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Families Grasp for Information Lifeline : Cubans: News of loved ones' fates in refugee exodus is painfully scanty.

September 11, 1994|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — Migrants detained in dreary camps approach strangers from the outside world with hope in their eyes and crumpled pieces of paper in their hands bearing the scribbled names of relatives from Florida to California, wherever the far-flung Cuban diaspora has taken them.

"We're completely isolated," lamented Odalis Gonzalez, a 29-year-old mother from Havana, accompanied behind the barbed wire by her 11-year-old son, Yosset. She asked a reporter to telephone a sister in the United States.

Meanwhile in Miami, hundreds of apprehensive residents make the pilgrimage every day to the drab stucco building of Radio Mambi, a Spanish-language station that posts the latest lists of those held at Guantanamo and other sites. Their ultimate fear: that loved ones who took to the rafts to risk a treacherous escape from President Fidel Castro's Cuba have perished in the Florida Straits.

"My mother left with my two sons 12 days ago, and we haven't heard a word," said a distraught Luis Sosa after yet another disappointing examination of the rolls at Radio Mambi. "Imagine how one feels in such a terrible situation."

And in Cuba, residents listen intently to radio broadcasts from Miami giving names of rescued migrants and examine partial lists circulating in the streets.

The seaborne exodus of thousands of Cubans on small craft has been a wrenching, traumatic experience for both migrants and their families in the United States, Cuba and elsewhere. Anguish about separated loved ones is weighing heavily on Cubans and Cuban Americans alike.

A broad information chasm has only made things worse.

The more than 26,000 Cubans detained here, like the 14,000-plus Haitians who are sharing the naval base's hospitality, worry that relatives know nothing about their fates and fear the worst. Communication with loved ones is virtually nonexistent.

No family visits are allowed at this U.S. bastion on the southeast corner of the Western Hemisphere's last communist enclave. Many Cubans, accustomed to hearing about exiles' political clout, cling to the hope that kin will somehow be able to get them out of here--although the White House says they are to be held indefinitely in Guantanamo and in third nations such as Panama, with no prospect of entry to the United States.

The U.S. military forces here, mostly young soldiers abruptly transformed into overseers of refugees, have struggled to keep pace with the influx and provide the essentials--shelter, food, water and medical care.

Mail, messages and telephone service have not been a priority. Authorities hope to soon set up some kind of postal system in conjunction with the Red Cross, and AT&T plans to open long-distance lines in Guantanamo for collect calls from rafters.

"They're absolutely desperate for information and communication," said Marine Brig. Gen. Michael J. Williams, who heads operations here.

For now, camp residents typically rely on anonymous visitors to relay crucial developments about their whereabouts and the status of ill relatives, missing children and other intimate family concerns.

"This boy's mother needs to know that her son is here," Aleyla Claro explained breathlessly to a journalist interviewing Cubans bound for the new camps in Panama. Back in Miami, Grisel Ortega was duly informed that her 7-year-old son, Edgar Acosta, was among the first of 10,000 Cubans transferred to Panama, where conditions are said to be better and family visits are permitted.

In information-starved southern Florida, capital of the Cuban American community, telephone service with Cuba is so erratic that many people cannot determine whether their loved ones have left the island. Nagging suspicions impel them to the impersonal lists.

"I think this is my cousin!" exclaimed one young woman examining the rolls outside Radio Mambi this week, her finger planted beneath one name on a wall filled with computer printouts from Guantanamo and the Immigration and Naturalization Service detention centers near Miami and in Port Isabel, Tex.

Studying the listings has become a somber daily routine in Florida, a modern-day version of queues to examine casualty rolls of wars past. Spanish-language newspapers in Florida publish the names on a regular basis. Radio stations broadcast the monotonous rolls, along with occasional curt messages--typically, "We're all safe,"--relayed from Guantanamo. Impromptu support groups have formed to pool often-unconfirmed bits of information.

"There is great uncertainty," said the Rev. Rafael Lira, a Mexican priest working at the Sacred Heart Chapel near Little Havana. The site was one of several where processions were held last week in honor of Cuba's Roman Catholic patroness, la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, who, appropriately, is also the protector of navigators and the shipwrecked.

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