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CLINTON’S ANNOUNCEMENT IS WHAT THOUSANDS HOPED FOR IN LONG GUANTANAMO DAYS

SHARE CLINTON’S ANNOUNCEMENT IS WHAT THOUSANDS HOPED FOR IN LONG GUANTANAMO DAYS

The Cuban men detained at Guantanamo Bay have a wandering Fidel Castro impersonator, an art gallery and even a makeshift raft for fishing in the deep blue waters of the Caribbean.

Now, they also have hope."We've been waiting for this for the longest time," refugee Luis Montalvo said Wednesday.

What Montalvo and about 14,000 other single men at the U.S. Navy base have been waiting for is word that they will be allowed into the United States. Their dreams were realized Tuesday in an announcement from the Clinton administration.

The atmosphere at the refugee camps Wednesday seemed like the morning after a big party. Men danced by the sea to a refugee band and sang songs of rafters coming to Miami.

The 14,000 men will join more than 6,000 married couples and children already preparing to leave the arid, mountainous base. The government decided late last year to accept unaccompanied children, people over 70 and most families with children. There are very few single women at the base.

Although the administration wants to spread the refugees around the country, many spoke of wanting to go to Miami.

The administration also said it would return all future rafters to Cuba, a reversal of a 35-year policy.

"I feel a little bit sad for these people because they also want their freedom," Montalvo said through an interpreter. "But we've been here almost nine months and we deserve our freedom."

The military command that runs Guantanamo's refugee operation allowed some of the 1,200 men held at Village Alpha to talk to reporters about their newfound freedom.

Life in the camps has been tedious, but the men in Village Alpha have kept busy landscaping the grounds and building recreation areas.

"These are intelligent people and hard workers and they want to demonstrate that to the United States," said Gerardo Almorel, an auto mechanic. "We'll do whatever they need in America because there are no bad jobs."

The military command said little about the 449 Haitians - almost half of them unaccompanied children - being held at another part of Guantanamo with little hope of coming to the United States. The Coast Guard returned 27 Haitians to their homeland Wednesday.

"We've gotten almost no response from the Haitians" on the new Cuba policy, said Brig. Gen. Joe Allen. "We don't have a timetable for their departure."

The Pentagon is spending about $1 million a day to house the Cubans, and had asked for $100 million to upgrade the camps.

Cubans with children and older refugees are already being admitted to the United States at the rate of about 500 a week, and the men affected by the administration's order should start leaving in late July. The camps should be emptied in about 10 months, officials said.

About 1,500 refugees have voluntarily returned to Cuba since the flood of Florida-bound rafters was diverted to the base last August. Nine died trying to escape.

The campers have contended with boredom and frustration through religion, swimming, fishing, even creating arts and crafts for display in their own makeshift art gallery.

"We have uncertainty about the future and we don't yet know what's going to happen," said Juan Batista Sosa, who provided comic relief dressed in the familiar fatigues, cap and glasses of Fidel Castro.

"We do know this," he said, pulling down his phony gray beard to talk. "We're going to the United States."

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Chronology of events at refugee camp

1994:

- June: Joint military task force formed to handle shipboard processing of Haitian rafters fleeing political strife and poverty. Construction begins of tent cities with capacity of more than 50,000.

- August: Exodus of 35,000 Cubans forces Clinton administration to pick up rafters at sea and house them at Guantanamo.

- September: About 8,000 Cubans transferred to Panama to ease overcrowding.

- October: Parole policy set for Cubans over 70, their families and unaccompanied children.

- December: Parole expanded to families with children on a case-by-case basis.

1995:

- February: About 7,500 Cubans returned to Guantanamo from Panama.

- May: Of 21,000 Cubans held at Guantanamo's dozen camps, more than 6,000 are women, children and elderly.

- May 2: Clinton administration announces plan to allow up to 20,000 Cuban detainees to come to America but says it will begin sending new refugees back to Cuba. Policy does not address 449 Haitians, almost half of them unaccompanied children, held at Guantanamo for about a year.