clock menu more-arrow no yes

The audacious proposal to replace Guantanamo Bay prison with a science lab

This iguana in Guantanamo Bay is just begging to be researched.
MLADEN ANTONOV / Getty Images

Whenever conservation ecologist Joe Roman conducts fieldwork in Cuba, he's in awe of the place. Diving off the costal waters is a treat compared with other spots in the Caribbean. "The first things you notice there is how abundant the fish populations are," he says. Much of the rest of the sea has been overfished, leaving the reefs more barren.

On land, too, are signs of relatively little human activity. "The tropical dry forest there is in better shape than most of the Caribbean," he says. On short walks on land, he and his students from the University of Vermont can spot several species of bird that aren't found anywhere else. "For me, it's exciting," he says.

On a recent fieldwork trip, wondering about the country's future and admiring its abundant wildlife, Roman was struck with a wild idea.

The US should turn the Guantanamo Bay detention center into an international ecology lab

Mangroves dot Guantanamo Bay with the US naval base airstrip seen in the distance.
LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

This is just a dream. Roman has no backing from the US government, nor does he have the funding to make this happen. What he does have is a voice and a passion for the idea: He and a colleague recently published their case for a Guantanamo-based research center in the influential journal Science.

The primary benefit of a Guantanamo Bay research station is symbolic. "The main goal is trying to take Guantanamo and make it an inspiring place, and redeem it," Roman says.

The American presence there has been deeply contentious since even before the terrorist detention center opened in 2002. The US originally leased the land from Cuba in 1903. But from the Cuban Revolution in the 1960s onward, the island nation has maintained that the American naval base is illegal. The US actually sends Cuba a $4,085 annual rent check (a small fraction of the annual rent for my Washington, DC, apartment) for the 45 square miles upon which it operates — though the communist government doesn't cash it. Guantanamo Bay is the United States' most controversial outpost, housing terrorism suspects indefinitely on a military base whose existence is in legal limbo.

But it doesn't have to remain that way. The relationship between Cuba and the US is thawing, and the pressure is on President Obama to close the detention center as he's long promised. (He laid out a basic framework for doing so in February.) And in this, Roman sees the opening for a grand conciliatory gesture.

Roman says he'd ultimately like to see the land returned to the Cubans. But the White House has said that just isn't going to happen. A US-led research park, Roman tells me, is the next best thing.

And it would indeed be a symbolic move to convert a prison that houses people who have been detained indefinitely into a scientific Disney World.

But the case for Guantanamo Bay as a science lab also goes beyond political optics. The land and the sea offer an ecosystem uniquely worthy of study.

Gitmo is home to a lot of animals and marine life

Miami Herald / Contributor / Getty Images

The research hub of Roman's dreams would be a state-of-the art facility to help understand how biodiversity loss can be prevented across the Caribbean. Here's how Roman described his wish list in Science:

A parcel of the land, perhaps on the developed southeastern side of the base, could become a "Woods Hole of the Caribbean," housing research and educational facilities dedicated to addressing climate change, ocean conservation, and biodiversity loss. With genetics laboratories, geographic information systems laboratories, videoconference rooms — even art, music, and design studios — scientists, scholars, and artists from Cuba, the United States, and around the world could gather and study. The new facilities could strive to be carbon neutral, with four 80-meter wind turbines having been installed on the base in 2005, and designed to minimize ecological damage to the surrounding marine and terrestrial ecosystems

The plan is a quixotic long shot (art and design studios? Sure!). But there are reasons this isn't cuckoo: Existing naval base infrastructure means scientists wouldn't have to disrupt the environment much further to build research facilities. Guantanamo housing, buildings, and roads could be easily adapted for scientific purposes.

There's also the fact that the US military presence has actually conserved the land. (Barbed-wire fences and sentries see that it has remained relatively untouched.) "I wouldn’t go so far to say it’s pristine," Roman says of Guantanamo, "but relative to housing development, or an area where people are abundant, it is in much better shape."

Les Kaufman is a marine biologist at Boston University who has conducted fieldwork in Cuba. He tells me he can easily imagine the research projects that could take place along the bay. For one, Guantanamo's relatively undisturbed coral reefs could be analyzed. Because they have not been damaged by human activity, Kaufman says scientists could study them in comparison with reefs that have been to understand the impacts of climate change and other human activities.

"Most reefs in the Caribbean are so heavily influenced by human impact that the climate signal and the stewardship signal are totally confounded," Kaufman tells me. "To me, Guantanamo is like a gift, because it is a place where we could isolate the climate signal more easily."

The diversity of the Guantanamo ecosystem used to be found all over the Caribbean, he says. For example, sea turtles, including the critically endangered hawksbill turtle, nest in the area. Studying how these ecological communities function in Guantanamo could be helpful to researchers trying to figure out how to restore them elsewhere.

Can Cuba maintain its biodiversity as it opens up to the world?

A related goal of a Guantanamo research station would be to help Cuba maintain its remarkable environment as it opens up its economy to the world. Trade is still severely restricted under the longstanding US embargo. But those sanctions are slowly being relaxed under the Obama administration. (Though progress in warming relations will be slow: The Republican-led Congress has vowed not to lift the trade blockade, despite Obama's newfound diplomacy. The president will travel to Cuba March 21 and 22, becoming the first US president to do so in 90 years.)

One fear ecologists and others have is that as Cuba opens itself up to the world, and as the world engages more with Cuba, it will put economic pressures on the island nation to reconsider its longstanding balance between conservation and development.

"I can’t say which direction it is going to go in," Roman says. But he hopes an international Guantanamo research station could be a reminder for Cuba to stay the ecologically friendly course.

But most important for Roman is the idea that science can be healing: a way to bring diverse nations together, a way to rectify a complicated history, and a way to help better the lives of all people through research.

In the end, the plan might not be viable. The biggest roadblock won't be the Obama administration but Congress. Republican lawmakers have derided Obama's preliminary framework for closing the prison. And as Vox's Zack Beauchamp explains, the president will need their cooperation to see the plan through. So for the foreseeable future, the status quo will remain.

But Roman can still dream.

"At a certain point, I don’t know when, that base is going to close," he says. "It’s going to return to Cuba at some point. This is a great use of that property. You don’t have many places in the world like that."