By Drake Bennett | Boston Globe
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?