U.S. readying Guantanamo base for migrant influx

MIAMI (Reuters) - As U.S. President George W. Bush urges Cubans to push for peaceful democratic change, the U.S. military is preparing a site on its Guantanamo base in Cuba for a tent camp to house up to 10,000 Caribbean migrants by next summer.

President George W. Bush speaks about his Administration's policy on Cuba while at the State Department in Washington October 24, 2007. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Although there is nothing to indicate a mass migration is looming just over a year after Cuban leader Fidel Castro was sidelined from power by an illness, there are tentative plans for a second tent camp that could hold 35,000 more.

The construction is part of “Operation Vigilant Sentry,” the government’s multi-agency plan to thwart a mass influx of boat people fleeing political upheaval or natural disaster in the Caribbean. Planning took on added urgency last year when Castro fell ill and ceded power to his brother, Raul Castro.

The number of Cubans heading to Mexico and trekking across the U.S. land border has been climbing since the handover. But the number intercepted in the Florida Straits has held steady. The Coast Guard intercepted 2,868 in the year ended September 30, only slightly above totals for the previous two years.

“Hopefully we won’t need the plan. It doesn’t appear that it’s going to be activated any time soon,” said Coast Guard spokesman Luis Diaz in Miami.

The United States was caught by surprise in the mid-1990s when 60,000 Cubans and Haitians fled poverty and chaos at home and were halted at sea en route for Florida. They were held for processing by immigration authorities at the Guantanamo naval base, where the migrant population peaked at 45,000 in 1994.

Then, teeming tent camps were strewn on an abandoned runway, a golf course and other parts of the “Windward,” or eastern, side of the base, which is divided in two by Guantanamo Bay and traversed by ferries.

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Those sites are unavailable for migrant camps now. Another tent city is rising on the old runway to house lawyers, court personnel and journalists for pending war crimes tribunals for some of the 330 suspected al Qaeda captives held at a prison camp that is also on the Windward side of the base.

Foundations and plumbing for the migrant camps are instead being built on the less populated “Leeward” side.

“We don’t want any migrants on the Windward side because of security concerns with the detainees,” Army Maj. Raymond Rivera, one of the officers overseeing the project, told journalists visiting the base last week.

Work was finished a couple of years ago on a site that could hold up to 400 migrants in tents and cots stored in shipping containers on the base. A barbed-wire fence separates it from a neighboring galley and bar.

Contractors began work in June on the $16.5 million camp that could house up to 10,000 people in tents by the summer of 2008. It will include two dozen concrete block latrine buildings to withstand 130 mile per hour (209 km per hour) hurricanes, each capable of providing emergency shelter for 500 people, the Guantanamo officers said.

Plans call for the Department of Homeland Security to conduct biometric scanning of arriving migrants to prevent known criminals from sneaking in among them. Warehouses would provide work space for government and charity groups that process and provide aid to migrants, the officers said.

Once the first camp is finished, the government would decide whether to build a second compound to accommodate 35,000 more migrants.

It would cost $110 million and would require clearing the proposed site of any unexploded ordnance left from training drills. That project has not been put up for bid and would only be built if the smaller compound is filled beyond capacity, said Army Lt. Col. Ed Bush, a Guantanamo spokesman.