Cuban flotilla ending as total nears 100,000; Despite camp flareups, nearly half of Cubans have been resettled
Atlanta — The second round of violence in the last two weeks among Cuban refugees at Ft. Chaffee, Ark.: * Obscures the fact that nearly half the 100,000 Cubans who have headed for the United States since the refugee flotilla began in late April have been resettled. And the resettlement rate is picking up, federal officials say.
* Involved only about 250 refugees. The other 17,500 refugees at Ft. Chaffee did not join in the temporary escapes to a nearby town or the rock-throwing and burning of barracks on the base.
In fact, many refugees at Ft. Chaffee helped put out the fires. And when the gang of escapees raced out of the camp, crossing wooden sawhorses and ropes en route, they passed a baseball game being played by some of their fellow Cubans -- and the game went right on, says Bill McAda, spokesman on the scene for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
* May complicate the task of finding sponsors for the 15 to 20 percent of the refugees who have neither family nor relatives in the US. "These demonstrations are not helping," says Mr. McAda.
* Raises serious questions about why federal officials are reluctant to tell the Cubans frankly that it may be several months before they can be released.
One resettlement official from the private sector working at Ft. Chaffee told the Monitor it could take "six to eight months," or longer, to complete processing of the refugees currently at the camp.
Federal officials, however, are not so candid.
"We don't give them a time frame," says Norman Steinlauf, FEMA coordinator at the Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., refugee camp. But refugees are told the reasons for the delays, he says. (The number of refugees being released from Eglin has increased from about 100 to about 250 a day, according to Mr. Steinlauf.)
Mr. McAda says he would be "scared" to make a projection on how long it will take for all of the refugees to be released from Ft. Chaffee.
Eglin's base commander, Col. William Wycoff, told reporters several weeks ago it was a question of "months" before the camps will be closed. And the nation's experience with Vietnamese refugees in 1975 shows this to be likely.
Camp officials simply tell refugees what the process of clearance involves (health, security, and match-up with a family, friends, or other sponsors). Yet this reporter found in earlier visits to Eglin that it is just such vagueness -- or lack of candor -- about how long such clearances may take that is a key to the frustrations many of the refugees feel.
"What one is dealing with is a lack of information," says John Barker, press secretary for Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.
One effort begun at Ft. Chaffee to improve communication is a camp newspaper in Spanish published by the military. The camp also plans a low-power, Spanish-language radio service for the refugees, says FEMA spokesman McAda.
To try to maintain order and ease tension in and around Ft. Chaffee the federal government will take whatever nonlethal force is necessary, says White House aide Gene Eidenberg. Some 1,400 soldiers are being reassigned to the camp from Ft. Sill, Okla.
Governor Clinton has sent state police into nearby towns and rural areas to urge citizens not to take vigilante action against the refugees. Some area residents are armed and many are angry, federal officials confirm.
The highway in front of the camp has been put under federal control to prevent its being used as a site for protests by area residents -- or by Cubans who have come there to pick up their relatives.
Ironically, just before the latest violence at Ft. Chaffee a special effort had begun to speed up release of refugees whose families had come there. The violence halted this effort temporarily. Nevertheless, processing of some 450 refugees was completed June 1 -- one of the largest numbers processed in any day so far.
Governor Clinton, who visited the camp the same day, says federal authorities have identified a number of agitators among the Cubans. The governor speculates that some agitators may have been sent to the US for the purpose of being disruptive.
Meanwhile, one serious snag in processing at Ft. Chaffee is a lack of bilingual personnel, says Ernie Whitten, a private-sector resettlement official.