Six months after the Clinton Administration shut off a chaotic tide of Florida-bound Cuban rafters with a naval blockade and a vow that none would be permitted into the United States, refugees are being airlifted here from a detention camp at a rate of almost 500 a week.
In three weekly flights from the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, almost 6,000 Cuban rafters have entered this country since December and at least 5,000 more are scheduled to arrive under a "humanitarian parole" plan supported by Cuban American lawmakers and lobbying groups who have criticized the indefinite detention policy as inhumane.
Paroling hardship cases into the United States does not signal a change in U.S. policy, according to government officials, who are wary of touching off another dangerous exodus of Cubans fed up with the hardships of life under Fidel Castro. As if to drive home the point, the U.S. military is replacing thousands of tents at Guantanamo with sturdier, wooden-sided structures designed to last for five years.
However, the numbers of Cubans who have been granted permission to enter the United States is higher than predicted and has raised the hopes of remaining detainees that all eventually will reach U.S. shores.
"Surprisingly, camp morale is good," U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Joseph Muniz, a spokesman for the military at Guantanamo, said Friday. "When they see their friends and relatives getting out, they get a boost. It means things may turn better for them, too."
So far, all of the Cubans allowed into the United States since the crisis ended last fall are minor children and their immediate families, the elderly or persons with special medical or psychological needs.
About a third of the 32,000 rafters picked up at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard last summer are expected to meet the conditions of parole announced by the Clinton Administration in December. That would leave about 18,000 balseros-- mostly single men and women--at Guantanamo, a sprawling U.S. military base on Cuba's arid southeast coast.
But few in Miami think those Cubans will stay there for long.
"The sooner they get out, the better," said Raul Hernandez, director of the U.S. Catholic Conference's Miami office. "Indefinite detention is not an acceptable policy."
Each week, three planeloads of Cubans arrive at Homestead Air Force Base near here, where they are greeted by crowds of ecstatic relatives. A relative or sponsor has signed an affidavit accepting financial responsibility for each Cuban paroled into this country. About 80% of the Cubans from Guantanamo have relatives in Miami and plan to stay here, according to resettlement agencies. Those without family members in Florida are being sent to several locations, including San Diego, Portland, Ore., and Chicago.
Preliminary surveys suggest that the majority of Cubans arriving now are young, ambitious and educated at least to the high school level. In one group of 700 rafters resettled by Catholic Community Services, almost 15% said that they had worked in credentialed professions, including law and medicine.
Under a program called Operation Angel, a coalition of Miami Cuban American groups has promised to match all the rafters with private sponsors, so that none becomes a burden on the taxpayer. The Cuban American Ad-Hoc Advisory Committee also has raised $500,000 to buy health insurance for many of the refugees and provides free psychological counseling, according to coordinator Lourdes Quirch.
"We want to set an example, by reaching out to our own," said Quirch. "Our ultimate hope is that everybody will come."
Despite the financial support from Miami's Cuban community, the arrival of thousands of Cuban children--along with the steady stream of immigrants from elsewhere--has jammed Dade County's already-overcrowded schools. Most elementary schools are operating at 150% of capacity and new students enter the public system here at a rate of 120 a day, school official say.
To ease the burden, the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami this week opened the first of several free schools designed to introduce the Cuban children to English and the ways of the U.S. educational system. After months in the tent cities, "they tend to yell out, and solve things aggressively," said teacher Michelle Senra, who is trying to cope with 24 children ages 12 and 13 in a small classroom at Hialeah's Immaculate Conception Church.
During their first week in an American school, the children spend a large part of the day drawing. When the subjects change from sharks, empty rafts and big waves to houses with flowers, Senra said, "that's progress.
"After what they have been through, they need a lot of love and understanding," she added.
Susan Krehbiel, director of the Miami office of Church World Service, another resettlement agency, said that the trauma of the Cubans' dangerous flight from Cuba and their subsequent detention "shows up in the children with nightmares, bed-wetting, more aggressive behavior."
What Krehbiel called "a high rate of conflict within families" as a result of their travail can also affect the rafters' placement with relatives.
"It's quite a serious thing, taking someone into your home, especially if it's someone you haven't lived with before," said Krehbiel. "These are people born and raised under the Cuban regime, so there is a need for orientation about things we take for granted. They are starting from zero."
Nonetheless, because of support from the Cuban community, Krehbiel said, "eventually the vast majority (of balseros ) will get here. It may take two years. But to have people stuck in Guantanamo is not a good solution."