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Refugee tide: little sign of ebbing

By Stephen WebbeStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 12, 1980

Key West, Fla.

Dusk turns suddenly to night as a lowering squall line whirls past Key West and out into the straits of Florida. Lightning flickering eerily in the sky illuminates seagulls racing before the rain, twisting and turning to escape it like so many frenzied white butterflies.

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Somewhere short of the horizon a flare goes up and a Coast Guard helicopter, its orange beacon flashing, thuds purposefully into the darkness to investigate.

The tide of Cuban refugees reaching Key West from Mariel shows little sign of ebbing, despite the often perilous nature of the 110-mile crossing.

At the abandoned submarine base where they continue to pour ashore here, a sunburned marine from the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, tips his forage cap onto the back of his cropped head and wipes his sweaty brow with a muscular forearm.

The marines have taken over control duties from frazzled national guardsmen and the young leatherneck, who speaks no Spanish, had spent the day escorting tired but jubilant refugees away from their boats in the clammy heat of a Key West May. He wonders when he will get back to Camp Lejeune, N.C., to see his girlfriend. More to the point, perhaps, he wonders how long the Cubans will keep coming. That is something that many people both here and in Washington currently are wondering.

"There's no way of judging," says Verne Jervis, spokesman for the US Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington. "It depends on how many Mr. Castro wants to let out. It's an uncontrolled situation as far as the US government is concerned."

To date, a little over 30,000 refugees have reached Key West and freedom. Some 30,000 to 40,000 had been expected, says Lt. Norris Turner, a Coast Guard spokesman in Miami. He notes that intelligence reports received by the Coast Guard indicate that there may well be 100,000 refugees waiting in Mariel harbor to make the crossing. But he says he believes 250,000 probably will have fled Fidel Castro's Cuba before the exodus is completed.The Coast Guard expects to be occupied in the Florida straits for the next three months. "We are geared up into August," says Lieutenant Turner.

Harvard Prof. Jorge Dominguez, author of "Cuba: Order and Revolution," believes the exodus will go on far beyond August and that the Cuban government will let "many more thousands leave."

Describing it as "one of the great tragedies of recent times," he points out that whereas Fidel Castro earlier skimmed off the political opposition by permitting the disgruntled to leave the country, he now is ridding himself of the "economic opposition," and common criminals. It is thought that those constituting the former group may have concluded that Cuba's seriously ailing economy stands little chance of recovery -- despite the yearly infusion of $3 billion of Soviet aid. "It is enormously moving that so many are risking their lives both to cross to the US and to rescue them from Mariel," declares Professor Dominguez. Fears that Fidel Castro might as suddenly disallow further flight from Cuba as he authorized it accounts for the desperate scramble to leave the island, the Harvard professor points out.