Rescued into limbo CRISIS IN THE CARIBBEAN

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- Jacques Belzy, a Haitian student, and Ricardo Escalon Acosta, a Cuban accountant, have this much in common: They are boat people who risked their lives at sea. They were rescued. And now they are truly adrift.

Events that determine their fate take place elsewhere in confrontations between the leaders of the places they left and the United States, the latest being the prospect of a U.S. intervention in Haiti.

Life in limbo at this U.S. naval base in southeastern Cuba looks like this: Shirtless refugee men in shorts bake in 90-degree heat. Haggard women and dust-coated children await rice-and-beans rations. The days drag on and seem to lead nowhere.

More than 14,000 Haitians and almost 31,000 Cubans inhabit separate, steamy tent cities circled with concertina wire. The refugees' anger flares periodically at the U.S. military, once their rescuers, now their jailers.

Strong political currents carried Jacques Belzy, Ricardo Escalon and the other rafters here. Plucked from the sea by the U.S. Coast Guard, then stowed with other human cargo aboard Navy troop transports, they sailed through the Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba and into the green waters of Guantanamo Bay.

Now, the castoffs of the two economically battered, politically repressive Caribbean nations are mired at Gitmo, as these 45 square miles of land and water have been known to generations of U.S. sailors.

They desperately await new political tides that could wash them ashore in a liberated Port-au-Prince or Havana, or in economically alluring Miami.

With President Clinton threatening a U.S. invasion of Haiti, the Haitian tide is rising.

Mr. Belzy, 25, a computer science student, both favors and fears a U.S. assault on his country's military leaders.

He has lived behind the wire at Guantanamo since July 9, and he wants to go home to a better life.

Yet, like several Haitians interviewed by reporters under U.S. military escort during an overnight stay here, he is afraid that an invasion would claim innocent victims, either in the assault itself or in reprisals exacted by allies of Haiti's military rulers.

"My parents are over there. I don't know what will happen to them," Mr. Belzy said. "I think everybody is supporting the invasion, but they are afraid."

The Cubans' situation is even less hopeful.

Ricardo Escalon, 34, the Cuban accountant, took to the sea Aug. well after President Clinton warned Cuban rafters that they would no longer be allowed into the United States.

Mr. Escalon gambled, packing his elderly stepfather, Irais Cabrera Llach, onto a raft with him and others.

Mr. Cabrera was once a political prisoner under Fidel Castro.

The Cubans' situation is less hopeful.

Ricardo Escalon, 34, the Cuban accountant, took to the sea Aug. well after President Clinton warned Cuban rafters they would no longer be allowed into the United States. Mr. Escalon gambled, packing his elderly stepfather, Irais Cabrera Llach, onto a raft with him and others.

Mr. Cabrera was once a political prisoner under Fidel Castro. Now Mr. Escalon presents the 78-year-old man as a symbol of what is wrong with Mr. Clinton's decision to stem the flow of Cubans by refusing them automatic political asylum.

The grizzled old man, diabetic and paralyzed on his right side, sits on a hard metal folding chair in his tent at Camp Lima. He clutches papers attesting to his two years in a Castro prison, papers he hopes will eventually be his ticket to asylum and Miami.

"Here is a man who has struggled during the entire Castro dictatorship, and this is how the Americans welcome him, all because of Clinton's policies," Mr. Escalon said angrily.

Determined to avoid a replay of the 1980 Mariel boatlift that brought 125,000 Cubans to U.S. shores, Mr. Clinton abruptly reversed policy. He agreed to grant Cubans at least 20,000 U.S. visas a year if Mr. Castro halted the exodus.

But to apply for visas, the Cubans who risked their lives to leave Cuba would have to go home. Most refuse to return, saying the Castro regime would treat them as traitors.

"I would rather die than return to Castro," Mr. Escalon said as dozens of Cubans clustered around him shouted their approval.

The rafters fear they may be left indefinitely in Gitmo limbo on this parched patch of cactus and palms where the smell of beans hangs in the air. Meanwhile, they try to fan winds of change themselves by mounting hunger strikes, crossing the concertina wire in protest and mobbing visiting reporters.

"We are just pawns in a game," Mr. Escalon said, "between Castro and Clinton."

The poor get hurt

The first Haitians arrived in Guantanamo June 27. Calm generally prevails at their cluster of seven camps, and talk of invasion lends an expectant air.

