This past February, President Obama delivered his official Guantanamo Bay closure plan to Congress, seven years after he first issued an executive order to close the detention center. If the plan is enacted, the remaining 91 Guantanamo detainees will be transferred off the base, leaving an empty detention camp sitting on 45 square miles of beachfront land the U.S. government currently leases from Cuba.
Joe Roman and James Kraska want to transform Gitmo’s dark past into an eco-friendly future. In a policy piece published today in Science, Roman, a conservation biologist at the University of Vermont, and Kraska, a law professor at the U.S. Naval War College, propose turning America’s most deadly prison into an international peace park that commemorates the history of the area and an ecological research center where scholars, scientists, and artists can work together to solve major environmental problems like declining coral reef systems throughout the Caribbean and the extinction of native species.
"Here’s an opportunity really for the name Guantanamo to mean something entirely different for future generations," Roman says. "If we make the right moves in the next five, ten years, people are going to think of Guantanamo the way we think of Woods Hole [Oceanographic Institute]."
Guantanamo is a prime area for an eco-sanctuary because of Cuba’s stringent environmental regulations and its up-until-now isolation from the U.S., which has kept U.S. businesses from setting up along the coastlines. Those factors, combined with Cuba’s impressive natural biodiversity, have made the island into a so-called "accidental Eden" that’s experienced less man-made pollution and development damage than many other nearby islands. But, Roman adds, that could change soon. As Cuba becomes more accessible to American tourists and companies—Obama’s trip next week will mark the first time a sitting U.S. president has visited the island in 88 years—coastlines like those at Guantanamo will be of great commercial interest, making it crucial to protect them now.
"Changes are going to happen," Roman says, adding that the proposed research center would be jointly managed by the U.S. and Cuba. "The question is will they be done in an environmentally sustainable way? Will [Cuba] continue to protect their resources and their wildlife or will things change quickly? I don’t know the answer to that."
Roman and Kraska say the White House is aware of their proposal, but they’re not the only ones with Gitmo plans. Last February, the animal rights group PETA sent a letter to the State Department's Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure that proposes turning the detention camp into an "empathy center" that focuses on the importance of extending compassion to both people and animals.
"It would be a series of interactive displays that would enable visitors to experience the prison from the perspective of an animal on a factory farm," says PETA spokesperson Emily von Klemperer. "A potential portion of the exhibit would enable a visitor to feel what it’s like to be a pig confined a tiny crate for his entire life or hear the sounds of a mother cow crying as her babies are taken away."
Guantanamo probably won’t be fully repurposed into anything any time soon says Shayana Kadidal, senior managing attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, a human rights nonprofit that’s legally representing nine of the remaining Guantanamo detainees. Even if all remaining detainees are transferred from the facility, certain sections where documented human rights abuses have taken place are under preservation orders that legally require those spaces to be kept in tact.
"The reason, by the way, that these preservation orders are in place is because the physical layout of any prison where somebody claims that they were tortured is relevant," says Kadidal. "If they say ‘Then I was led down this sort of hallway into a room that looked like this and then they did this and that to me,’ the corroborating evidence of the physical description that the detainee gives is typically something that judges and fact finders are going to regard as enhancing their credibility."
As long as the United States holds Gitmo detainees, in the Guantanamo camp or anywhere else, the government is "likely to want those facilities preserved for legal reasons," Kadidal adds.
Since the U.S. currently leases Guantanamo from the Cuban government, the fate of those 45 square miles of coast will likely be up to Cuba when (and if) the detention facility officially shuts down. At that point, questions of how to address the facility’s bleak past and what to do with it moving forward will need to be answered. "I think science can plan an important role in this diplomatic effort," Joe Roman says, "but nothing is going to happen until the detention center closes."