Space & Innovation

Could Gitmo Go Green?

Guantanamo Bay would be an ideal spot for a marine research institution, argue two U.S. scientists. Continue reading →

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.

VIDEO: The History of America's Cuba Embargo

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."

A landing craft departs Guantanamo Bay after off-loading Marines.

On May 2, 2013, North Korea sentenced a Korean-American tour operator to 15 years' hard labor for "attempting to "topple the DPRK."

Despite the nation's secrecy, its prison camps are notorious for human rights violations.

Out of all the camps within the system, Camp 22 might be the worst. Entire families, political prisoners, are held their for life. Prisoners at this maximum facility are often malnourished, maimed, deformed, diseased and worse.

Essentially performing slave labor seven days a week for more than 12 hours a day, inmates are literally worked to death, and one former guard estimated that up to 2,000 people, including children, die every year at this camp alone.

In October, 2012, two members of the band Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, were transferred from their jail cells in Moscow to Russia's notoriously severe penal colonies. The members were arrested and sentenced to two years prison after the punk rock group ran afoul of Russian authorities earlier this year. They were charged with hooliganism following their performance in front of Cathedral of Christ the Savior of a song entitled Virgin Mary, which called for the ousting of Russian president Vladimir Putin.

As the Daily Beast's Anna Nemtsova explains, the two women will be making a big adjustment from their cells in Moscow, forced to cope with extreme cold, cramped conditions and worse at the penal colonies they've been sent to.

The surroundings may seem serene, but the ADX Florence Supermax in Colorado might be one of the worst prisons to find yourself as an inmate in the entire country.

The facility is the largest and most infamous of the 31 so-called supermax jails in the United States, detention centers with the tightest controls to house the most dangerous inmates. It is also the only federal supermax prison in the country, as noted by ABC News.

Inmates spend more than 22 hours a day in small cells with little or no sunlight in solitary for years at a time. The isolation can lead prisoners to break down psychologically.

Dubbed the Bangkok Hilton, Bang Kwang Central Prison in Thailand is one of the most notorious prisons on Earth. Every prisoner within Bang Kwang walls has been sentenced to at least 25 years behind bars.

An overcrowded facility, the Thai people call the prison the "Big Tiger," according to BBC News, due to the sheer number of executions that take place at the facility. Around 10 percent of the inmates in the facility are on death row.

Prisoners are kept in chains for at least their first three months in jail. Those on death row spend their entire prison terms in irons.

The detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, might be the most controversial prison on this list.

Known to house terrorists and enemy combatants from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prison was meant to contain some of the most dangerous threats to U.S. security interests. Instead, the facility has become internationally synonymous with physical and psychological torture.

Unlike many other prisons on this list, this facility is administered by the military instead of civilian authorities.

Located in Sao Paolo, Brazil, Carandiru Penitentiary was closed in 2002 due to its reputation for brutality, echoed in the 2003 Brazilian film of the same name.

During its time, the facility housed some of the country's most violent criminals and had an extensive record for human rights violations. Around 1/5 of the inmates before the prison closed were HIV-positive, and medical care available to inmates was virtually non-existent.

The most famous incident at the prison occurred in 1992 when a riot led to the deaths of 111 inmates, most of whom were killed by police.

At The Hague, protestors demonstrate against human rights violations at Diyarbakir prison in Turkey. The efforts of these and other activists have proven successful, with the facility planned to be converted to a Museum of Shame, according to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Even with its transformation, however, the prison is a symbol of torture and political repression. The overcrowded facility housed mostly Kurdish political prisoners who were methodically humiliated, tortured and worse.

With some 25,000 kept at La Sabaneta, Venezuela, and a prisoner-to-guard ratio of around 1-to-150, it should come as no surprise that the prison is one of the most violent in South America. The worst episode of violence occurred in 1994 when around 130 inmates were burned or hacked to death with machetes, according to TIME.com.

Although closed in 2001, Tadmor Prison in Syria was re-opened in 2011. Located in the middle of the desert, Tadmor was infamous for human rights violations and made no distinction between inmates held for political reasons versus those who actually committed crimes.

The worst incident at the facility took place in 1980, when Rifaat al-Assad, uncle of current Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, along with defense forces entered the prison and killed some 1,000 inmates.

The Gitarama region in Rwanda, seen here, is an area with a horrific history, and houses one of the most gruesome prisons on Earth. The prison in Gitarama City can house up to 20 times as many inmates as the facility was designed to hold. The overcrowded conditions have led prisoners driven by starvation to extremes, including cannibalism, to stay alive.