As growling bulldozers and hammering soldiers constructed a tent city around them, hundreds of Cuban refugees celebrated an emotion-filled Roman Cathloic mass today, singing "Glory, glory hallelujah" and shouting, "Long live free Cuba."
For many of these children of the revolution, the religious service, held in a small sun-baked stadium, was the first they had ever attended. They turned it into an exuberant rally praising God, the United States and liberty.
More than 750 Cubans, exhausted and half-starved after weeks of asylum in the Peruvian embassy and a rough boat trip to Key West, have been flown to Eglin Air Force Base here in the Florida Panhandle.
The Air Force and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have set up a processing and temporary housing center on this city's 42-acre fairgrounds. By late afternoon, 40 tents, each with 26 clean-sheeted cots, had been erected with plywood, olive-drab canvas and whirlwind military efficiency.
"This is like a dream," said Melba Rodriguez, 25, a Havana dental assistant. "I can't believe I'm here."
Rodriguez and her fiance, Osvaldo Lopez, 30, sat in an open-flapped dining tent eating fried chicken and tossed salad. They had spent 20 days in the Peruvian embassy in Havana, with almost no food and crowded together with 10,800 others seeking asylum.
"In Cuba, they told us that Americans sic dogs on black people," said Rodriguez, who is black. "But I don't have enough words to give thanks for how well we have been treated here."
Neither Rodriguez nor Lopez has family in the United States, unlike more than three-quarters of the more than 10,000 refugees who have sailed to Florida in the last two weeks.
Until yesterday all had been bused to a large processing center in Miami's Tamiami Park. City officials there are housing refugees in hotels, National Guard armories and the Orange Bowl.
Now, about 60 percent of the new arrivals will be flown from Key West to Eglin. The rest, those with relatives in south Florida, will continue to be sent to Miami.
Janice Pittman, regional director of the U.S. Catholic Conference, said Cuban-American groups have already volunteered to sponsor 15,000 refugees who may not have family here. "I'm having no problem at all finding sponsors," said Pittman, who also worked on the resettlement of 12,000 Southeast Asian refugees processed at Eglin in 1975. She said the Cubans will assimilate easily into the Cuban-American communities here.
In a huge hangar here the size of two football fields, the refugees are fingerprinted, photographed and interviewed by Immigration and Naturalization Service and FBI officials and refugee assistance groups. A 25-bed medical unit has been set up to give physical examinations. The process takes 48 to 72 hours and federal oficials expect the first refugees to be released to their sponsors Monday.
Although American officials have expressed concern that Cuban President Fidel Castro may be emptying his jails to fill refugee vessels, only eight suspected criminals have been detained here. U.S. officials are not arresting people who were jailed in Cuba for political crimes such as trying to escape to the United States.
FEMA site director Norman Steinlauf, who has handled floods, tornadoes and hurricanes as a professional crisis manager, said of the operation here: "It's working beautifully." He said he expected 2,500 refugees by tonight, "but it is a dynamic situation. We don't know how many are coming ashore."
The first refugees to arrive Saturday in the chartered Air Florida shuttle received a mixed reception: pink roses and warm words from the local Hispanic heritage organization while an airplane overhead trailed a banner reading, "the KKK is here."
The Okaloosa county school superintendent said he is "violently opposed" to settlement of Cuban refugees locally, and will recommend that none be allowed to attend public schools here.
The mass this morning was attended by more than 250 refugees, most of them in their 20s and 30s dressed in T-shirts and rumpled trousers. At first they were shy in singing a hymn directed by Dr. Todd Hevia, a Cuban-American priest from Pensacola.
But as the service proceeded, they sang lustily, prayed loudly, made the sign of the cross on their chests and lined up to take communion. At the point in the service when American Catholics usually shake hands politely, they hugged each other enthusiastically and surrounded Father Hevia, slapping him on the back and embracing him. One man, with both feet and one arm bandaged, struggled to his feet to pray as the crowd chanted, "Lord have mercy upon us."
Every so often someone would rouse the crowd to shouts of "Down with Castro," and "Down with broken promises."
Leonardo Ramirez Gonzalez, 27, a Havana truck driver who had been imprisoned for trying to leave Cuba by boat 10 years ago, said he had never been to church before. "They don't let you go in Cuba," he said.
"But it was beautiful. Even, without knowing much about it, I believe in God. I came over on a boat which almost sank. But it didn't. There must have been something working for me."