Future Tense

A Short History of the Gitmo Undersea Cable No One Is Talking About

The cultural adviser at the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo, Cuba, sits in front of his computer at his office in the Joint Task Force headquarters, April 8, 2014.  

Photo by Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

Generally, when we hear about undersea fiber-optic cables, it’s because some sharks are trying to shut down the Internet with their teeth. But there’s more to them than that. Right now, there is a kind of magic at work beneath the Atlantic Ocean. Xtera Communications Inc. is in the midst of building an undersea fiber-optic cable from Dania Beach, Florida, to Guantánamo Bay. The $35 million project, which the Defense Department awarded to the Texas-based firm in May 2014, hasn’t been much publicized, for obvious strategic reasons. Not many people are talking about the cable—certainly not President Obama or Cuban President Raúl Castro.

But the cable is critically important—not least because of the effects it could have on the ever-evolving diplomatic talks between Cuba and the United States. As more and more people urge the U.S. government to shut down the Naval Station at Guantánamo, it’s important to remember that Gitmo is no longer just a surface structure. This subterranean submarine cable, predicted to be 950 miles in length, represents a substantial investment in the future of the base. And the real question: Who will benefit from it?

The world first got wind of it in July 2012, when Navy Capt. Kirk R. Hibbert revealed in an interview with Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald that U.S. officials had sent a diplomatic note to Havana explaining the fiber-optic project and that he’d received no opposition from his Cuban military counterparts.

A year later, Ronald Bechtold, then the the chief information officer at the office of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, unexpectedly announced, “It’s going to be for the entire island in anticipation that one day that they’ll be able to extend it into mainland Cuba.” The Miami Herald sought to confirm these reports with the Army Col. Greg Julian, who refuted them in the strongest of terms and stated, “[Bechtold] was out of his mind. He is no longer working for the Department of Defense.” He emphasized, “There is no intent to extend the cable to the mainland. It’s a closed node for Department of Defense personnel.” In March 2015, the Department of Defense confirmed that the undersea cable would let the base end its reliance on slow commercial satellite services. The latest update regarding the cable came on Sept. 6, 2015, when the Miami Herald’s Rosenberg shared that the XTera Communications’ contractors hoped to wrap up the project by January 2016. She noted, “It should also end complaints by some of the 2,000-member prison staff that Internet access was better during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.”

That brings us up to the present. Contractors are finishing their work on the cable. A few weeks ago, the New York Times’ Editorial Board published “How to Close Guantánamo,” highlighting what it would take for President Obama to fulfill a key promise made early in his first term. Gitmo was in the news again this past Monday, when Cuban President Raul Castro, in his speech during the 70th Session of the U.N. General Assembly, called for “the return to our country of the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.”

There are several possible results for the cable should Gitmo close. Fred Soons, a professor emeritus of public international law at Utretcht University in the Netherlands, weighed in by email and speculated, “If Cuba is interested, it could buy the cable.”

Medea Benjamin, the co-founder of the activist group CODEPINK, had a different vision: “We’d love to see [the Naval Base] converted into an international center for sustainable energy and non-violent conflict resolution. The submarine cable would come in very handy to ensure that this international center is connected to the rest of the world.” She added, “If the U.S. company XTera had any sense, it would be negotiating with the Cuban government right now about how the cable could help connect to Cuban people to the Web.”

But the Cuban government isn’t exactly rushing to provide Internet access to its citizens. Freedom House estimates that a mere 5 percent of the country has unrestricted Internet access that’s compatible with what’s available in the United States.

What other fate could the Gitmo cable face if the U.S. Naval Station shut down? In an email, retired Capt. Ashley Roach suggested that the controversial cable, if ever declassified by the U.S. government, could end up much like the U.S. Navy’s former sound surveillance system off the West Coast. Ultimately, civilian researchers were allowed to use part of it to monitor marine mammals like whales. Lionel Carter, a professor of Marine Geology at Victoria University of Wellington, told me, “If, for any reason the proposed cable was retired before the end of its design life (circa 20–25 years), it could be utilized to monitor the ocean currents passing through the Florida Straits to feed into the Gulf Stream. Such monitoring has been underway for several decades.”

But for now, even if the Department of Defense were to close the military prison camp, it’s likely the Naval Base would stay operational. And, so long as the sharks don’t get the Gitmo cable, it’s apt to support the American military for a long time to come.