U.S. prepares for thousands to flee Cuba

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MIAMI — Fearing a potential mass exodus of Cubans when Fidel Castro dies, dozens of federal, state and local agencies, along with the military, will participate in a massive two-day training exercise beginning today to hone migrant-interdiction skills.

The exercise will also test readiness to intercept vessels heading to Cuba. Some Cuban exile groups in South Florida have made clear their desire to set sail for Havana once they receive proof of Mr. Castro’s demise.

Last week, 47 migrants from Cuba were intercepted at sea by the Coast Guard and sent back to the communist island. One of those intercepted was allowed to stay because of a medical condition that required immediate attention.

The 50 or more groups participating in Operation Vigilant Sentry — a Coast Guard-designed drill — will also involve representatives from the State Department, the Pentagon and the Justice and Homeland Security departments.

Though Coast Guard officials would not specify just how many ships, aircraft and people would participate, they did acknowledge it as the most extensive preparation yet for such a mass-migration scenario.

“By interdicting people at sea, it’s putting out the message that it’s not safe to travel here that way,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer Jennifer Johnson.

One scenario to be practiced during the exercise is the interception of a vessel sailing out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. for Cuba.

“We’re going to simulate several situations to test areas of the plan to see if they are working,” said another Coast Guard official.

The ailing Mr. Castro, 80, ceded power in July to his younger brother, Raul. The elder Mr. Castro had abdominal surgery and has not been seen in public since.

This week’s exercise comes weeks after Congress approved an $18 million Pentagon plan to prepare U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to accommodate migrants intercepted at sea.

Bush administration officials told The Washington Times the improvements would create facilities to handle about 10,000 migrants.

Other improvements would include a processing center for those seeking asylum.

Typically, Cubans who reach dry land in the United States are allowed to remain in the country, while those intercepted at sea are returned home.

Officials fear the so-called “wet foot-dry foot” policy would be overwhelmed in the event of a mass migration.

“The capacity to process migrants at Guantanamo is an integral part of our plans to ensure that any attempted mass migration in the Caribbean is not successful,” one Bush administration official said.

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