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Frustration Grows at Guantanamo Tent Cities : Refugees: Tensions rise among Cubans, Haitians in migrant camps. Officials fear a disturbance.

September 08, 1994|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — Here in Camp Mike, sun-blasted and dust-choked home to almost 2,500 Cuban migrants, a sense of unchanneled frustration builds by the day.

Feeling betrayed, cut off from their loved ones and treated like prisoners, some of the Cubans in the camp say that they won't put up with it much longer.

"The only reason we haven't risen up yet is respect for the women and children who are with us," an angry Abel Figueroa, a 30-year-old hotel custodian from Havana, said Wednesday. "We'll take over if we have to. This is Cuban land."

The restive mood at Camp Mike--a former shooting range abruptly transformed into a bulging tent city--is indicative of the rising tensions among the more than 24,000 Cubans being held at various sites here.

In fact, trouble is brewing throughout the tent cities now housing nearly 39,000 Cuban and Haitian refugees at this U.S. base on Cuba's southeast shore. In separate incidents in the last four days, both Cuban and Haitian detainees pelted military police with rocks.

Haitians, who have clashed for months with U.S. officials, now are suspicious that Cubans are receiving preferential treatment, including being allowed to enter the United States. The situation may be growing even more tense in the Cuban encampments, thrown up quickly to accommodate the sudden surge in rafters attempting to flee the Fidel Castro regime for the United States.

The Cuban camps are decidedly provisional in nature, in contrast to the somewhat more developed Haitian compound, centered on an abandoned airstrip that has been in use as a migrant center since June. Few Haitians are arriving and many have elected to return to Haiti.

By contrast, no Cubans are headed back home--there is no way to repatriate them. And thousands more are waiting on Navy ships offshore to be transferred into the already-overtaxed facilities.

Authorities worry that some minor incident could trigger a full-scale riot--as almost happened on Tuesday, when up to 500 Cubans at camps Papa and Quebec engaged in a rock-throwing brawl with military police. Tense residents became enraged when MPs detained a Cuban who breached a fence to retrieve a soccer ball.

"They're frustrated. It's hot. They're angry," Marine Brig. Gen. Michael J. Williams said as he stood on a bluff overlooking a mini-metropolis of khaki and olive-drab tents. "So, little things that people would ordinarily laugh off or brush off are going to cause confrontations between U.S. (soldiers) and Cubans."

But the general, who heads the joint task force that runs the massive migrant relief operation, stopped short of saying that the place is ready to blow. Authorities are working to improve admittedly difficult conditions, he said, and provide migrants with more pastimes and a better quality of life.

"Do we have a continuing worrisome security problem? Absolutely we do," said the Annapolis graduate, a former Vietnam War flier and White House helicopter pilot. "And will it get worse the longer we're here? Absolutely it will. But I don't think we're at the point where I get up every morning wringing my hands wondering when the riot's going to start."

In the United States, incarcerated Cubans who arrived in the 1980 Mariel boat lift rioted at several prisons during the 1980s. Those were convicted criminals, however, unlike the mostly law-abiding Cubans who are being held here.

Riot gear--helmets, batons, disabling gas--is at the ready here should things take a turn for the worse. (Troops posted to the camps carry no weapons.) The 5,000 or so military overseers, many young men and women not long out of high school, are also openly frustrated. Nerves everywhere are fraying amid the tropical swelter.

At the Cuban camps, workers are still endeavoring to provide basic amenities: running water, showers, recreational facilities and a smooth-running system of food delivery. Meantime, earthmovers are busy clearing brush to accommodate the ever-increasing influx.

"You can literally bulldoze this place (the base) and put more and more people on it . . . if you're willing to keep lowering the quality of life," noted Gen. Williams, clearly not relishing that prospect.

Hills of cactus and scrub brush surround Camp Mike, which is in distant view of military watchtowers on Cuban territory. Inside the fenced site--actually seven different camps, separated by wire--few residents seemed to doubt that things could explode.

"We didn't leave Cuba as political refugees to be stuck in this miserable spot where we have even less freedom," said Riquet Caballero Gourguet, a physician from Havana who is one of the many well-educated professionals among the Cuban throngs here.

In animated accord was a shirtless Figueroa, the former hotel worker from Havana, who, like several other men gathered beneath an olive-drab tent, seemed close to the breaking point.

"At least in Cuba we weren't prisoners!" Figueroa shouted as others nodded in agreement.

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