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U.S. Citter Picks Up Cuban Rafters -- 'Like Fireflies'

By William Booth
The Washington Post
ABOARD THE USCGC BARANOF

As the sun breaks through the squalls, the concrete apartment blocks, smokestacks and harbor of the last communist foothold in the Western Hemisphere are suddenly as clear as a postcard.

"Confirm, confirm, that is Havana," said Lt. Gwen Keenan, captain of the Baranoff, and she dares not go much closer.

But the rafts keep coming.

This is the Florida Straits, the real world Tom Clancy novel of high-tech hide and seek, search and rescue. As record numbers of Cuban rafters pour into the seas, the Coast Guard and Navy are mounting one of the largest humanitarian sea rescues in modern times, dwarfing in personnel and equipment previous efforts to stem the flow of Haitian refugees.Ten large Navy warships are plying the waters between Key West and Cuba, along with at least 34 Coast Guard vessels, pulled from home ports from Maine to Texas.

"This is the most intense rescue operation in 50 years," said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jim Howe.

So great is the need that old Coast Guard buoy tenders, commissioned in the middle of the century, are now hunting for rafters. Sixteen cutters - almost half the Coast Guard's entire fleet of 110-foot cutters - are in the straits, severely limiting federal drug interdiction and rescue patrols across the eastern United States, according to Coast Guard officials.

On the Florida Straits these past two days, Coast Guard cutters picked up fewer rafters than earlier in the week. Tuesday's post-Mariel record breaker was 3,253 Cubans rescued. Thursday's count was 1,607. Friday as of 2 p.m. it was down to 378.

Coast Guard officers are not sure what is behind the dip in numbers, but they suspect bad weather and limited visibility are largely responsible.

"The Cubans may be eyeballing the weather and staying home, or we might not be finding them in this mess," said Joe Washburn, a quartermaster aboard the Baranof, as he surveyed the horizon.

It is possible, however, some potential rafters are staying on shore as word spreads on the island that those rescued at sea will not get into the United States. The new Clinton policy demands all Cuban rafters be taken to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Still, the number of rafters - more than 8,000 in the last four days - has set new records, and Coast Guard officials said their intelligence reported some fleeing Cubans have said they were recently "paroled" from prisons on 15-day passes and told to get out of Cuba or else.

If the early reports are true, it would be another act in the on-going dramatic replay of the boatlift from the Cuban port of Mariel in 1980, which brought 125,000 Cubans to Key West and weakened the presidency of Jimmy Carter. During Mariel - when pleasure and fishing boats from Florida were allowed to dock and pick up those who wanted to leave - Cuban President Fidel Castro sent thousands of mental patients and criminals to the United States.

For two weeks, the waters of the Florida Straits, which run like a river with the Gulf Stream, have been flat and tranquil. That, and an open door posture by Castro, led to the outpouring.

But on Thursday storms battered the 90-mile-wide passage between Key West and Havana with rain squalls, lightning, 40-mph gusts and short, steep waves reaching eight feet-seas that could swallow the homemade rafts built of inner tubes, plastic bathtubs and surfboards.

"This ain't a pretty day to be a rafter," said Lt. j.g. Eric Gleason, second in command, as he stood on the flying bridge of the Baranoff, a 110-foot cutter out of Miami Beach. Squalls circled the boat, its bow buried in the incoming waves as its crew stumbled around below decks, lurching from side to side, a John Wayne movie playing on the video as the crew tried to eat lunch.

As did a dozen other cutters, the Baranof kept sighting empty rafts for two days. Some may signal disaster, others rescue. The Coast Guard is now so busy it is no longer destroying or even marking the rafts from which it rescues Cubans, leaving the sea dotted with "empties" that are washing ashore along the Florida coast from Miami to Palm Beach.