A rotting wooden sailboat packed with 101 refugees has been saved from sinking and towed into the U.S. naval base here, bringing with it a delicate international problem that government officials say has them stumped.
The Haitian peasant, traders and semi-skilled workers who made a perilous five-day, 200-mile voyage through shark-infested waters to get here from Port Salud in southwest Haiti early last month say they fear returning home and have asked permission to remain in Guanatanamo or to enter the United States, State Department officials here said.
However, the officials said, the Haitians are illegal aliens with no papers or visas to authorize their entry into the United State and Navy officials say they are greatly concerned that making an exception for the group here might open a Pandora's box of attempted enteries by refugees.
"They're only our responsibility because they landed on our property and our guys saved them," said a Defense Department official in Washington. "We hardly want to keep them there. We want them to go back where they came from."
Getting back there through may be a stickier problem than it would seem. One of the Haitians, a 28-year-old chauffeur and projectionist for whom American officials requested annonymity, said he would be pleased to be sent to any country but Haiti.
Told the Haitian government had guarnateed the safety of the refugees if they are returned, he replied through an interpreter, "The only guarantee that would get me back to Haiti is if the President [Jean-claude Duvalier] and all the people around him would fall . . . I felt Haiti and I want to go somewhere where I can live in peace."
In an account dotted with inconsistencies, the man said he feared he would be beaten "until almost dead" if he were returned to Haiti.
A major problem the State Department faces is determining whether such fears are well-founded.
"They know the score," said one official suggesting the Haitians may have consocted stories of political repression to better their chances of not being sent home.
"There are some" of this group who would be punished if returned to Haiti, a State Department official in Washington said.
Nonetheless, said Larry Arthur, one of State's representatives here, "it is apparent that the great majority of considerations for leaving Haiti were economic."
Haiti by far the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Its crippled agrarian economy has been brought to the edge of collapse by an extended drought.
The state of Haiti's economy has launched a number of refugee boats in recent years, officials said. A month ago, a large group of Haitians - unrelated to those here now, officials say - landed in Miami. Within the past 18 months, two other, much smaller, boats have arrived in Guantanamo. Their occupants were returned to Haiti, officials said.
Within the past four years, said the State Department official in Washington, some 2,000 Haitians have requested political asylum in the United States. About 240 have been granted asylum, he said, while 60 have been turned down and sent back Haiti. The rest of the cases are on appeal in the courts.
Friendly ports for Haitians are rapidly vanishing. Thousand of Haitian refugees and migrant workers used to come to Cuba annualy before Fidel Castro took over in 1959. Over 15,000 Haitians live in the Bahamas, but that government, under employment pressures from its owm people, recently has begun expelling Haitians.
It is not clear how long the Navy will be able to continue providing for the 101. Guantanamo is an isolated outpost, dependent for supplies on infrequent Air Force planes and supply ships.
There are shortage of most goods and facilities here, primary among them decent housing. The laws of the scas demand that the Navy feed, clothe, house, and provide medical care for the Haitians, whose beat is unsalvagable.
But the demands their presenc makes on the base supplies are heavy. "They are taxing the facility," said Cliff Tighe, a representative of the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince. "It's really straining."
The State Department officials here descirbed the problem of dealing with the refugees without creating undue hardship for them, or unwanted precedents for the United States, as "difficult" and as"ticklish."
"I think we have in a nutshell the whole humanitarian and refugee problem," said an official.
The Haitian chauffuer was asked if after his experience here, he likes the U.S. Navy. His reply: "Like a father."