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Guantanamo Tents Better Than Life in Cuba, Refugees Say : Detention: Stopped short on their journeys to Florida, the boat people say they would have left regardless of the new no-immigration policy.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This military outpost is a long way from the glitter of Miami and the mind-boggling liberties of America, a desolate place where hastily constructed tents served as home Monday to at least 1,200 Cuban refugees for whom real freedom now remains little more than a dream.

Yet they would have put to sea anyway, the first Cuban boat people to arrive here said, even if they had known before pushing off that the U.S. vessels that scooped them up over the weekend would take them to the southeast side of this troubled island rather than to America.

Living inside the barbed-wire fences of a 92-year-old U.S. Navy base is preferable to the bleak life afforded by the Castro regime, they said. Besides, they view Guantanamo Bay as nothing more than a temporary stopover en route to America--despite U.S. insistence that none will be allowed to emigrate.

“I know it was crazy to embark on such a venture, to have six people in a 12-foot boat, but to stay in Cuba was even more crazy,” said tiny Silvio Herrera, dressed in dirty blue slippers and cutoff shorts.

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“We all figured that we would be better off taking our chance at sea,” he said. “I am destined to live in the United States. God has told me this.”

Herrera’s belief mirrors that of many Cubans arriving here, even though in Washington on Monday, Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said flatly that those picked up at sea will never be permitted to live in the United States--unless they somehow can return to Cuba and apply through normal channels.

Meissner said that Cubans who apply for immigrant visas at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana have a much better chance of emigrating. Policy now permits nearly 28,000 immigrants a year, a quota that is about 90% unfilled so far this year.

However, Cuban raft people now at Guantanamo Bay do not have the option of returning to Havana and applying for a visa because there is no provision for sending Cubans home.

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Despite four days of effort to persuade Cubans to stay in their country, at least 3,000 have been picked up by Coast Guard and Navy vessels in the last two days.

Those arriving in Guantanamo on Monday had gone to sea aboard makeshift boats--many of them nothing more than truck inner tubes lashed together with cheap rope and twine. Now these refugees, known as balseros , or rafters, were right back on the island.

They kept their composure despite an uncertain future within colorless camps without running water or mail delivery.

“When we left Havana, we had absolutely no idea we would end up in a place like this,” said Oreste Garcia Diaz, a 33-year-old former fry cook who sprawled upon a sweaty cot. “This may be an American base, but it is not really America. My son said this to me today. He said: ‘Daddy, we are in limbo.’ And he is right.”

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At 1:45 a.m. Monday, the first 168 Cuban refugees arrived aboard the Cutter Confidence, followed shortly thereafter by the cutters Decisive and Durable, carrying 223 and 184 refugees, respectively. Shortly before noon, the Cutter Courageous docked with another 168 refugees as officials awaited the arrival of the Cutter Mohawk with the largest human cargo of the day: 345.

Amid a near-desert landscape dotted with cacti and scrub brush, the newly arrived clung to the fence of a dusty campsite where they were held for processing--shirtless young men, old women and bearded grandfathers hoisting preschool children atop their shoulders.

As a group of U.S. reporters approached, many yelled in unison: “Come in, our friends!” and “Take us to Miami!” Others foisted upon visitors slips of paper with information to call relatives.

Shortly after midnight Monday, Herrera was among the first Cubans to arrive.

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Shaking his head, he told of the dangerous journey in a small raft that was little match for the ocean. Severe storms hit soon after he set sail, spoiling the food and water supply and for a short time throwing two of his five passengers into shark-infested waters.

For Herrera, the news that dashed his hopes for instant freedom came minutes after a Coast Guard cutter appeared on the horizon late Friday. That’s when he heard the announcement over a military radio that he would not be taken to America, that he and the others were headed back for Cuba.

“I cried,” he said. “I knew we should have left earlier, days or weeks before. Now we are caught in the middle. But at least we are out of Castro’s Cuba. That much is a victory in itself.”

Jorge Rojas, a 24-year-old professional diver, said he is not angry at President Clinton for his sudden about-face in policy or even the fact that his tiny fishing boat was intercepted just five miles from Florida.

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“But I just want him to keep his word. I want to live in America, so I can help my country, send back money to overthrow Fidel Castro. Doesn’t Mr. Clinton understand this?”

Nearby, Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Michael Williams told reporters that the base was gearing up for more than 10,000 refugees. “Right now, we don’t know what our limitations are here,” he said as a small Cuban boy in a bathing suit tugged at his uniform.

“Our tents are designed to hold 16 to 20 people. Do we want to expand that to 40 or more? Will the boat people just keep coming? Your guess is as good as mine.”

Down at the harbor, when the Cutter Courageous pulled into port, many of the refugees on board thrust their hands through the boat’s rail-side netting like prisoners held behind bars.

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As he looked on, Navy cook Darryl Meyers described the scene near the Florida Keys two days before. “I have never seen anything like it--these little ramshackle boats as far as the eye could see.

“Some of them were shooting off flares. Others had these battery-run fluorescent lights. There were so many pregnant women. It seemed a little risky for them to be out on the open sea. They must have wanted to get out of Cuba real bad.”

At a crowded U.S. government processing hut, a soldier looked at two men in baseball caps and smiled. “Welcome,” he said.

The men frowned in unison. “Welcome to where?” they replied. “Where are we? The United States? Cuba? Somewhere in between?”

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Not far away, Diaz gazed at the sky and saw two vultures hovering.

“Castro has sent them here to spy on us,” he said sadly. “Look, they are laughing at us. Old Fidel has won again.”

Not so, said Herrera. No matter how long it takes, he and his companions will await their next opportunity to make a run at the American shores and their dream of freedom.

“Nothing will stop us.”

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