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White House Urges Other Nations to Take Cuban Refugees : Immigration: Clinton Administration hopes that detainment outside the U.S. will discourage rafters. Coast Guard is still rescuing hundreds a day.

August 24, 1994|NORMAN KEMPSTER and ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The Clinton Administration, trying to stem the flow of Cuban rafters, pressed a dozen Caribbean and Latin American governments Tuesday to provide internment camps that officials hope will prove less attractive to refugees than the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Administration officials said that the Cubans would be transferred from Guantanamo Bay, on Cuba's southeast coast, to alternate sites just as soon as arrangements can be completed.

Although the refugees at Guantanamo are held behind barbed wire, to many, the base seems less forbidding than a foreign internment camp.

"They believe that Guantanamo is part of the U.S.A.," said Victor Fraga, 35, a Cuban now living in Miami who reached the United States during the 1980 Mariel boat lift. "When they get to Guantanamo, they are in the U.S. They have food. They have jeans. They have freedom."

"There's more freedom in a jail in the U.S. than in Cuba," said Orlando Abelindo, who arrived in the United States Aug. 14 after casting away from Cuba on a raft made of Styrofoam packing material. "In Cuba we are slaves. When they get to Guantanamo, they know for a fact that they are in U.S. territory and Castro can do nothing to them."

Graciella Cruz-Taura, a professor of history at Florida Atlantic University, agreed. "For Cubans, going to Guantanamo is not going to a foreign land. Legally it may be U.S. property, but for a Cuban to be told he is going to Guantanamo, it is in fact part of the island.

"It doesn't have the same psychological impact as being sent to a foreign detention camp," said Cruz-Taura, a Cuban American who came to the United States in 1962.

Three days after President Clinton sought to stop the outpouring of Cubans by decreeing that refugees will be rounded up and detained instead of gaining almost automatic asylum in the United States, the pace of emigration continued to accelerate. On Tuesday, the Coast Guard rescued 2,886 more rafters, the largest single-day total since the Mariel boat lift, which brought 125,000 Cubans to Florida over five months. The Coast Guard had rescued 2,548 rafters on Monday.

"The bottom line is that this is unprecedented," said Lt. Cmdr. Jim Howe of the U.S. Coast Guard. "With Mariel, you had a shrimp boat with 100 people on it. With this, you have a tire with a guy in it."

Howe said the Coast Guard had called in 10 more ships from as far away as the West Coast and the Great Lakes to join the 20 vessels already patrolling the Florida Straits.

"We've never seen anything quite like this," he said. "We're throwing everything at it that we have."

Nevertheless, Administration officials said they remain hopeful that the flow of Cubans soon will abate, just as the exodus of Haitians stopped several weeks ago after it became clear that refugees were going to a tent city at Guantanamo instead of to the United States.

"It will just take time for the message to sink in that they are not going to the United States," an Administration official said. "It took a while with the Haitians."

But it is becoming increasingly clear that Cubans and Haitians view the Guantanamo facility differently.

The Administration hopes that facilities on other islands or in Central America will prove to be more of a deterrent.

A State Department official said that the Administration is asking governments that have indicated they will accept Haitian refugees to take Cubans as well.

The United States has signed agreements with Suriname, St. Lucia and Dominica to accept Haitians, so those three governments are at the top of the priority list for Cuban camps, the official said.

The government that takes office in Panama on Sept. 1 has expressed willingness to offer a haven for Haitians and is expected to do the same for Cubans.

In addition, Washington has agreements in principle but has not signed contracts with Grenada and Antigua. Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, Guatemala and El Salvador have said that they will consider the U.S. request to take both Cubans and Haitians.

Although some refugees might reconsider their flight if Cubans are sent to camps in Suriname or Panama, recent immigrants interviewed in Florida said that they expect their countrymen to keep coming. Some said that jail is better than life in Cuba. And others expressed confidence that the Administration eventually will relent and permit the refugees to settle in the United States.

Renaldo Alonzo, 49, a Cuban immigrant who beat the new policy by reaching Miami a week ago, said that his brother-in-law and hundreds of other Cubans are continuing to risk their lives in the Florida Straits even though they know that Clinton intends to deny them entry to the United States.

"He thinks that eventually he'll get to America," Alonzo said. "I think he will be processed at Guantanamo and then they will let him come here--just like they let me and the rest of the family in."

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