The Haitians have their own camp leaders, running water, a Creole-language newspaper, parachute-shaded picnic tables for cards and dominoes, makeshift soccer fields, and a public address system on which soothing Haitian tunes are played in the waning light of day.

More than 5,000 Haitians have gone home under a voluntary repatriation plan, suspended now that invasion seems likely. Their departure has eased crowding.

If there is a common theme among the Haitian refugees, it is that the United States should invade their country to restore the presidency of the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Haiti's

fledgling democracy -- but that no one should get hurt.

"We know that in an invasion poor people are the ones who pay for it and suffer most of the damage," said Tony Timothe, 34, a leader at Haitian Camp 4.

"Everybody in camp has somebody who lives in Cite Soleil or Carrefour," he said, referring to two Port-au-Prince slums. "We agree with the invasion, but wouldn't like to see great damage."

No alternativrs

Leviti Virgil, 31, another camp leader, is bitter about Guantanamo conditions, which he has endured for 2 1/2 months. But he sees no alternative.

"Whatever the MPs say, goes. They say you go to jail, you're in jail. They say you're guilty, you're guilty," he said. "The reason I sit here and take it like an animal is that I know if I go back to Haiti, I'm dead meat."

Henry Claude, 30, a Camp 5 leader, doubts that removing Haiti's military leaders alone would make Haiti safe for Aristide supporters. He wants political asylum in the United States.

"Those of us who really had political problems in Haiti, no matter what the invasion accomplishes, would not be able to return to Haiti," he said.

However, many Haitians say they are willing to return. Hundreds signed up Thursday to be "liaison officers" in a U.S. occupation of Haiti.

Antoine Pierre-Onel, 30, slipped away from Haiti July 6 in a dugout canoe, leaving behind his wife and two young daughters. Until now he has doubted Mr. Clinton's resolve to invade, but he is becoming a believer.

Like many Haitian refugees, Mr. Pierre-Onel has no doubt that it is a U.S. responsibility to restore President Aristide to power.

"If I have a problem in my back yard, I have to solve it," he said, referring to the U.S. role in the Western Hemisphere. "I'm happy [President Clinton] is going to solve the problem in Haiti, but does that mean many people have to be killed to get it solved?"

Short-lived euphoria

The USS Ashland, a Navy troop transport, disgorged Thursday perhaps the last big group of Cuban rafters that will arrive here -- 2,500 in all.

One by one, the migrants stood with arms outstretched as U.S. soldiers and marines frisked them and searched belongings stuffed in luggage, pillowcases and plastic bags.

Then the Cubans strode up a gangplank and onto terra firma to a waiting yellow American school bus or truck. They looked bedraggled but content.

"When they go from a little boat to a big boat, there's euphoria," said Navy Lt. Ernest Duplessis. "When they go from a big boat to land, there's euphoria. But then they get to camp . . ."

Euphoria has been as scarce as fresh water at Gitmo. While desalinization plants can rid 3 million gallons of water a day of brine at the base, no such process has been found to purge the refugees of their anger.

"I don't know that I can keep frustration from building," said Marine Brig. Gen. Michael J. Williams, commander of Joint Task Force 160, the U.S. military operation that is the rafters' rescuer, caretaker and jailer.

The task force commander says the United States is trying to make the detainees more comfortable by gradually improving their food, installing running water and providing recreation.

"The Cuban migrants only want one thing -- to go to the United States -- and that's one thing I can't offer," General Williams said. "Realistically, I can't make these people happy."

Not refugees but migrants

The U.S. military won't call the tent-city residents "refugees." That would imply the rafters fled persecution and deserve asylum. Nor are they "immigrants." That would suggest they have entered the United States. Guantanamo is Cuban territory leased by the United States under a 1903 treaty for $4,085 a year that Mr. Castro ritually refuses to accept.

The Americans have settled on "migrants" as the appropriate term, an ironic choice of words for people whose distinguishing feature is that they are going nowhere.

The refugee influx has looked a bit like an invasion to the 2,500 U.S. sailors who used to enjoy a tranquil, tropical tour of duty in Gitmo's small-town atmosphere. Then waves of rafters and Joint Task Force troops began to crash ashore.

Base traffic has increased; iguana road kills are up sharply. At night U.S. troops can smell the Cubans roasting banana rats, the native marsupial, on sticks.

