Base readies for refugees

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- In contingency planning here, the Navy is spending $17 million to prepare for a tent city to shelter up to 10,000 boat people saved from the seas, starting with crude summer-camp style showers and toilet houses.

Ever since Fidel Castro took ill and ceded power to his brother Raul, across a minefield and 525 miles away in Havana, U.S. officials have been planning a bare bones infrastructure for four, 2,500-person tent villages in the event politics and misfortune touch off a Caribbean migrant crisis.

Sailors would open up a now-vacant white stucco health clinic, establish small cooking areas to let refugees fix their own food and leave enough open space for a park and swimming at an inlet called Mahamilla Bay.


Right now, the site is an overgrown field on a sleepy corner of this 45-square-mile U.S. Navy base.

Planners envision a range of events -- everything from a natural disaster such as hurricane to political instability -- that could lead to a humanitarian crisis and the interdiction of thousands of boat people trying to reach the coast of Florida.

Either way, said Navy Cmdr. Jeffrey Johnston, who runs the base's public works projects: "Everyone's gotta take a shower. Everyone's gotta get some chow, and everyone's gotta go to the bathroom."

So they're starting with the basics and have hired a Jacksonville firm, Island Mechanical Contractors, to build 48 cinder-block bathhouses -- each with 12 toilets, six showers and places to wash laundry, feeding a rudimentary sewage treatment runoff.

Were the White House to declare a migrant crisis, the military would then throw up hundreds of 16-person tents in four mini-villages arrayed around the shower and toilet houses.

"Think Boy Scout Jamboree. . . . There's no Marriott Hotel being built here, " said Navy Capt. William Vaughn, an engineer assigned to the Joint Task Force that would run the camps -- a 30-minute ferry ride and miles away from the prison camps that house some 385 war-on-terror captives.


The plan principally replaces a site that was swallowed up in 2002 when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared Guantánamo "the least worst place" to house and interrogate al Qaeda and Taliban suspects.

Workers mowed under latrines and shower houses on a bluff overlooking the Caribbean called Radio Range, a provisional spot for any future humanitarian crisis -- and built today's detention center in its place.

So, instead, planners chose the smaller five-square-mile, leeward side of this base, across Guantánamo Bay from the main portion -- where 6,000 or so soldiers, sailors, contractors and their families live and work around a school and McDonald's, church, bowling alley and scrubby golf course -- and where the 5-year-old prison camps that have put a spotlight on this base known as "Gitmo" are situated.

Leeward today is mostly vacant, with only a seaside airstrip, guest quarters used mostly by journalists, attorneys and overnighting air crews, and a small contingent of U.S. Marines guarding the leeward fence line.

U.S. military officials say there is no ultimate price tag for what such a tent-city relief mission might cost.

The United States and Cuba have coordinated repatriations of most nationals intercepted at sea since the 1994-95 so-called Rafter Crisis overwhelmed this base with 40,000-plus boat people, both Cuban and Haitian.

Only a few among those found on rafts have been designated as credibly fearing persecution, if returned to Castro's Cuba, and have been sheltered on this base until diplomats find a third country to grant them asylum.


Cubans given sanctuary at Guantánamo have been resettled from Europe to Latin America, and the State Department recently signed an agreement with Australia to take as many as 200 refugees.

Meantime, commanders here describe a businesslike relationship across the 17.4-mile fence line that separates the U.S. zone from sovereign Cuba.

The current base commander, Navy Capt. Mark Leary, meets a Cuban counterpart, Cuban Navy Capt. Pedro Román Cisneros, a Soviet-trained submariner, once a month in a formal session to notify each side of coming activities -- and avoid tensions between the U.S. Marines and Cuban soldiers of the Frontier Brigade who face off across watchtowers.

In fact, Leary said in a recent interview, he notified his counterpart about the coming tent-camp infrastructure at the February fence line meeting by handing Cisneros a copy of a Miami Herald report from Washington.