Facebook Twitter



Disgruntled Cubans, undaunted by U.S. efforts to keep them home, are continuing to flee in droves, threatening to overwhelm the haven being set up for them at this sweltering U.S. military enclave.

As some 1,200 ill-clad Cubans rescued from the sea arrived here Monday, nearly 1,400 others were en route, leaving U.S. officials wondering how long it will take to fill up the 10,000 slots that are planned to be ready by the end of the week.While the Cuban government has derided the Guantanamo facilities as a "concentration camp," virtually all refugees seemed relieved that life under communism was behind them.

But the sense of triumph over having escaped was mitigated by the realization that a new start in the United States is beyond reach for now. One embittered newcomer, David Sanchez Navea, said he and a group of colleagues set sail for south Florida before President Clinton's new policy was announced, only to be brought here anyway.

"We are disgusted," Sanchez Navea said.

"It's a very big sacrifice," said Rosa Maria Diaz Carmenate, 30.

The sense of isolation among Cubans was strong as they began their first day here. Many pleaded with visiting U.S. reporters to call friends and relatives in Florida to inform them of their arrival.

Defense Secretary William Perry visited here Monday shortly after the fifth Coast Guard cutter of the day entered port.

Perry traversed the waters between Key West and Cuba, gazing from the cockpit of his C-20 executive jet as it swooped over several ships plucking refugees from the sea. During the flight, he observed at least 20 tiny makeshift rafts.

"It's a stunning sight," Perry said. "There's a tidal wave of people forming out there."

More than 50 Coast Guard and Navy vessels patrol the waters, forming, in effect, a seaborne sea wall. Thirty planes patrol overhead.

Clinton, worried that Florida was unable to accommodate the largest exodus of Cubans since the Mariel boatlift 14 years ago, last week ordered that all Cubans rescued at sea be brought to Guantanamo for the time being. Monday's arrivals were the first since that announcement.

As one Coast Guard cutter after another unloaded Cubans here, officials worried about their ability to handle the flow. New arrivals milled around anxiously in a holding area, not sure what would happen to them next.

The Guantanamo base's mission is anti-submarine warfare training. But the 45-square-mile facility is acquiring a new identity with the presence of nearly 15,000 Haitian boat people and growing numbers of Cubans, along with row upon row of tents to accommodate them. Two miles separate the Cuban and Haitian areas.

Michael Wilson, a former Peace Corps volunteer working with the Haitians, said about 1,800 children are in education programs at the Guantanamo camps. He told Perry the children needed pens, pencils and any kind of recreational equipment they could get.

Perry told the officials he would try to do everything he could to improve conditions at the camps.

One of the relief officials told the defense secretary that a major concern among the Haitians was whether they would be treated differently than the Cubans.

"If the Haitians think there's any difference, there could be violence," the official said.

Meanwhile, a Marine spokesman in Camp Lejeune, N.C., said about 280 Marines have been sent to provide security on U.S. ships picking up Cuban boat people at sea.

Major Steve Little said Tuesday that the Marines flew to Key West, Fla., Monday to be dispersed to some of the 25 U.S. Coast Guard and Navy ships picking up boat people.

An officer who did not want to be identified said the Marines will beef up security on the ships to be sure refugees do not get into areas such as radio, boiler and engine rooms.