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Green Gitmo

A Science proposal for how Obama could redeem prison’s dark history

Guantanamo prison
What to do with Gitmo after it closes? “Reboot it,” says Joe Roman, an oceans expert in UVM’s Gund Institute — “for research diplomacy.” In Science magazine, Roman and a U.S. Naval War College scholar make the case for Guantanamo 2.0 as a way to improve conservation in the Caribbean — and build cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba. (Photo: Corbis)

On Feb. 23, President Obama announced plans to close the notorious military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Whether he’ll be able to is a hot political question. Now, Joe Roman, a conservation biologist at the University of Vermont, and James Kraska, professor of law at the U.S. Naval War College, are asking the next question: what to do with Gitmo after the detainees are gone?

Their answer: transform the naval base into a marine research center and international peace park.

The new proposal was published in Science, one of the world’s top academic journals, on March 17, days before the U.S. President’s trip to Cuba.

Woods Hole south

“Guantánamo could become the Woods Hole of the Caribbean,” says Roman, referring to the famous U.S. ocean science center. “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.”

Kraska sees advantages for the U.S. military as well. “Our view is that the proposal looks down range to what might be possible or beneficial for the natural environment and for the Pentagon,” he notes. The Department of Defense faces an “overhang of base infrastructure,” Kraska says, meaning that it may need to trim its operations and will likely be exploring which military installations to close. “The naval base at GTMO is a prime candidate” for closure, Kraska notes, “and could generate positive externalities” — like repurposing the navy facility into a research station for the benefit of marine conservation.

“This model, designed to attract both sides, could unite Cuba and the United States in joint management, rather than serve as a wedge between them,” the two scholars write, “while helping meet the challenges of climate change, mass extinction and declining coral reefs.”

Roman and Kraska’s op-ed notes that Cuba has more than 3,000 miles of coastline, including some of the most pristine mangrove wetlands, seagrass beds, and tropical forests in the region. Perhaps as “an accidental Eden,” Roman says — because of Cuba’s years of political and economic isolation — and mostly from Cuba’s determined conservation efforts over the last few decades, the nation’s coral reefs, fish diversity, and marine life are “unparalleled in the Caribbean.”

“As U.S. involvement in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq winds down,” the researchers write, “and detainees are released or subject to criminal trial, perhaps the most compelling raison d'être for the Pentagon to possess the base disappears.” And the base’s other missions — like antidrug operations or search-and-rescue work — could move to the naval station at Key West, Florida, only 90 miles away.

A third path

Some U.S. politicians have recently called for the prison to remain open indefinitely. In contrast, the Cuban government has considered the U.S. presence in Guantánamo illegal since the 1960s — and has refused to cash the annual rent check of $4,085, part of an agreement that stretches back to the 1903 Cuban–American Treaty of Relations.

Joe Roman, an expert on ocean ecosystems in UVM’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics and Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, and  James Kraska, professor and research director for the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law at the U.S. Naval War College, call their proposal a third path. “The Obama administration has made it clear that diplomatic relations with Cuba and the transfer of detainees do not mean that it is willing to discuss the return of the Guantánamo base to Cuba anytime soon,” they write. But an international peace park and research station on this land would be in both countries’ interest, they argue.

Rebooting Gitmo, to become a research center, could give global recognition to Cuba’s “conservation efforts and strong stance on climate change,” they write, while “providing financial support, up-to-date facilities for environmental work” and an opportunity to train Cuba’s upcoming scientists and students — all building scientific dialogue and goodwill between the two nations. “Cuba has great conservation scientists,” Roman says. “They just don’t have money or equipment.”

Now what?

In February 1903, the United States leased 45 square miles of land and water at Guantánamo Bay for use as a coaling station for its naval ships. Today, more than a half-century after the Cuban Revolution, in an era of newly thawing diplomatic relations, the area contains rare tropical dry forests, as well as mangroves, coral reefs, seagrass beds — and habitats for many species, from grandillo trees to spiny lobsters. “With a reduced U.S. footprint at Guantánamo,” Roman and Kraska write, “most of the land and sea could be given to threatened Cuban manatees and hawksbill sea turtles” — while the existing buildings could be converted to labs and meeting rooms, partly powered by four large wind turbines already in place.

“The future of Cuba is very uncertain,” says Roman. The influx of U.S. tourism dollars and business investment, could turn Cuba into another Cancun, Mexico, with “high-rise hotels as far as the eye can see,” Roman says. Or the island nation could pursue a more "sustainable, eco-friendly path," he says, building on strong traditions of environmental protection, and complementing its world-leading expertise in urban and low-input agriculture.

Roman and Kraska believe a new purpose for the naval base could help Cuba continue on the green path. “For the next generation,” they write, “the name Guantánamo could become associated with redemption and efforts to preserve and repair the environment and international relationships.”