- The Washington Times - Monday, February 23, 2004

A refugee camp at Guantanamo Naval Station in Cuba to hold as many as 20,000 people could be readied quickly for any massive influx of Haitians who flee escalating political unrest in that island nation, congressional and State Department officials said.

“We feel confident that our lessons learned and contingency plans will support mass migration from the Caribbean,” said Raul Duany, spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command. “If we’re called to support any sort of interdiction or migration operations, we will be capable and supportive of such actions.”

Mr. Duany noted that a refugee camp was just one option the U.S. government was considering, and State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said there was no evidence that Haitians had begun to flee their country. But congressional officials said preparations to use the Guantanamo camp and to enlist other Caribbean nations to help already had begun.

Trey Ditto, spokesman for Rep. Mark Foley, Florida Republican and deputy majority whip, said the State Department has advised a delegation of congressmen from South Florida and members of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s office that Southern Command had begun military exercises for a refugee crisis, including a contingency plan to house 15,000 to 20,000 Haitians at Guantanamo.

“Over two months ago, Mr. Foley was at Guantanamo and noticed there were 15,000 to 20,000 temporary spaces available and it was his feeling that was not enough room if there was a Haitian crisis,” Mr. Ditto said. “That’s when talks began with other Caribbean nations on whether they could help out if necessary.”

More than 70,000 Haitians fled their country in the three years of violence after a military coup in September 1991, when Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was deposed.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday the administration has “made it very clear” that it has a plan in place to stop any boats attempting to enter the United States and return those aboard to their country of origin.

“We are providing a significant amount of humanitarian assistance to the people of Haiti. And we are actively engaged in ongoing diplomatic efforts to bring about a political solution to the situation in Haiti,” Mr. McClellan said. “That’s where our efforts are focused.

“We continue to deplore the violence going on in Haiti. We regret the loss of life. And the United States is actively engaged in ongoing diplomatic efforts to bring about a solution,” he said.

In 1993, nearly 1,000 makeshift Haitian craft were launched to arrive after the presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton, who promised at his first news conference after the election to honor a campaign pledge to overturn a policy of repatriating Haitian boat people and let them make their cases for asylum in the United States. Mr. Clinton later changed his mind and ordered the U.S. Coast Guard to intercept and return the Haitians.

Many of the Haitians stopped at sea, those who did not drown, were picked up by the Coast Guard and detained at Guantanamo before being returned to Haiti.

Coast Guard officials said yesterday that while they had “no indicators” that any large number of Haitians were planning to leave the country, they were “continuously monitoring the situation.” They said Coast Guard ships continue to patrol the Windward Passage, a narrow waterway between Haiti and Cuba where Haitian boat people often are found.

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