ALBERTO LUJARDO CANELARIO had hoped that the refugee camps in Panama in which he and thousands of other Cubans languished would be stepping stones to freedom in the United States. Instead, Mr. Lujardo was returned Wednesday by US military aircraft to the same Communist-ruled island from which he fled in a raft last August, arriving with 100 compatriots at the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay.
There they will join 20,400 other Cubans jammed in tent cities at the base. The Cubans at Guantanamo have been there since they were intercepted last summer as they tried to reach Florida in leaky boats and homemade rafts. All remain trapped in political limbo, their fates tied to a diplomatic struggle between Washington and Cuban President Fidel Castro Ruz.
Stepping onto Guantanamo's sun-baked Tarmac, Lujardo spoke for his sullen countrymen: ``We want to go to the United States. We fled communism and we feel pain because we are political pawns. We have been betrayed by the government of the United States and the Communist government of Cuba.''
The aircraft load of Cuban refugees was among the first of 1,000 Cubans the US has begun flying under tight security from Panama to new quarters at Guantanamo. The massive operation is to be completed by March 3, when Washington must close four refugee camps that Panama had agreed to host for six months.
The refugees are being resettled in new huts of plywood walls and tent-like roofs along Guantanamo's wind-swept shores, vast improvements over the conditions in which they have been living. The new construction is the first phase of a $35-million administration plan to avert an explosion of tensions.
The hut compounds are being called ``villages'' and not camps. Electricity is to be provided and regular ``community'' bathrooms will replace portable toilets, bucket baths, and drainage ditches filled with reeking, scummy water.
Instead of the razor-wire fence that surrounds the tent cities, the hut compounds are being bounded by waist-high chain-link fences. Concrete floors are being poured for churches and libraries. Even movie theaters are planned.
But better conditions may not easily dispel the bitterness the refugees feel over their treatment and uncertain future. They remain pawns in a geopolitical contest between the US and its longtime irritant, Mr. Castro.
THE battle began with last summer's seaborne exodus that President Clinton tried to halt by ending a US policy of automatic asylum for Cuban refugees. He decided to admit just children, the elderly, and the sick into the US.
When that failed to stem the exodus, Washington negotiated a Sept. 9 accord with Castro in which it agreed to grant at least 20,000 visas per year, but only to Cubans who applied in Havana. In return, Castro stopped the exodus and agreed to accept refugees who sought repatriation.
While Washington said the refugees could remain indefinitely at Guantanamo, its visa-application rule made it clear that it preferred them to go home. Most refugees, however, are terrified of being punished if they leave the base. So, they vow to stay until US policy changes and they are allowed to immigrate.
``The cost of achieving freedom is very high,'' says Manuel Herrera Fernandez, a Havana crane operator. ``For me, I would rather wait here until I die.''
Some 200,000 Cubans, meanwhile, have applied for US visas in Havana, and there is no sign of a US policy shift on the refugees. That is because admitting them could encourage a new flight of Cubans from the penury into which their island has plunged since the demise of its former patron, the Soviet Union.
On his part, Castro seems to be hoping that the huge costs of the refugees' upkeep and their periodic violent outbursts will force Clinton into ending a more than 30-year US trade embargo on Cuba. Accordingly, US officials say, Castro has been slow in readmitting refugees who seek repatriation.
``He [Castro] has everything to gain from their being here and nothing to lose,'' says Marine Col. Douglas Hendricks, who oversees several Guantanamo refugee encampments.
Castro blames the US embargo for blocking the foreign investment he needs to shore up his crumbling economy and stabilize his regime.
Marine Brig. Gen. Raymond Ayres Jr., chief of Guantanamo's refugee operations, warns that the longer the refugees remain in limbo, the greater the potential for serious violence. ``The situation is unsatisfactory in the long-term,'' he says.