to its ecosystems. The country itself has also taken an aggressive stance on conservation and climate change, something that Roman and Kraska say has “put it at the center of Caribbean conservation efforts.”

“For the next generation, the name Guantánamo could become associated with redemption and efforts to preserve and repair international relations and the planet,” the two write.

Even if President Obama were to get his wish and see the detention center closed — an unlikely outcome — the plan to convert the center into a research facility would likely face a skeptical Congress.

“That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) told ClimateWire when asked his thoughts about turning the detention center into a research facility. “Why would we talk about a marine lab when we’re trying to save American lives?”

There are currently 91 detainees at Guantanamo Bay, 35 of whom have been cleared for transfer. The State Department expects to repatriate those detainees cleared for transfer by the summer, according to the Guardian.