GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- What's next?
This base has a big, deep natural channel that you don't have to dredge, piers and hurricane protection that makes it an ideal refueling port and logistics base for U.S. naval ships working in the Caribbean.
It serves as the finishing school for the Marines' anti-terror training, conducted before their first assignment overseas.
It has housed Haitian rafters and suspected terrorists, hunkered down for the Cuban Missile Crisis and is now the site of a monthly meeting between a U.S. Navy captain and a Cuban counterpart, designed to avoid tensions on both sides of the minefield that marks the boundary between the base and Cuban territory.
No one is saying what the U.S. government will do next with its strategic base along the Windward Passage.
But here are some suggestions that have surfaced in the past year.
Hold U.S.-Cuban diplomatic negotiations there. Cuba leader Raul Castro called it "neutral ground'' in an interview in November 2008 with actor Sean Penn. Castro clearly had in mind direct talks with President Barack Obama that would end in a U.S. withdrawal from the base that controls access to the Guantánamo River. "At the end of the meeting ... we could send him home with the American flag that waves over Guantánamo Bay.''
Use it as a scientific outpost. Bowdoin College biology professor Nathaniel Wheelwright suggests that the U.S. set up an international biological research center that lets U.S and Cuban scientists working side by side "to tackle critical environmental issues.'' Wheelwright, who taught field biology in Cuba last summer, says scientists there are intellectually isolated. He also notes that Santiago and Holguen provinces are rich in wilderness areas and rare species such as ivory-billed woodpeckers. Peter J. Hotez, from the Department of Microbiology at George Washington University Medical Center and the Sabine Vaccine Institute in Washington, D.C., wants the United States to establish a biomedical research institute dedicated to combating tropical diseases of the Western Hemisphere. He published a paper on the idea, and calls it "vaccine diplomacy,'' meant to improve the U.S. image in the region.
Set up a training base. Ideas range from setting up a U.S. Marines rapid reaction team there to train for amphibious landings or making it a joint training site between the Marines and U.S. allies in Latin America. There are fewer than 200 Marines here now, patrolling the 17.4 miles of fenceline that separates the 45-square-mile base from Cuba proper as part of their preparation for a full-blown overseas deployment. Expansion could add 3,500 Marines.
Install an exhibition in the cellblocks. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wrote the Obama administration recently proposing to install an animal rights exhibit inside an abandoned cellblock. The walk-through exhibition called the Animal Liberation Project includes photos and films that link human and animal rights abuses through history. One stop juxtaposes a sealer clubbing a baby seal with a photo of a police officer clubbing a civil rights protester. The idea, they said, is to promote nonviolence.
Base the Navy's Fourth Fleet there. The prison camps now operate out of the Intelligence Operations Facility, or IOF. The state-of-the-art building known as the Red Roof Inn was built in 2004 for $13.5 million but is too far from the heart of Guantánamo to be useful as the Navy base headquarters. The Pentagon established the command and control staff of a so-called Fourth Fleet in Jacksonville in April 2008, but assigned it no full-time warships. It borrows vessels for specific missions in the waters of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Julia E. Sweig, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argued that the U.S. Navy should give it back in a guest commentary in The Washington Post that noted the U.S. Navy has withdrawn from Subic Bay in the Philippines and Vieques in Puerto Rico. "Whatever Guantánamo's minor strategic value to the United States for processing refugees or as a counter-narcotics outpost, the costs of staying permanently -- with the stain of the prisons, the base's imperial legacy and the animosity of the host government -- outweigh the benefits,'' she wrote.