The next tropical paradise?

New ideas for what to do with America's piece of Cuba

By Drake Bennett
June 14, 2009
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IT WOULD SEEMINGLY require a sadism-tinged sense of leisure for someone to consider Guantanamo Bay a vacation destination. Or it might be just a lack of imagination. Instead of kneeling, shackled, orange-jumpsuited men, picture a pristine bay and protected coastline where endangered hawksbill sea turtles nest, mingling with Cuban iguanas. The slopes above the bay, too steep for sugarcane, are covered in forests that shelter 10-foot-long Cuban boas, tree frogs, bee hummingbirds (the world's smallest bird) and hutias - arboreal mammals the size of a housecat. In recent years there have been sightings of the elusive solenodon - a small, shrew-like burrower with venomous saliva - and even the ivory-billed woodpecker, still thought by many ornithologists to be extinct. All in all, it's an ecotourist's nirvana.

And in place of the detention center itself, picture a research compound, maybe two, devoted to the region's distinctive ecology, or to combining the best practices of Cuban and American healthcare. Perhaps a museum that manages, in a feat of curatorial brilliance, to commemorate the detention center while not explaining away its troubled legacy. These are all potential futures for Guantanamo that some are already working to bring into being.

With two wars and an economy on life support, President Obama may have bigger problems than Guantanamo, but he doesn't have thornier ones. By pledging to close the prison by year's end, the administration has forced itself to face a raft of tough questions: whether to release some of the detainees and how to keep track of them; where to put those not released and how (and whether) to try them; and how much to reveal about what has gone on there.

But there's another aspect that hasn't received as

much attention: what do we do with the place itself? Even with the detention center gone, Guantanamo Bay will remain a unique and fundamentally odd piece of property, a 45-square-mile chunk of a hostile island nation that the US has laid claim to and placed a military installation on. And with the Department of Defense yet to announce plans of its own, suggestions have popped up in op-ed pages, scholarly articles, and conversations between policymakers. They range from turning the base into an amphibious warfare training center to designating it a national park, from building an institute for the study of neglected tropical diseases to hosting back-channel international negotiations.

The fate of the detention center doesn't carry the same weight as the question of what to do with the people currently kept there - lives, after all, aren't at stake. But the same qualities that led the Bush administration, in the fall of 2001, to choose Guantanamo Bay Naval Base for the detention center shape the sense of opportunities and challenges around what to do there now. More than any practical consideration, it is a question of what message to send. For more than a century, the US naval base there has served a primarily symbolic purpose. It has been an irksome, ineradicable - and, for most of that time, little-used - reminder to Cuba and the rest of Latin America of US military hegemony. Most recently it has become a symbol of the brutality and excesses of the American war on terrorism, our willingness, particularly in the eyes of our European allies, to put ourselves above the law. So the question for President Obama, and for all of us, is what new symbol do we want to erect in its place?

"I think the Obama administration's foreign policy so far is a good illustration of how simple gestures can create goodwill," says Nathaniel T. Wheelwright, a Bowdoin College biology professor who has taught in Cuba and recently proposed, in a Globe opinion piece, building a biological research station on Guantanamo. "I think it would be a wonderful gesture to the whole world to say we're taking something that's associated in the rest of the world's mind with the very worst of America in the last administration and instead do something that is positive."

Built in 1903, US Naval Base Guantanamo Bay is the oldest overseas base the US still operates, but its survival has hardly been a matter of military necessity: for decades it was a place in search of a purpose. Built on land Cuba leased to the US as a condition of US withdrawal after taking control of the island in the Spanish-American War, the base was originally a "coaling station" for US warships patrolling the Caribbean. The US had other bases in the region, however, and as the US fleet moved on to oil, Guantanamo became redundant. It was only with the Cuban Revolution that the base found what was to be its primary purpose: a sign of American determination to show up Fidel Castro in as many ways as possible.

According to Lisandro Perez, a sociology professor and Cuba specialist at Florida International University, there's a good chance the US would have closed the base if not for its value as an irritant to Castro, who publicly decried it as a symbol of America's imperialist tendencies, and boasted that he never cashed the checks that the US sent him for rent. "Just like the United States turned the Panama Canal over to Panama, without the Cuban Revolution I can see the US saying, 'We don't need this base anymore, let's give it back to the Cubans,' " Perez says. "So it's been kept largely for political reasons."

