Advertisement

Camp Lima: Fastest Growing American City

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two days ago, the city of sepia tents sloping toward the sea was a field of tall grass. Now, the soldiers call it Camp Lima.

By Saturday afternoon, U.S. troops occupying this 45-square-mile slice of American soil on communist-ruled Cuba had hoisted enough tents at Camp Lima to house 2,670 more rafters fleeing their country in an exodus to the sea.

They were already at work converting the base’s rifle range into another tent city. When that’s done, they will start pitching tents on the camp golf course, a links once so plush that generals used to fly down from the Pentagon to play it.

So goes the U.S. military ground operation in the latest foreign crisis to confront the Clinton Administration: the tense stalemate with Cuban leader Fidel Castro that has touched off the biggest flight of refugees in 14 years.

Advertisement

In just six days, roughly 14,000 Cubans have been fished from the sea and transported in Coast Guard cutters and Navy ships here. On Saturday alone, 2,200 Cubans were processed into the instant detention camps, and were given cots, bedrolls and military rations. At least 1,000 more are still at sea and destined to arrive here, including 130 Cubans picked up from the Florida Straits on Saturday.

Before it is over, as many as 45,000 Cubans will be housed at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, perhaps indefinitely, according to Administration officials. They are the offspring of President Clinton’s move to end a 28-year “open door” policy toward Cuban refugees.

In the process, this naval base, first leased from Cuba during the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration, is being converted overnight from a training facility into a holding station for would-be refugees from two troubled Caribbean island states.

During the two months before the Cuban crisis erupted, Guantanamo Bay housed nearly 18,000 Haitian refugees who fled their country’s military junta. About 14,300 Haitians remain in the tent cities here.

Advertisement

“I am the mayor of the fastest-growing city in America, with the biggest unemployment and the worst housing,” said Gen. Michael Williams, commander of the joint task force charged with running the camps. “If I were a politician, I’d be out of here.”

To accommodate the remaking of Guantanamo Bay, the commander of the Atlantic Fleet issued an order late Friday to evacuate the base’s 2,200 military family members and nonessential personnel to havens in the United States. The evacuation, which will begin Wednesday, will reduce the base’s normal population of 5,500 by about 40%.

But every American who returns stateside to make room at Guantanamo Bay will be replaced by a dozen or more refugees, some of whom appear content to take up residence anywhere as long as it’s not Cuba.

Some of them arrived early Saturday aboard the guided-missile frigate Jack Williams, which unloaded its human cargo about 6:30 a.m. local time. Although all of the refugees were from Cuba, the faces that stared down from the ship’s deck displayed expressions common to refugees anywhere--exhaustion, hunger, fear, confusion, relief.

Advertisement

They had been aboard the Jack Williams for two days. No one knows how many days they had been at sea before that as they headed for Florida aboard rafts, inner tubes, dinghies and slabs of Styrofoam. There were babies, children and women among them, but the majority were young men.

The Jack Williams was the first of four ships that would bring refugees ashore Saturday.

Three representatives of the U.S. Justice Department--Tina Balin, Mike Carroll and Alex Gordon--waited on shore to tell the 797 Cubans aboard the vessel that they would not be going to the United States--at all.

“That is what we try to emphasize,” Balin said. “But most of the time, the Cubans don’t seem to understand that.” Many believe that they will only be at Guantanamo Bay as long as it takes to be “processed,” she said.

Advertisement

Balin has gone through this ritual every day since Monday, delivering the bad news to about 11,000 Cubans.

The United States is looking for other countries that might offer them haven, Balin tells them. And anyone who wants to return to Cuba voluntarily can do so.

“No!” they shout back.

The U.S. troops here, many of them barely adults, are clearly moved by some of the stories they hear with the arrival of each new ship.

Advertisement

Two days ago, the Whidbey Island docked with 2,300 rafters aboard. Among them were five Cuban doctors and three nurses, including a heart surgeon, who quickly joined the ship’s medical team to tend to the sick.

Before the Whidbey Island turned out to sea again later that day, its captain asked the Cuban doctors and nurses if they would be willing to remain on board as part of the crew. All of them readily agreed.

Among the other Cubans on board the Whidbey Island was the island’s top-ranked baseball catcher, a seven-time world champion wrestler and a science-fiction writer whose only possession was his latest manuscript.

“I was surprised by the number of children, and even babies,” Cmdr. William Hawn, captain of the Jack Williams, said as he got off the ship.

Advertisement

In the Cuban tent cities, a remarkable number of residents are white-collar professionals, including lawyers, engineers and professors. In Alpha Camp, for example, there are 26 doctors. Many of them apparently set out before Clinton eliminated the open-door refugee policy that would have assured them safe passage to America.

Would they have come had they known they would be put in camps, perhaps for years?

“No, No!” said Angel Rodriguez Montalvan, a machine worker.

“If I had known I would end up here, I would not have taken that trip,” said Irma Morttiz, a 29-year-old English professor at the University of Havana. “I just hope President Clinton changes his mind.”

Advertisement

Reynoldo Valido, a high-school English teacher who was elected leader of Alpha Camp, left Cuba the day before Clinton’s policy change was announced. But even if he had known about the change, he said, he is not sure it would have stopped him.

Most of the Cubans in these camps seem to find it inconceivable they might have to stay here for years, sleeping on cots, 40 to a tent.

“Two years? That cannot be,” said Dr. Jesus Nulet, an orthopedic surgeon.

So far, the camp has no post office to serve refugees, so they have no way to contact friends or family members in either the United States or Cuba to let them know they have landed at Guantanamo Bay instead of perishing in the sea.

Advertisement

Hundreds hold out their hands to visiting journalists, waving letters they want someone to send for them or slips of paper with phone numbers of relatives.

For now, the U.S. soldiers who must cope with this human tide have two priorities: getting their own family members out of Guantanamo Bay and back to the United States, and erecting enough tents to accommodate each day’s surge of new arrivals.

Many soldiers volunteered to work on their day off Saturday to build the new tent city at the rifle range. “We’re trying to stay one cot ahead of the Cubans,” said Navy Cmdr. Alan Dooley.

At least the arriving Cubans are making the job somewhat easier. When soldiers asked if any refugees would help build encampments, many quickly volunteered.

Advertisement

And the work goes on.

This story has been filed as part of the Pentagon press pool in Guantanamo Bay.

* CASTRO SEEKS DEAL: Cuban leader signals he is prepared to stop refugee flow. A13


Advertisement