OAKDALE, LA., NOV. 23 -- The Cubans made Oakdale, in a sense, and now, by rioting at the federal prison here, they are threatening to break it.
Six years ago, this small town in the pine woods of western Louisiana's Bible Belt was among the most depressed places in America: The unemployment rate was 32 percent among its 7,500 residents.
Then the federal government built an alien detention center on the north edge of town, bringing in 360 jobs and a $9 million annual payroll. When 1,050 Cuban inmates arrived last October -- some of the petty criminals and mental patients among the 125,000 Cubans who set out from the port of Mariel in 1980 -- they represented not so much danger as jobs and security.
That explains the ambivalent feelings expressed by people here during the third day of the prison siege. Mayor George Mowad described the mood as "angry and scared."
The anger, he said, was directed not just at the Cuban rebels inside the prison, but also at federal officials, who he said mishandled the news that a few thousand Mariel refugees would be returned involuntarily to Cuba. And the fear, according to Mowad, was not just of possible violence but also of the threat to the community's economic viability.
Some residents seemed ready this morning -- rhetorically, at least -- to form vigilante squads and storm the detention center -- even if such force harmed some of the 20 hostages still being held. The men drinking coffee up at the Dairy Queen on Route 165 were talking tough.
"They should let the people here handle this mess," said Speedy Willis, a pipeline worker. "We could go in there and get the hostages out in no time."
"With all the firepower the fellas around here could round up, it would be no problem," said Willis' co-worker, Fred Odom. "If some guards go down in the fire, that's their job. If I were a guard, I'd be willing to give up my life in a hostage situation. That's part of the deal."
Easy, perhaps, for Odom to say from the back booth of the DQ. For Donna Desoto, whose husband, James, a senior officer at the detention center, is one of the hostages, the authorities' calm handling of the situation thus far has been a great relief.
"I'm happy that they are not going to rush in," Desoto said. "As far as I'm concerned, the longer the negotiations go on, the better chance everyone has of coming out safely. I don't want anyone to get hurt -- my husband or the Cubans. They have brought income into my home. They are the reason my husband is employed. So in a way I'm glad they're here."
Desoto said she was confident that her husband would come out unharmed, but she was less certain that the prison would return to normal after the siege. While reports have varied on the extent of fire damage caused by Saturday night's rebellion, officials have indicated that all of the Cubans will be moved from the facility.
Mayor Mowad said he expected, sometime in the future, that the prison once again would house illegal immigrants from Central America, its original tenants.
According to Oakdale residents, the Cubans were virtually model detainees until last weekend, especially in comparison to the previous inmates. Statistics show that this year, only three or four inmates have been held in segregated lockup at any one time. When the Central Americans were here, 15 or 20 were usually in lockup. Desoto said her husband told her he never felt threatened by the Cubans, although he and the other guards were not allowed to carry weapons.
The prisoners here were considered the safest of the "excludable" aliens among the Mariel refugees. Many were convicted of crimes after coming to the United States and were detained here after serving their jail sentences, to wait for immigration officials to review their cases. In the year since the Cubans arrived at Oakdale, 200 have been released to halfway houses, and another 200 were due to be released in December.
Most of the more dangerous excludables -- many convicted in Cuba or released from Cuba mental hospitals there and most likely to be sent back to Cuba under the provisions of the U.S.-Cuban agreement announced last Friday -- are held at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. The prison there erupted in rioting today, two days after the trouble started here.
Now, the primary concern here is for the hostages, not the Cubans. Donna Desoto, who has spent the last two nights sleeping restlessly on a National Guard cot in a shelter for hostage families, said she is willing to wait days, even weeks, for her husband to be released.
"He may miss Thanksgiving," she said. "But I'll just have to make one helluva turkey when he gets home. And I know one thing, I'll never take my husband for granted again. I don't think I'll ever let him leave the house again without me telling him that I love him."