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Southeastern Cubans Flee in Larger, Organized Groups

By Gabriel Escobar
The Washington Post
SANTIAGO, Cuba

While attention has been focused on rafters leaving Havana for the United States, scores of Cubans have been fleeing the southeastern part of the island to head directly for the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, 40 miles away, according to residents here.

Unlike the chaotic exodus from the capital, which thousands have fled on makeshift rafts, residents here described a much more organized effort involving dozens of fishing boats, many of which were stolen or commandeered from marinas here and in surrounding towns.

Although comparatively small in numbers, the steady migration from this historic city - Cuba's second largest and one that prides itself on being the cradle of the revolution - is a sign that the crisis has quietly spread beyond Havana and into areas long admired for their commitment to communism and to President Fidel Castro in particular.

Indeed, the national silence that has greeted the flight from the eastern provinces is seen by some here as a calculated effort to lessen a potentially serious moral blow to the government.

It is difficult to assess how many people have left from here or other seaside towns in the southeast over the last two weeks. But the fact that those who ventured out apparently have chosen the base at Guantanamo as their destination is evidence that detention camps there are more a magnet than a deterrent, and that the base itself, at least for some residents in the southeast, is seen as a viable option.

Despite heavy security and a minefield, concern that Cubans will storm Guantanamo by land has been expressed by both governments from the onset of the crisis. On television last Wednesday night, President Castro said he had ordered that no Cubans be allowed to approach the base by land to seek refuge because that might ignite local conflict. Waterborne arrivals were not addressed.

Residents of Guantanamo City say police now are restricting entry to the town to people who prove they live there.

With access by land cut off, residents said waterfront areas such as El Cangrejito, a marina by the bay here, and other coastal towns just east of here, became major launching areas about two weeks ago.

Residents said police were constantly present, inspecting boats, settling disputes, controlling the crowds and confiscating the identification cards of those who were leaving. As was the case in Havana, warnings from U.S. officials that Cubans faced lengthy detention and no chance of migrating legally were discounted.

Late Monday night, two boats were moored at El Cangrejito and apparently were set to leave with a full complement of passengers. Reports of pirating are common, and owners have become guarded because people have been known to board by force at the last minute. Near one of the boats, where the crew and passengers reportedly numbered 14, a man holding a butcher knife emerged from the dark and retreated hastily without answering questions.

For those who are in favor of the exodus, these are the comprehensible acts of desperate men facing desperate situations. And for those who are fervent believers in Castro and the revolution - and they are not hard to find here - these are the damnable acts of a minority that the country is better off without.

"The revolution is stronger here in Santiago, and Fidel has always said so," said Jose Betancourt, 25, a dancer who was sitting with friends across from the city's cathedral. "There are people who are leaving here, I have no doubt about that. But these are people who don't work, who don't study, who don't apply themselves to anything... . Let those people go, and leave behind only those who are worthwhile."

But even in this crowd there is a recognition that the quality of life in Santiago, as in the rest of Cuba, has greatly diminished. And even though they, like the government, say the U.S. trade embargo is the main cause of the dire economic situation, they concede there is a domestic contribution.

To make matters worse, parts of eastern Cuba were devastated by heavy rains in May. Here and in the town of Guantanamo, several hundred homes were lost, thousands of people had to be evacuated, and the principal source of income for many, the sugar harvest, was a principal casualty.