Rescued into limbo CRISIS IN THE CARIBBEAN

September 18, 1994|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Writer

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- Jacques Belzy, a Haitian student, and Ricardo Escalon Acosta, a Cuban accountant, have this much in common: They are boat people who risked their lives at sea. They were rescued. And now they are truly adrift.

Events that determine their fate take place elsewhere in confrontations between the leaders of the places they left and the United States, the latest being the prospect of a U.S. intervention in Haiti.

Life in limbo at this U.S. naval base in southeastern Cuba looks like this: Shirtless refugee men in shorts bake in 90-degree heat. Haggard women and dust-coated children await rice-and-beans rations. The days drag on and seem to lead nowhere.

More than 14,000 Haitians and almost 31,000 Cubans inhabit separate, steamy tent cities circled with concertina wire. The refugees' anger flares periodically at the U.S. military, once their rescuers, now their jailers.

Strong political currents carried Jacques Belzy, Ricardo Escalon and the other rafters here. Plucked from the sea by the U.S. Coast Guard, then stowed with other human cargo aboard Navy troop transports, they sailed through the Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba and into the green waters of Guantanamo Bay.

Now, the castoffs of the two economically battered, politically repressive Caribbean nations are mired at Gitmo, as these 45 square miles of land and water have been known to generations of U.S. sailors.

They desperately await new political tides that could wash them ashore in a liberated Port-au-Prince or Havana, or in economically alluring Miami.

With President Clinton threatening a U.S. invasion of Haiti, the Haitian tide is rising.

Mr. Belzy, 25, a computer science student, both favors and fears a U.S. assault on his country's military leaders.

He has lived behind the wire at Guantanamo since July 9, and he wants to go home to a better life.

Yet, like several Haitians interviewed by reporters under U.S. military escort during an overnight stay here, he is afraid that an invasion would claim innocent victims, either in the assault itself or in reprisals exacted by allies of Haiti's military rulers.

"My parents are over there. I don't know what will happen to them," Mr. Belzy said. "I think everybody is supporting the invasion, but they are afraid."

The Cubans' situation is even less hopeful.

Ricardo Escalon, 34, the Cuban accountant, took to the sea Aug. well after President Clinton warned Cuban rafters that they would no longer be allowed into the United States.

Mr. Escalon gambled, packing his elderly stepfather, Irais Cabrera Llach, onto a raft with him and others.

Mr. Cabrera was once a political prisoner under Fidel Castro.

The Cubans' situation is less hopeful.

Ricardo Escalon, 34, the Cuban accountant, took to the sea Aug. well after President Clinton warned Cuban rafters they would no longer be allowed into the United States. Mr. Escalon gambled, packing his elderly stepfather, Irais Cabrera Llach, onto a raft with him and others.

Mr. Cabrera was once a political prisoner under Fidel Castro. Now Mr. Escalon presents the 78-year-old man as a symbol of what is wrong with Mr. Clinton's decision to stem the flow of Cubans by refusing them automatic political asylum.

The grizzled old man, diabetic and paralyzed on his right side, sits on a hard metal folding chair in his tent at Camp Lima. He clutches papers attesting to his two years in a Castro prison, papers he hopes will eventually be his ticket to asylum and Miami.

"Here is a man who has struggled during the entire Castro dictatorship, and this is how the Americans welcome him, all because of Clinton's policies," Mr. Escalon said angrily.

Determined to avoid a replay of the 1980 Mariel boatlift that brought 125,000 Cubans to U.S. shores, Mr. Clinton abruptly reversed policy. He agreed to grant Cubans at least 20,000 U.S. visas a year if Mr. Castro halted the exodus.

But to apply for visas, the Cubans who risked their lives to leave Cuba would have to go home. Most refuse to return, saying the Castro regime would treat them as traitors.

"I would rather die than return to Castro," Mr. Escalon said as dozens of Cubans clustered around him shouted their approval.

The rafters fear they may be left indefinitely in Gitmo limbo on this parched patch of cactus and palms where the smell of beans hangs in the air. Meanwhile, they try to fan winds of change themselves by mounting hunger strikes, crossing the concertina wire in protest and mobbing visiting reporters.

"We are just pawns in a game," Mr. Escalon said, "between Castro and Clinton."

The poor get hurt

The first Haitians arrived in Guantanamo June 27. Calm generally prevails at their cluster of seven camps, and talk of invasion lends an expectant air.

The Haitians have their own camp leaders, running water, a Creole-language newspaper, parachute-shaded picnic tables for cards and dominoes, makeshift soccer fields, and a public address system on which soothing Haitian tunes are played in the waning light of day.

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