U.S. Prepares For Thousands To Flee Cuba

Carmen Gentile, Washington Times, March 7, 2007

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.

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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.

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A new detainment center and stepped-up vigilance along the waters separating Florida and Cuba won’t deter thousands from attempting to gain access to the United States after Mr. Castro’s death, said Andy Gomez, a senior fellow at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.

Mr. Gomez said he has warned Bush administration officials that up to 500,000 Cubans could flee the island “in all directions,” inundating not just the United States, but several Caribbean and Central American nations with asylum seekers.

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