The Haitians came first and occupied the old McCalla airfield. The first Cuban tent city took over the rifle range. Then, to the chagrin of Gitmo sailors, Yatera Seca, the base's arid moonscape of a golf course, became a Cuban tent city. The last batch of Cubans moved into Camp Bulkeley on the base's south end, and popular Caribbean beaches nearby were declared off-limits for security reasons.

The refugees' takeover was com plete when base schools were closed and 2,500 family members of U.S. military personnel were XTC flown to Norfolk, Va. Some dependents called themselves Guantanamo Bay's own "American refugees."

The Cubans began to arrive at Guantanamo in late August. Their camps still lack running water and other amenities. A Cuban-American civilian ombudsman was named Thursday to take complaints from the Cuban refugees.

So far, General Williams said, the nearly 7,000 troops of the Joint Task Force have been swamped just trying to provide tents, cots and security for the Cubans.

Only a little more than half of the almost 31,000 Cubans have been processed. U.S. troops pop-rivet a plastic bracelet embedded with a silicon chip around each refugee's wrist. Once scanned into a computer, the chip provides instant identification and other data.

No AIDS testing

For now, though, U.S. authorities still don't know the names of thousands of Cuban rafters. About 1,000 a day can be processed under the computerized system. But a steady flow of arrivals, such as the 2,500 aboard the Ashland, has outgunned the U.S. military.

One Cuban couple from Havana, Miguel Miranda, 24, and Jany Gonzalez, 23, said that they were infected with the virus that causes AIDS but that no U.S. doctor had examined them. They said they arrived at Guantanamo on Sept. 3.

General Williams said AIDS testing hasn't been done at the camps, except for 170 Haitians due to depart to a resettlement "safe haven" in Suriname, in South America.

While more than 110 Haitians have been diagnosed with tuberculosis, General Williams said known outbreaks of disease among the Cubans have been mainly minor ailments such as diarrhea and pink eye that spread under crowded conditions.

Many Cubans say their families, both in Cuba and South Florida, don't know whether they are alive or dead. Refugees crowd around reporters with lists of names they want read on Miami radio stations to let relatives they are safely in Guantanamo.

Telephone workers are two weeks away from installing phones on which migrants could place collect calls to relatives. A mail system is even further away, military spokesmen say, since no one yet has a working idea of who and where many rafters are.

Cuban refugees see no quick fix to Gitmo limbo. Their frustration sometimes breaks out in violence.

Some 2,500 Cubans jumped the concertina wire last weekend and marched toward a McDonald's in the base's "downtown." They demanded better camp conditions, an explanation of U.S. policy toward Cubans and a chance to air grievances to reporters.

Some threw rocks and were met by U.S. military police carrying M16 automatic rifles with fixed bayonets. One Cuban was hospitalized with a bayonet thrust to the shoulder. A number of troops received minor cuts and bruises.

The U.S. military downplayed the incident, but it was serious enough to warrant confining base personnel to quarters for two nights, troops here said.

In a sweep of the Cuban camps, U.S. military police confiscated tent poles and cot legs hidden as weapons, General Williams said.

He said more than 150 young Cuban "troublemakers" were isolated in a separate camp.

Caribbean Catch-22

The Cubans, accustomed to years of preferential treatment under Cold War immigration policies, believe they are victims of a Caribbean Catch-22.

They find themselves at a U.S. base on Cuban soil, afraid to go home for fear of reprisals, but ineligible to apply for U.S. visas unless they do go home.

Some resort to legalistic arguments in an attempt to extract themselves from their predicament.

"Guantanamo is Cuba," said Juan Eduardo Garcia, 42, echoing Mr. Castro's complaint that the U.S. base, the only American installation on Communist soil, is an imperialist dagger in Cuba's heart.

"They say the 20,000 visas will be granted in Cuba. The process should start in Guantanamo. Because Guantanamo is Cuba," Mr. Garcia said.

The Cubans hope their protests and Cuban-American pressure eventually will force President Clinton to give them the first shot at visas.

Until then, they are sitting in Gitmo limbo.

"We risked our lives," said Jose Alexis Consuegra, 26, an electronics engineer. "We are neither in Cuba nor in the U.S. We are prisoners here. If we go back to Cuba, we will be traitors. Yet we can't go to the U.S. Our future is uncertain."

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