WASHINGTON -- Unable to stem the flow of Cuban boat people, a frustrated Clinton administration announced yesterday that it would expand facilities at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to house up to 40,000 refugees indefinitely, perhaps until President Fidel Castro leaves office.
"We have significant capacity beyond that and will expand beyond that, if necessary," Defense Secretary William J. Perry said. He noted that 2,000 Cubans already had arrived at the base, which also houses 15,000 Haitians. An additional 7,000 Cubans were on their way there yesterday aboard Navy and Coast Guard ships.
Repeating the administration's refusal to let them into the United States, Mr. Perry said, "We stand by our new policy to Cuba, and we will not be intimidated by Castro's cynical attempt to solve his domestic problems by encouraging people to flee."
U.S. officials said that their best hope of resolving the crisis is to force Mr. Castro to adopt economic and political reforms. That could lead to talks on easing U.S. economic sanctions -- as sought by Cuba at the United Nations yesterday. Otherwise any negotiations will be limited to immigration, the officials said. They noted that Mr. Castro was now facing intensive economic pressure and political unrest, which could force him to introduce democratic changes.
Mr. Castro, in a national TV address last night, acknowledged that he had ordered authorities to let rafters head for Florida.
The statement essentially announced to all of Cuba that anyone and everyone could leave. And he blamed the entire emigration crisis on the Clinton administration.
"We told our border guards to make their operations more flexible in respect to illegal exits," Mr. Castro said, breaking a silence of 12 days on the intensifying crisis. His remarks to Cuban journalists were broadcast live in Cuba and transmitted around the world by CNN.
Mr. Castro called President Clinton's efforts to stem the flow of Cuban rafters "an absurd response" that was creating "a concentration camp" at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay.
The Guantanamo base, sprawled over 45 square miles on Cuba's southeastern tip, is leased from the island nation under a 1934 treaty.
The Pentagon will send more security and supply forces to Guantanamo to cope with the flood of refugees.
Asked whether the administration might have to run a Cuban colony at Guantanamo for years, Mr. Perry replied: "We are prepared to maintain that base indefinitely, until such time as people can be repatriated to Cuba. . . . We have the physical provisions for, and are planning for, an indefinite stay."
Pressed on whether this could mean keeping the Cubans in detention camps until Mr. Castro left office, Peter Tarnoff, undersecretary of state for political affairs, told reporters: "Our policy is that they are to be detained for an indefinite period."
Initially, the Clinton administration prepared to house 10,000 Cubans at Guantanamo. By the end of the week, the base will be able to accommodate 15,000, and by next week, 25,000. The 15,000 Haitians will raise the total number of refugees at Guantanamo to 40,000.
In an escalated effort to get its "no-entry" message over to Cubans before they set sail, the administration fielded Mr. Perry, Mr. Tarnoff, Attorney General Janet Reno and Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, at the White House briefing yesterday. They expressed the hope that once Cubans realized that there was no chance of entry into the United States, the human flood would decrease.
Yesterday, the Coast Guard picked up 2,791 Cuban rafters, slightly down from the 2,886 picked up Tuesday.
The exodus started earlier this month, when the Castro regime tacitly permitted the departures. It accelerated Saturday, when Mr. Clinton ordered the Coast Guard to intercept the boat people and take them to Guantanamo.
Before the policy shift, Cubans who arrived in the United States were guaranteed residency after one year, under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 recognizing them as fugitives from communism.
Mr. Clinton's action was meant to stem the flow, but many Cubans apparently questioned his resolve in keeping them out indefinitely and viewed the presence of the Coast Guard ships as offering a greater chance of being rescued. Since Saturday, more than 9,000 boat people have been rescued.
Ms. Reno appealed to Cubans in Miami to warn relatives in Cuba that there was no way they would be allowed into the United States.
There are two ways of becoming a legal immigrant: through the application of a family member who is a U.S. citizen, or through the sponsorship of a U.S. employer.
There are 28,000 slots for Cuban immigrants a year, but so far only 3,000 people have been processed in Cuba for visas this year. The administration is reviewing the process to increase this number.