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Guantanamo's Capacity for Cubans to Be Tripled : Refugees: The island detention center will hold 60,000, the White House says. Move will bring 1,700 military dependents at the base back to the U.S.

August 25, 1994|ART PINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Clinton Administration, racing to deflect the continuing torrent of Cuban refugees, said Wednesday that it is expanding its detention facilities at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba to hold as many as 60,000 people--three times the camps' present capacity.

The move, unveiled at the White House by Defense Secretary William J. Perry, will force the Pentagon to bring home some 1,700 dependents of U.S. naval personnel now living at the base to avoid overtaxing the water and sewage systems.

The construction of the additional detention facilities, which Perry told reporters should be completed by the end of next week, is designed to help persuade would-be refugees that Washington is serious about denying them entry into the United States and that they should stay home.

Perry and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, who appeared with him at a news conference, also served notice that the United States is prepared to keep refugees at the detention camps "indefinitely," even if the standoff between Washington and Havana continues for years.

"Do not risk your lives," Reno warned in a message aimed at the refugees and their relatives who live in South Florida. "You should not expect that you will come to the United States. You are going to Guantanamo or other safe havens, and you will not be processed."

White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers later reiterated that caution: "All of the refugees picked up at sea are taken to Guantanamo," she said. "There is no plan to take or house any refugees here in the United States-- period. "

The developments came as the flood of Cuban refugees continued unabated, with federal authorities reporting some grisly scenes in which bodies of refugees have been found floating near makeshift rafts, apparently after the emigrants died of dehydration or illness.

The Coast Guard reported that it recovered 2,791 rafters in the Florida Straits by late Wednesday, after picking up 3,253 on Tuesday, the highest one-day number since the Mariel boat lift of 1980, when Cuba intentionally shipped about 125,000 refugees to Florida.

Officials said that the expansion of the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, on Cuba's southeast shore, would involve a major undertaking by the military, including a sharp increase in the number of military security forces on the island and additional support troops to take care of the refugee population.

Moreover, while Perry said that the camps might be expanded to accommodate 40,000 or more refugees, military officers said later that the Navy had received orders to provide for between 45,000 and 60,000 refugees if necessary--up from a capacity of 23,000 now.

Officials said as many as 8,000 more Marines and soldiers will be needed to provide security for the base. The Pentagon already is shipping some 600 Marines and military police troops to the naval base.

The expansion represents a staggering increase from current levels. The detention camps at Guantanamo currently house 14,000 Haitians and 2,000 Cubans. Another 7,000 Cubans are en route aboard U.S. vessels and should arrive by Friday. Although Perry declined to provide any figures, officials said that the expansion is likely to prove costly.

In her remarks Wednesday, Reno confirmed that the Administration is working out new procedures to make it easier for Cubans to emigrate through traditional channels by applying for a visa through the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

Also Wednesday, the Administration continued its hard-line stance against Cuban President Fidel Castro, rejecting a Cuban overture to begin broad-scale U.S.-Cuban talks designed to work out a compromise.

Earlier in the day, Fernando Remirez de Estenoz Barciela, Cuba's ambassador to the United Nations, said that Havana would be willing to negotiate over the emigrant issue but only if Washington agrees to discuss ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba and abandoning the Guantanamo Bay naval base.

Noting that the Administration has negotiated with other countries whose regimes it has opposed, Remirez called U.S. policy on Cuba "an additional example of the type of double standard that we have so frequently seen here."

A few minutes later, however, Peter Tarnoff, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, rejected Remirez's proposal, telling reporters at the White House that "we see nothing to be gained from the kind of talks you're referring to."

"It should be clear after 35 years to Fidel Castro and his government that the way he has been managing the affairs of the island is a failure," Tarnoff said. "He is being told that by his own people. That's why they want to leave."

Perry also warned Cuba not to worsen the exodus by encouraging would-be refugees to enter Guantanamo Bay naval base through the back gate, saying that the United States would "regard this as . . . an unfriendly act . . . and would take appropriate action."

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