AFTER less than a week, the Clinton administration's efforts to deter Cubans from seeking refuge in the US are on the point of collapse, overwhelmed by a tide of boat people that is swelling day by day.
On Monday alone 2,548 refugees were picked up at sea, the biggest one- day figure since the Mariel boatlift of 1980. Yesterday the ragtail flotilla of boats, dinghies and rafts, constructed from anything that floats, continued unabated. According to the US Coast Guard, a further 1,800 Cubans had been rescued by mid-afternoon (around midnight British time), bringing the total for this month to well over 9,000.
After last week's announcement that illegal immigrants from Cuba would no longer be allowed into the US, more than 3,000 refugees have already been transferred to the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay in south-east Cuba. If the exodus continues at the current rate, the enclave's capacity of 10,000 Cuban detainees will be exhausted by the weekend. Washington's declared policy, of forcing greater freedoms in Cuba, will have had the perverse effect of creating a US-run concentration camp on Cuban soil.
The White House is trying to secure agreement on setting up other 'safe havens' in Panama, Surinam and the British-run Turks and Caicos Islands, but with little result so far. Yesterday senior administration officials kept up the harsh language, hoping their words, coupled with warnings broadcast into Cuba by US-based Spanish language radio stations, would stem the tide.
By the weekend the 25 Coast Guard and US Navy vessels patrolling the 90- mile-wide Florida Straits will have doubled to 50, while 300 Marines have been sent to Key West, Florida, to provide additional security.
The Defense Secretary, William Perry, said the reception facilities at Guantanamo Bay could be extended to accommodate more than 10,000 Cubans. But that might increase the risk of unrest, especially as 15,000 Haitian boat people are under detention at a site two miles from where the tent city for the Cubans is rising. US officials fear trouble if the Haitians suspect Cubans are receiving better treatment.
The exodus began when President Fidel Castro indicated earlier this month - apparently in an effort to force the US to reconsider its political and economic isolation of the country - that no efforts would be made to prevent people from leaving. US officials insist there is no question, at least for now, of imposing the full-scale economic blockade demanded by the rabidly anti-Castro Cuban-American community. Nor, however, is there any prospect of Washington easing sanctions and talking to President Castro, as urged by many non-partisan Cuba specialists here. Why, they wonder, is Washington happy to deal with other Communist regimes such as North Korea and China; but not with Cuba, which is no longer a threat to anyone?
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