Faced with tinderbox tension in Cuban detention camps here and diminishing Cuban American support for its internment policy, the Clinton Administration appears willing to back away from a vow that none of the 30,000 refugees held here will be permitted into the United States.
In the next few days, 15 Cuban children, including one with leukemia and a newborn infant, are expected to be flown to the United States for humanitarian reasons, according to members of an ad hoc advisory committee of Cuban Americans at a Miami press conference Thursday. Each child will be accompanied by an unknown number of family members.
But late Thursday, U.S. Justice Department spokesman Carl Stern said that the request is still under review and has not been granted. He added, however, that even if approved, the humanitarian release of the 15 and their families would not signal any change in U.S. policy.
“Obviously, the rules are not inflexible,” Stern said. “There are always going to be exceptions for humanitarian reasons, medical concerns or the like.”
On Sept. 10, reiterating a policy first announced Aug. 19 in an effort to shut off the waves of Cuban rafters entering Florida, U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno said that any Cubans wishing to enter the United States must apply from Cuba. “They will not be eligible for processing into the U.S. from Guantanamo,” she said.
Although the Clinton Administration won the backing of many Cuban American leaders for its detention policy in exchange for tighter sanctions against the government of Fidel Castro, the prospect of detaining Cubans was never popular in Miami. News media reports of the stark living conditions and pictures of Cubans in tent cities surrounded by concertina wire and military police have only heightened the level of frustration among Cuban Americans.
The frustration among those in the camps is even higher. “Clearly, we have an explosive situation. Anything can happen, from a disturbance to an epidemic,” said Guarione M. Diaz, appointed by the Clinton Administration to serve as civilian ombudsman for the Cubans here.
The release of the first group of Cubans from Guantanamo is seen by many in the Cuban American community as the beginning of a process in which eventually all those in detention will be given a chance to enter the United States.
“We never agreed that Cubans could be held there indefinitely, only that they could be held until a solution was found,” said Ninoska Perez, director of the Cuban-American National Foundation’s short-wave radio station, which broadcasts daily to Cuba. “Now we have been offering solutions. Those with relatives have sponsors. We will find sponsors for the others.
“Conditions in the camps are deplorable,” added Perez, whose visit here this week touched off a hunger strike at one camp after she was denied entrance. U.S. military officials said that Perez, traveling as a reporter, was with a group of journalists whose arrival coincided with a food delivery, so they were denied entrance to that camp. They subsequently toured another Cuban camp.
Indeed, even the commander of the joint task force overseeing the camps for the Cubans and 14,000 Haitian migrants admitted that living conditions are barely adequate and that the camps could erupt into violence.
“There is an awful lot of tension, frustration and anger in those camps,” said Brig. Gen Mike Williams of the U.S. Marine Corps. “There is work to be done before they meet even the minimal humane standards we’d like to set.”
The newest Cuban camp, called Oscar I, is a stark illustration. Here, on a relatively flat piece of land within sight of a rolling, scrub-brush minefield and a U.S. guard tower at the border between Cuba and the 45-square-mile U.S. naval base, more than 3,300 men, women and children are waiting out their fate under a sea of canvas.
“We are being treated like animals here,” said Isiah Alonso, 38, who was an English teacher at Havana’s Institute of Foreign Affairs before he, his wife, Ileana, their two young daughters and 15 other family members got into a boat that he bought for $2,000. “We are being held political prisoners by Clinton.”
Although complaints about the food, the stench of the portable toilets and the heat are common to both the Cubans and to the Haitians interned nearby, many of the Cuban camps have been erected on freshly bulldozed land, where the slightest rain turns the bare earth to mud. Shower facilities are minimal. No mail has been delivered and many people complain that relatives in Cuba and the United States have received no word yet on whether they lived or died after setting off to sea, often in flimsy rafts.
Telephone lines, only for collect calls to the United States, are to be ready today, according to AT&T; officials.
Without much shade, temperatures are high, tempers short. So far, only a few dozen Cubans have been isolated because of disciplinary problems, Williams said. “Most realize that violence doesn’t help,” he added. “But the peacefulness of the camps is only an inch deep.”
Most of those in Oscar I left Cuba after the Administration had reversed a 32-year-old policy and announced that Cubans would not be automatically welcomed to the United States. But many said they climbed on a raft anyway, unable or unwilling to accept that Guantanamo would not be a rest stop on the way to Florida. Of the more than 33,000 rafters picked up after Aug. 19, and sent to Guantanamo, about 2,500 have volunteered to go to a temporary camp in Panama.
“We are not bad people,” said Ileana Alonso, 35, as she sat on an army cot under a sand-colored tent. “We knew about the American policy (of detention), but we also know that policy has to change.”
While a growing number of Haitians are choosing to return to their homeland as democracy is restored, the Cubans have no such option. But almost 60 Cubans have fled the camp to return home, either by swimming or by making it through the minefield, according to Cuban officials. U.S. military authorities have stopped at least 20 others. Williams said he suspects that a few Cubans get out of the camps every day.
Representatives of the Castro government and the U.S. State Department reportedly are working on a plan for Cuban repatriation that could include paying those who return to Cuba a cash resettlement stipend.
Williams called a method of returning willing Cubans to Cuba “the most critical need. That is absolutely my No. 1 priority, to get that solved.”
Unsolicited, about 44 Cubans have offered to go back to Cuba. Williams said that the rest of the Cubans will not be surveyed about their wish to return until a plan to repatriate them is in place.
Most, however, seem determined to stay. “People left Cuba with one idea--to get to the U.S.,” said Francisco Escobar, 31, a leader in camp Oscar I who was heading up a hunger strike to protest the decision to turn Perez away on Tuesday. About 200 people moved their cots from the tents and pushed them together next to the fence in protest.
“This is a hard life here, but life was even harder in Cuba,” Escobar said. “We know the history of the United States, the generosity of the American people. They understand who we are: men, women, old people, children.
“We will make it.”
In Miami, meanwhile, Cuban American radio stations and civic groups are piling up donations of money, foodstuffs and clothing for the camps. In the first of several shipments, a load of 2,300 pounds of powdered milk is to arrive by chartered aircraft this weekend, according to ombudsman Diaz.
“The military is doing the best it can,” said Diaz, who commutes weekly between Guantanamo, Miami and Washington. “In the short term, we need immediate improvements.
“In the long term, we need to find an alternative.”
Times researcher Anna M. Virtue in Miami and staff writer Robert L. Jackson in Washington contributed to this story.