WASHINGTON – Concerned about a possible mass exodus of Cubans, the Defense Department plans to spend $18 million to prepare part of the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay to shelter interdicted migrants, U.S. officials said.
A new installation is needed because terrorism suspects occupy space on the base, which has been used in past emergencies to hold large numbers of migrants, officials said. They noted that the new facility will be designed to house people from any Caribbean nation who attempt to enter the United States illegally, not just Cubans.
But officials familiar with the issue said privately that Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s illness and temporary handover of power to his brother Raul last summer injected a renewed sense of urgency in plans to handle a mass exodus. The Bush administration quietly requested the funds about one month ago and Congress has approved it, officials told McClatchy Newspapers.
There are no indications that a Cuban migration crisis is brewing, officials said, but they added that predicting them can be difficult.
The $18-million initiative is part of a broader U.S. government effort to prepare for events in a post-Fidel Cuba. The administration won’t say how many migrants it believes might flee Cuba or even if any will do so, but one expert warned that up to 500,000 may try to leave the island after Castro’s death.
Top Bush Cabinet officials have met at least twice since December to review Cuba contingency plans. On March 7 and 8, the Department of Homeland Security will lead an exercise in South Florida involving the Coast Guard and dozens of federal, state and local agencies, focused on stopping U.S. boaters from picking up rafters.
The U.S. Navy base, on the eastern tip of Cuba, apparently would be used as a shelter of last resort if the volume of Cubans interdicted at sea overwhelms the current U.S. policy, known as “wet foot/dry foot.”
Under that policy, Cubans who make it to U.S. territory are allowed to remain. Those intercepted at sea are interviewed by U.S. immigration authorities aboard Coast Guard vessels and for the most part repatriated to Cuba. Those who have been found to risk persecution if returned to Cuba have been taken to Guantanamo for more interviews while U.S. officials arrange for their resettlement in other nations.
U.S. officials refused to say whether the wet foot/dry foot policy would be changed in the event of a mass exodus, since such an announcement might prompt many Cubans to leave now.