Faced with a sudden surge of Haitian boat people, the Clinton administration is reopening the U.S. naval base in Cuba to Haitians seeking political asylum in the United States.
"The decision has been made to use Guantanamo if necessary for refugee processing," White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers said Wednesday.Top officials took the action Tuesday evening after thousands of Haitians were plucked from boats by Coast Guard cutters during five chaotic days. The 2,806 fleeing Haitians intercepted since Friday eclipsed the number intercepted during all of 1993, when all Haitian migrants were forcibly returned to their homeland.
The migrants have been lured to sea by President Clinton's decision to give fleeing Haitians a chance to apply for political asylum for the first time since then-President George Bush halted the practice in May 1992.
There was almost a crisis atmosphere on Tuesday after word reached Washington that 1,486 Haitians were picked up on Monday, the second highest one-day total since the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in September 1991.
Officials decided to reopen Guantanamo after concluding that existing facilities for interviewing Haitians could be overwhelmed.
"At this point, the ships are adequate to handle it," Myers said. "Our anticipation is that given the outflow of refugees, that may not always be true."
Myers again urged Haitians to apply for refugee status at centers inside the country.
The key meeting on the issue was attended by Secretary of State Warren Christopher, national security adviser Tony Lake, CIA Director James Woolsey and other officials.
Starting on June 16, the Haitian migrants have been taken to a U.S. Navy hospital ship, the Comfort, docked off the coast of Kingston, Jamaica. In the initial days of the operation, immigration service officials were able to handle the outflow easily, but that all changed over the weekend.
U.S. officials said one factor contributing to the Haitians' flight may have been the relatively high number - almost 30 percent - who convinced immigration officials they faced persecution if they are repatriated.
Those regarded as economic refugees are being sent home.
The administration has been making almost daily appeals to Haitians to apply for asylum at processing centers inside Haiti where the percentage approved for refugee status is comparable with the figures on the Comfort. But most Haitians intent on fleeing have ignored the U.S. appeals.
The U.S. base at Guantanamo had been used as a migrant processing center in the early months after Aristide's ouster in a military coup. Guantanamo was filled virtually to its capacity of 12,500 when Bush shut the operation down in May 1992 and ordered all Haitians intercepted by the Coast Guard returned home without screening.
Officials said Tuesday night the Guantanamo base will be used to process the overflow from the Comfort. They said plans are being accelerated for opening a five-acre tract in the British Turks and Caicos Islands north of Haiti for processing the migrants.
Some experts believe if the exodus gets out of hand, Clinton will have little choice but to invade Haiti. He has said only that military action has not been ruled out.
Aristide, meanwhile, said Tuesday that he could not tell Haitians either to flee or stay home.
"I cannot ask them to stay, because they may kill them there. I cannot ask them to leave, because they may die somewhere else," he told a National Press Club audience.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Stanley Schrager, who watched the repatriation of 170 Haitians at dockside Tuesday in Port-au-Prince, said the Coast Guard ships are overworked and under "tremendous strain."