In December 2015, Julia Rodriguez travelled to Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. Rodriguez, whose brother Gregory died in 9/11, was invited to the US military base, all expenses paid, by the Department of Defense, after her name was picked in a lottery—part of a program to bring survivors and family members there to watch court proceedings.
“When my name came up, I’d been waiting for three years,” said Rodriguez, a history professor at the University of New Hampshire. “To be honest, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to go.”
But she did go, with her mother, and for five days they sat in on the pretrial hearings of the “9/11 Five,” the alleged masterminds of the terrorist attacks that killed her brother—and provided justification for opening one of the most notorious detention centres in the world. (Gregory, who worked in the World Trade Center, had recently gotten married before he died. He was 31.)
At Guantánamo, where almost 800 men have been held over the past 14 years—91 detainees are still there—Rodriguez felt overcome by negativity. “It’s hard to separate out what happened to my brother, and thousands of others, from the war after, and the torture,” she said. “That was overwhelming.”
One of the most “jarring” aspects of the visit, she said, was the base’s oddly beautiful surroundings. “The air smells like flowers, and it’s on this bay,” Rodriguez told me.
The area around Guantánamo is a nesting ground for the green turtle and hawksbill turtle (both endangered), and other native wildlife, like the Cuban iguana and the West Indian manatee. It’s home to a large rodent called the banana rat, and apparently to hordes of feral cats, which can cause problems. According to a 2002 government report, the Navy has brought in US Wildlife Services to help get the rats, cats, and other invasive species under control, as they were being squashed by cars and bungling up airplane runways.
“It’s such a beautiful spot,” Rodriguez said. “And there’s so much ugliness going on.”
A new paper, published Thursday in Science, proposes a way to “redeem the prison’s dark history,” by turning Guantánamo into a nature preserve, peace park, and ocean research station. A “Woods Hole of the Caribbean” jointly run by the US and Cuba.
It sounds far-fetched. Is it though?
The University of Havana's lab at Gardens of the Queen. Photo: John Bruno
The Obama administration has not yet filled a longstanding pledge to close Guantánamo. Now, with the US and Cuba drawing closer after decades of frosty to non-existent relations—on March 21, Obama will become the first sitting US president to visit Cuba in 88 years—the president restated his promise, laying out a plan to shut down the prison for good. But the fate of Gitmo, once the last detainees are gone, is unclear.
Details on “Green Gitmo,” laid out in the Science paper, are scant.
A cutting-edge Gitmo ocean research station, as envisioned by authors Joe Roman, a conservation biologist at the University of Vermont, and James Kraska of the US Naval War College, includes “genetics laboratories, geographic information systems laboratories, videoconference rooms—even art, music, and design studios,” they write. They haven’t worked out all of the details, but Gitmo costs “hundreds of millions of dollars a year” to operate, Roman says, a small fraction of which could be used to build and equip a state-of-the-art facility, to be run jointly by the US and Cuba, and to benefit researchers from both countries.
At this point, though, Green Gitmo is more of a thought experiment than an actual plan.
I did speak with a number of American scientists who all embraced the idea. Cuba is relatively understudied, at least by the US scientific community. “We don’t tend to know a lot about the Cuban oceans, or even Cuban wildlife,” Roman said.
The area around the base must be one of the least-accessible places on the island.
With no federal research dollars available to do work in Cuba, scientists have to cobble together various grants from private foundations. But restrictions are now easing, and there’s a growing stampede to get to Cuba. Guantánamo, especially, could be a scientific goldmine: The area around the base must be one of the least-accessible places on the island.
There’s an idea that Cuba is some kind of “accidental Eden,” relatively untouched after decades of political and economic isolation, Roman said. But that description doesn’t give credit to Cuba’s own conservation efforts and strong stance on climate change, he continued, which have helped keep the country’s coral reefs and marine life relatively pristine. Cuban scientists have done expansive work, although their access to high-tech equipment and scientific journals has been severely limited by the trade embargo.
John Bruno, a marine ecologist at UNC Chapel Hill, has measured a whopping 600 grams of fish—mostly big predators like shark, grouper, and snapper—per square meter in the waters around Cuban reefs. That’s six to eight times more fish mass than what’s found at most Caribbean reefs, according to a 2015 paper in Science.
“It’s totally moving to see,” Bruno said.
As a kid in Florida in the mid-70s, Bruno remembers “hanging out the side of the boat to see a big barracuda” in the waters. It’s not like that in Florida anymore. But some of the reefs around Cuba, especially its Jardines de la Reina, or Gardens of the Queen, an archipelago of mangrove and coral off the southern coast, remind him of those days.
John Bruno at the Miami airport with loads of scientific gear, en route to Havana. Photo: John Bruno
Scientists are keen to get to Guanánamo.
“I have heard from numerous people that have been stationed there,” said Bruno. “They’d say, I was based at Guanánamo and we’d go fishing, and you wouldn’t believe the fish in the bay.”
Amy Apprill, a marine microbial ecologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, has been to Cuba three times. She’s familiar with the obstacles.
“You need permission from the State Department to go,” she said, “but the most difficult part is bringing all the equipment. There’s no FedEx or UPS, and there’s no boat from Florida to Cuba, so we had to take everything.”
On one expedition, Apprill carried 24 pieces of luggage with her on a charter plane: bags stuffed with underwater cameras, water filtration pumps, liquid nitrogen, and other gear.
The area around Guantánamo is “biologically rich,” said Fernando Bretos, director of the Cuban Marine Research and Conservation Program, which fosters collaboration between scientists in the US and Cuba. But we still don’t know much about it. According to him, an ecological survey was done around the military base about 15 years ago, and it left the Cuban government “very upset” to see such work happening in an “area they feel belongs to them.” (Since the 1960s, Cuba has considered the US presence in Guantánamo illegal, and refuses to cash an annual $4,085 check in rent.)
Turning Gitmo, which has such a complex history, into an ocean laboratory “would be a redemption, in a lot of ways,” said Bruno. “The biggest hurdle right now are the detainees.” Relocating them is no small obstacle. Some believe it will be insurmountable.
Underwater research in Cuba. Image: Fernando Bretos
Rodriguez, who is half-Cuban, is skeptical that the base will be decommissioned, although she’d like to see the detention center and hearings moved closer to home, for better transparency.
“I have always hoped that our country would reestablish diplomatic ties with Cuba,” she said. The relationship between these two countries is shifting, and with those changes could finally come a new future for Guantánamo.