Nathaniel T. Wheelwright

Putting Guantanamo to good use

By Nathaniel T. Wheelwright
March 23, 2009
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ON HIS SECOND DAY in office, President Obama gave the order to close the Guantanamo prison in Cuba by 2010. Shutting down the detention center signals to world that we will once again abide by international law and our own principles of justice.

The world will now be watching to see what we do with the disgraced facility. If we merely absorb it into the surrounding Guantanamo Bay Naval Base - itself a sore reminder of the United States' colonialist heritage - we will have missed a historic opportunity to repair our nation's damaged reputation. Instead, we should convert part of the base into an international biological research station where US and Cuban scientists work together to tackle critical environmental issues.

Last summer I taught a field ecology course to 30 Cuban biology professors, graduate students, and government scientists in Santiago de Cuba, near Guantanamo. One day I happened to mention YouTube. For a moment the scientists just looked at me blankly - clearly, they'd never heard of it. Then they slowly swept their eyes around the room with an expression of frustration and resignation. "Siempre pa' 'bajo," muttered one of them - things are a mess and getting worse - in a jibe at Fidel's patriotic exhortation "Siempre para adelante!" ("Forever forward!").

In a globalized era, Cuban biologists are isolated and falling behind. The problem is not that they can't watch YouTube videos or that the country's scientists are poorly trained. In fact, Cuba has one of the best educational systems in Latin America. But because of the country's weak economy and the crippling effects of the US embargo, Cuba suffers a severe shortage of basic scientific equipment and materials. In my course we had to cut notepaper into eighths to make it stretch. Unfortunately, many of Cuba's problems are self-inflicted, such as government policies that limit Internet use by its own scientists and restrict free communication with their colleagues worldwide. Although I was permitted to interact with a select group of biologists, I was prohibited from giving a seminar at a local university because of "security concerns."

The damage caused by Cuba's intellectual isolation is obvious. Cuba has a rich and unique flora and fauna, yet its natural heritage has barely been studied. Every one of my students complained of the difficulties of doing research. They can't get to their study sites because of a lack of transportation, fuel, and time. Incentives for professional achievement hardly exist - publishing scholarly research adds only pennies to their meager salaries (junior professors earn $21 per month). Unable to secure visas or funds to attend conferences, these Cuban biologists feel walled off from the broader scientific community.

Biological research stations, where ecologists conduct critical field experiments and share cutting-edge discoveries, can break down those walls. A prominent example are the research stations in Costa Rica operated by the Organization for Tropical Studies. For more than 40 years, OTS has promoted research in tropical ecology and conservation while educating thousands of US and Latin American students. OTS's field stations also served as an economic development engine for Costa Rica, helping to lay the foundation for ecotourism through the protection of pristine forests and generation of natural history knowledge. The Organization of Biological Field Stations lists 300 other research stations throughout the Americas. Not one is in Cuba.

The province of Guantanamo would be a perfect location for a research station because it contains some of Cuba's most spectacular natural areas, including Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The neighboring provinces of Santiago de Cuba and Holguen also possess extensive wilderness areas, including the old-growth montane forests overlooking the Guantanamo detention center, which may be the last refuge for ivory-billed woodpeckers.

A joint US-Cuban biological research station would benefit both countries. Scores of bird species that breed in North America migrate through Cuba. Understanding climate change's effects on migratory birds matters to us all. By re-engaging Cuba, the world would also be able to take advantage of its scientific expertise and creativity.

It will take decades to repair the damage caused by the Guantanamo prison. We should start the healing process now.

Nathaniel T. Wheelwright, co-editor of "Monteverde: Ecology and Conservation of a Neotropical Cloud Forest," is professor of biology at Bowdoin College.

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