The few times before 9/11 that the base did find itself called into action were thanks to the peculiarities of its jurisdiction: a military base on foreign soil, but one that the host country couldn't evict. It served as a holding facility in the 1990s for Haitians and Cubans who were intercepted at sea while trying to reach the United States. The Clinton administration didn't want to hold them on American soil where they could claim asylum.

The Navy itself seems to envision a post-terrorism-detainee future for the base that emphasizes that role. In the nearly three years since Raul Castro took over for his brother, stoking fears of Cuban political instability, the base has beefed up its facilities so that it can now easily hold 10,000 refugees. That would allow American immigration authorities time to go through the process of considering asylum claims and deciding which refugees would be let into the US, which would be sent home, and which would be sent to third countries.

Suggestions from outside the federal government have been at once more creative and more opportunistic. Writing in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, Peter J. Hotez, a doctor and chair of the department of microbiology, immunology and tropical medicine at George Washington University, proposed converting the detainee facility into an international research center that would develop vaccines and treatments for some of the lesser-known tropical diseases that plague Latin America. "Reinventing Gitmo to address our hemisphere's most pressing neglected health problems could help change America's reputation and legacy in the region," Hotez wrote. The brutal Yanqui colonizer of leftist Latin American ideology, in other words, would be replaced by a white-coated healer.

Larry Birns, the director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, thinks there would be a real hunger in Cuba for any sort of medical joint venture. It would help address one of the central problems of Cuban medicine: the gulf between the excellent training of the doctors and the obsolescence and scarcity of medical equipment.

Wheelwright, the Bowdoin biology professor, envisions not only a biological research station, but a whole new economy in the ecologically rich Guantanamo area, something like the Costa Rican ecotourism model, where tourists subsidize and, hopefully, evangelize for research, drawing more visitors and injecting cash into the anemic Cuban economy.

Other proposals draw on the jury-rigged neutrality of Guantanamo Bay to create a unique realm not for refugees and accused international criminals but for government officials and heads of state. Raul Castro, interviewed for The Nation magazine last fall by the actor and director Sean Penn, suggested Guantanamo as a place where he and Obama might meet.

Karen Greenberg, the executive director of the Center on Law and Security at New York University and author of a book detailing the first 100 days of the Guantanamo detention center, suggests turning the detention facility into a sort of permanent venue for free-ranging policy discussions between officials from different, sometimes unfriendly governments, where secret meetings could be held without worry of leaks and the prying presence of the press. "It wouldn't be a law-free zone, but a politics-free zone," she says. "These would be early, pre-policy discussions about issues that involve national security and human rights." The checkered history of the venue itself, she believes, would serve as an unavoidable warning against hastiness and poorly thought-through solutions.

And a few Cuba specialists are suggesting that, once the detainees have left, it may be time to simply give Guantanamo back to Cuba. Julia Sweig, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argued for such a move in a Washington Post opinion piece last month. Relinquishing it, she argued, would create goodwill with the Cuban government and potentially open up a point of contact between the two governments.

The ultimate fate of Guantanamo, however, is more likely to be shaped by the evolving relationship between the two countries than vice versa. Birns points out that, while the Cuban government certainly complains about the US military presence at the base, it isn't actually a major issue when compared to the embargo or Cuba's potentially abundant offshore oil reserves. And some longtime Cuba watchers believe that now may in fact be a poor time for an ambitious project at Guantanamo, since there's a distinct possibility that things will change dramatically in the near future, but little consensus as to how.

"I don't think anything is going to happen with regard to Guantanamo unless the relationship defrosts a lot further than it has now," says Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank specializing in the Americas.

Still, both on Guantanamo and Cuba policy more generally, there is a sense among everyone who follows the issue that the particular knot of political and diplomatic factors that have made the US-Cuba relationship so fraught for so long may be loosening. And if the first half-year of the Obama administration has revealed anything, it is a taste for the grand gesture, combined with incremental change. Reinventing Guantanamo would be just that.

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail