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.
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.
According to Havana Radio, there were 1,335 boats in the harbor at Mariel at the weekend. But after interviewing returning skippers, the Coast Guard puts the figure at nearer 2,000.
At the close of the recent Pan American meeting in San Jose, Costa Rica, the host nation, along with the United States and Britain, announced its readiness to send a delegation to Havana to try to bring some order to the chaotic refugee exodus.
Havana radio has since said that Cuba will negotiate only with the United States and at the time of this writing no talks between the two countries had been scheduled.
Quoting reaction in Latin capitals, Washington political columnist Tad Szulc asserts that Fidel Castro is absolutely determined that his fleeing subjects should only find succor in the United States, Mr. Szulc has observed that the Cuban dictator halted flight to other Latin American nations because the presence of disaffected Cubans there "could play havoc with the image of the Cuban revolution."
Presidential aide Eugene Eidenberg, who is monitoring the unfolding refugee drama for the White House, is known to favor reducing the size of the freedom flotilla by fining unsafe vessels and thus inducing the Cuban government to agree to an airlift. With storms an everpresent threat in the straits and conditions at Mariel reportedly becoming increasingly disorganized since Cuban troops shot two men and a boy who were attempting to swim out to an American vessel, support is gathering here among officials for an orderly airlift from Cuba.
Coast Guard Commandant John B. Hayes has expressed grave concern that a disaster could occur at sea if so many small boats continue to carry the refugees. It was a view he repeated to senior officers when he made a flying visit to Coast Guard Group Key West May 10. The commandant has accused Cuba of flouting its obligations under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea by dangerouly overloading vessels at Mariel. He reveals that 30 vessels have sunk so far during the boat lift. "We may never know how many people were lost," he adds.
Last Friday (May 9), the Coast Guard at Key West went to the aid of the 53 -foot lobster boat Maritza, which ran aground on the Marquesas Keys and began to take on water. It was towing a 27-foot cabin cruises and between them the two vessels had 250 refugees aboard. A helicopter dropped a bilge pump to the stricken ship and later Coast Guard vessels went to its aid, taking off 40 people and enabling it to float free. Though holed in the stern, it managed to limp into Key West.
There have been many moving moments here in what is taking on the appearance of a mass migration of people across the Florida straits. Refugees crowded into the old seaplane hangar at Trumbo Point Naval Air Station wept last week when Greater Miami area Archbishop Edward McCarthy read from Exodus: "And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people. . . for I know their sorrows; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land, and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey."