Carter promises Cubans a haven, but the problems keep growing
The early signals from the U.S. Government had sounded uncertain, even hostile. But last week Jimmy Carter finally struck a clear note that reaffirmed America's long history of providing sanctuary to those "huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Declared the President: "Ours is a country of refugees. We'll continue to provide an open heart and open arms to refugees seeking freedom from Communist domination and from the economic deprivation brought about by Fidel Castro and his government."
Yet as dangerously crowded boats continued bringing Cuban refugees into Key West, Fla., the incoming tide rose to nearly 31,000and the words of welcome from Washington hardly solved the near chaos created by the sudden influx. How many more Cubans would follow, nobody seemed to knowspeculation ranged wildly upward to a quarter of a million, even to 1 millionand that raised the difficult question of whether there are practical limits to the number of refugees the U.S. can take in.
Improvising to meet each day's challenge, U.S. officials mobilized an impressive reception. In less than a week, a city of 161 tents, each holding 30 refugees within its 18-ft. by 52-ft. space, sprang up at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle. Long rows of cots completely jammed two 150-ft. by. 240-ft. aircraft hangars, which normally shelter such fighters as the F-15 and F4. With a dormitory and gymnasium also opened to the newcomers, the base alone held nearly 10,000 refugees. Tall pines were being felled to make room for even more temporary housing.
As the chartered airliners arrived from Key West, the weary refugees streamed off with an empty look in their eyes. They carried all the belongings they owned, stuffed in plastic bags and pillowcases. Some shied away from the military trucks and soldiers at first; they had been told back home that they would be mistreated in the U.S. But when a smiling airman in an Air Force van tossed out bags each containing a sandwich, a hardboiled egg, a carton of milk and an apple, the newcomers were delighted. Some of the children had never seen an apple before.
In South Florida, more than a dozen smaller shelters were opened at sites ranging from two former Nike missile bases to the inside corridors of Miami's Orange Bowl. The largest processing center was at Tamiami Park, on the outskirts of Miami, where 1,500 refugees a day plodded through a seven-step process to be cleared for release to join relatives who had fled Cuba years ago. All the while, more kept landing at Key West, to be bused from dockside to Key West Naval Air Station. There up to 5,000 waited, both inside and on surrounding concrete aprons of a huge airplane hangar, for other buses to Miami or airplanes to Eglin.
The tedious waiting in hot and crowded quarters tested tempers beyond the breaking point. Fights broke out when some of the refugees claimed they had spotted Castro spies in their midst. More jostling occurred when refugees scrambled to get on the buses for Miami. National Guardsmen locked arms to push back 400 trying to get into a single bus. Barked an exasperated sergeant through a megaphone: "You waited 21 years to come to America. Now you can wait four hours for a bus."