Cool in the Hot Seat

updated 09/26/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/26/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE IMMIGRATION CRISIS BETWEEN the U.S. and Cuba may have cooled lately, but at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay passions are running hotter than ever. On Sept. 10, just one day after Havana and Washington agreed to stop the tide of illegal refugees into the U.S., 2,500 Cuban boat people already at "Gitmo" broke out of their tent city to stage an angry march. Their goal: to speak with Marine Brig. Gen. Michael Williams.

"The Cubans are mad as hell," says Williams, 51, commandant of the Guantanamo refugee camps that now hold 30,000 Cubans and 14,000 Haitians. "They say, 'You've been taking Cubans into Miami for 30 years. Why stop with me?' " Within 24 hours the group peacefully dispersed after meeting with the general.

Sitting on this tinderbox, Williams remains unflappable, his buck-stops-here approach summarized by a sign in his office commanding, Thou Shalt Not Whine. As leader since mid-May of the 6,000-member Joint Task Force 160, which is the largest refugee operation ever on U.S.-controlled soil, Williams is in charge of an unprecedented logistical nightmare: the care and feeding of 44,000 desperate people who are mired there indefinitely. Before coming to Guantanamo, a 45-square-mile naval training facility on Cuba's southeast coast that has been leased from Cuba since 1903, his only similar experience involved commanding a huge Marine supply operation out of Camp Lejeune, N.C.

"He probably didn't in his wildest dreams think he'd be in charge of a place with so many refugees and so much human anxiety," says Maj. Gen. Tom Wilkerson, Williams's Annapolis classmate and director of the Marine Corps' plans department. "But I couldn't find a better guy to be in that kind of crucible. Mike's got a heart of gold, and he's a leader."

Williams calls "organization and discipline" his main assets. "There is no specific training. No book for this stuff," he says of running a refugee camp. Nor is there any military manual that covers the defusing of dangerous rumors—like the one that recently spread through the Haitian camps hinting that the newly arrived Cubans had been given luxuries including microwaves and refrigerators. To prevent one of the angry rock-throwing melees that have periodically erupted among the refugees, Williams arranged for the Haitian leaders to visit the Cuban areas to disprove the stories.

To accommodate the overwhelming Cuban influx this summer, Williams scrambled to pitch tents on all arable land, including the golf course, and ordered away the families of all base personnel "to ease the logistical burden." Life in the camps is spartan. "There has to be a cot, a tent, fresh water, food and a place to dispose of sewage," he says. "Everything else is a luxury." The refugees' food, invariably rice and beans, is trucked in and prepared on 104-burner stoves. Other amenities—like 2,000 portable toilets and 100,000 cases of toilet paper—have arrived by plane or barge. He is waiting for the military to send toys, books and other diversions to help refugees pass the time.

Compact and muscular, Williams is every bit the gruff leatherneck—but kindly at the core. "It bothers me to drive past some of the camps and see people holding their babies in the dust and the dirt," he says. "Living in a tent staked out in the dirt in Cuba is tough." Often, when he strolls the tent cities, refugees react fearfully; to many of them, generals mean bloody coups and swaggering despots. To disarm those who fear him, Williams has fallen back on an old G.I. tactic: He fills his deep pockets with lollipops and hands them out to the refugee kids he passes. "If I can get to the children," he says, "I can get to the adults."

Williams, born and raised in Baltimore, grew up reading C.S. Forester's novels about the seafaring adventures of Horatio Hornblower. He attended the naval academy at Annapolis, choosing to join the Marines, and piloted a helicopter in Vietnam for one year. During Desert Storm, Williams built an airport in Saudi Arabia.

In 1967, before his Marine basic training, he married Barbara Silva, a friend since second grade. "My mother was always crazy about Mike, for which I'm eternally grateful," says Barbara, 48. The couple have a son, Matt, 22, and live in an antique-filled colonial house at Camp Lejeune.

It is there that Williams will likely return when his expected six-month tour of duty at Guantanamo ends next month. "It's been fun, at times, frustrating as hell and satisfying," he says of his tenure at Gitmo. Still, lollipops notwithstanding, the 27-year Marine veteran has no illusions about getting a happy send-off from his Haitian and Cuban charges. "Yes, I'm feeding them," he says. "But I also put barbed wire around them. From their point of view, I'm not necessarily Santa Claus here."

MEG GRANT in Guantanamo

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