After a Long Layover, Cuban Boatpeople Reach Florida

AMERICAN soldiers this week folded up the tent city at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba and returned it to its former state - airstrips, dusty roads, vacant land, and tropical beaches.

The last 127 of the 29,000 Cuban refugees who lived in the camps since their creation in August of 1994 flew to Homestead Air Reserve Base in southern Florida Wednesday.

The end of Operation Sea Signal, which cost about $250 million, closes a chapter in Cuban-American relations.

''There has been a sea change in US policy toward Cubans leaving the island,'' says Max Castro, a Cuban affairs expert at the University of Miami's North-South Center. ''You'll still have Cubans coming in very substantial numbers, but the irregular sea routes are ended and the very special type of treatment that was accorded people coming by sea, Cubans in particular, has ended.''

The exodus started in 1994 after the worst riots in Havana in many years. The unrest was fueled by a lack of food and jobs, and steady deterioration of the economic well-being Cuba enjoyed before aid from Moscow vanished along with the Soviet Union.

In an attempt to quell the protests, Cuban authorities allowed thousands of people to take to the seas in rafts they hoped would land them on the Florida shores, some 90 miles away.

Clinton changes tack

Two weeks after the exodus began, President Clinton ordered the Coast Guard to pick up the refugees from their makeshift rafts and take them to the Guantanamo base, rather than to the US, as was done before. Previous administrations had pursued an ''open arms'' policy toward Cuban refugees as part of special preference afforded those fleeing repressive Communist regimes.

But with the cold war over, public support for favored treatment for Cuban refugees has declined. And the American public began to be increasingly discontented with the rising numbers of economic immigrants.

Clinton's replacement of the ''open arms'' policy with what amounted to crossed arms proved to be a successful move to stem the refugee tide.

Last May, Clinton decided to let the Cuban refugees who had made it to Guantanamo take up legal residence in the US. At the same time, the administration made it clear that under the new policy future Cuban refugees picked up at sea would be returned to Cuba, where, if need be, they could apply for political asylum with US officials in Havana.

Castro turns off spigot

That policy shift was aided by Cuba's agreement in a September 1994 accord to crack down on departures on its side of the Straits of Florida. In exchange, the Clinton administration agreed to allow at least 20,000 Cubans a year to immigrate to the United States.

For several months, groups of these Guantanamo refugees have been flown to Florida, their departures determined by lottery. The end of their residence at the Guantanamo Bay camps was cause for celebration among the refugees, but was also tinged with sadness.

''A lot of them had made friends and they came to be an integral part of the joint task force [for refugees] and the Guantanamo Bay [Naval Base] community, because a lot of them went out to work [there],'' said US Air Force MSgt. Sgt. Alfalene Walker, in a telephone interview from the Guantanamo base.

Groups like the Cuban-American National Council, in Miami, which has a job-training program, are helping the new arrivals from Guantanamo find work in their new land. The Council's executive director, Guarione Diaz, knows the refugees' plight well. He was the civilian liaison for Operation Sea Signal.

''The challenge that lies ahead is to do all we can to help these individuals adjust to life in the United States, who will not become a [burden] to the community, who on the contrary can become an asset to this community,'' Mr. Diaz says.

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