As President Obama prepares to make the first presidential visit to Cuba since 1928, a pair of U.S. scientists has proposed that Naval Station Guantanamo Bay — nicknamed Gitmo — be transformed into “a state-of-the-art marine research institution and peace park, a conservation zone to help resolve conflicts between the two countries.”

There has been an American presence at Guantanamo Bay for over 100 years since, after helping Cuba fight for independence from Spain, the U.S. occupied the island in 1898. Under the 1902 Cuban-American treaty, Havana was obliged to lease Guantanamo Bay to the United States as a coaling and naval station, a perpetual lease that could only be broken by mutual consent. Since the 1960s, Cuba has regarded the U.S presence at Guantanamo as illegal, and refused to cash its rent check.

The president recently underlined his desire to close the detention facility at Guantanamo. He has not proposed returning the entire naval facility to Cuba, but in the light of his administration’s move to normalize relations between the two countries, Joe Roman of the University of Vermont and James Kraska of the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law at the U.S. Naval War College have proposed that in addition to closing the detention center, the U.S. could transfer the facility’s other operations to Naval Air Station Key West, just 90 miles away, and in cooperation with Cuba convert the site into a marine research center and peace park.

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Writing in the journal Science, they envision the more-developed part of the base being turned into a “Woods Hole of the Caribbean” housing research and educational facilities enabling Cuban and American scientists to work together to address climate change, ocean conservation and biodiversity loss. Much of the rest of the land and sea area, they propose, could be returned to native wildlife.

Roman told Discovery News that the idea came to him when discussing the island’s future with Cuban scientists during a coral reef workshop last year.

“Cuba has put into place some very strong environmental regulations, and also as a part of its isolation from the United States, its reefs along the coastline are in very good shape,” he said. “But that could be under threat, I think, as (relations between the two countries) warm up. And the Cubans will decide whether they want to proceed toward ecotourism … or if they’re going to develop the area, sort of in the way Cancun has done it. And that’s up to the Cubans. But it occurred to me that there is a place on the island that the United States has a very large say in the future of, and that’s the Guantanamo naval base.”

Cuba Reefs Swimming With Answers

Roman and Kraska write that the area provides habitat for many endemic species, such as the vulnerable Cuban iguana, may be a critical refuge for the West Indian manatee, and is an important nesting area for the endangered green turtle and critically endangered hawksbill turtle. In addition, the tropical dry forests on the base are relatively rare in Cuba, and the station hosts important Caribbean coastal habitats, such as sandy beaches, mangroves, coral reefs and seagrass beds.

In fact, counter-intuitive as it may seem, part of the reason the area is so suitable for protection and study is the presence of the naval facility.

“It turns out if military bases are well-managed, they are much better for wildlife than housing development,” Roman said. “If you think about it, the naval base is the size of San Francisco and has a few thousand people who are on a small part of that area. So from a Cuban iguana’s point of view, or a manatee’s point of view, or for nesting sea turtles, better a military base with some activity than constant human activity and impacts. But who knows what happens to that wildlife when the base closes, and that’s one of the reasons we put forward this proposal.”

Will the U.S. Ruin Cuba’s Nature?

There is precedent for the idea, as well. For example, after the United States left Fort Clayton to Panama, part of the base was transformed into Ciudad de Saber (City of Knowledge), a government-sponsored complex that has attracted international scholars and the United Nations Development Program.

Roman is under no illusions about the likelihood of his vision being enacted in the short term, but hopes it could provide a solution down the road.

“President Obama has made it clear he would like the detainees to be transferred and the detention center to be closed,” he said. “Perhaps last summer I was more optimistic that was going to happen sooner, but I think most American policy makers know that eventually that area is going to be returned to Cuba.  But this is playing the long game; once the detainee center is eventually gone, we don’t really need that base anymore. Maybe this could help catalyze that change.”