The old Cuban, wrapped up in sweat-shirts and a too-small sports jacket against the cold autumn weather, looks scared.
He feared dying in a jail in Havana. He had been there for six months before the boatlift, convicted by his neighborhood Communist Party block committee of selling tobacco he grew to his friends; you can only sell to those the party tells you to sell to. At the jail they told him he had a choice: he could stay in jail for four more years or he could join the boatlift and leave his family and the country of his birth. The old man left. He did not want to chance dying in jail.
Now the fear is back. Instead of dying in a Cuban jail he may die behind the barbed wire of an American refugee cap. He has been in this camp for five months and as the weather gets cold it brings the prospect that the old man will spend the winter in a refugee camp; maybe to die here.
The old man is one of the 12,000 Cubans still left in three U.S. refugee camps, five months after a tide of boats overloaded with some 125,000 people fleeing Castro's Cuba washed onto America's shore.
The people left in the camps -- more than 3,000 here -- are the very old, the very young and single young adults, mostly men in their mid-20s, who have few skills and no friends or relatives in the United States. In October, those who still cannot find sponsors in the United States will be moved from this camp to Fort Chafee in Arkansas and Fort Allen in Puerto Rico. Neither Arkansas nor Puerto Rico wants the refugees to come.
The government line is that efforts to find homes for all the Cubans will continue there. But the truth is that Fort Chafee and Fort Allen are likely to be home for most of these Cubans for a very long time. Many of the old may die there. These are people who have fled to nothing.
The reality makes this camp a very sad place. Concentrated here are large and colorful dreams -- now badly broken -- that have to do with freedom and wealth in a new land. Those broken dreams are part of these people now, a kind of deformity they can cover but not hide. Large elements of hope have been abandoned. Even so, most are still glad they left Cuba. But the reality of America has not met expectations. When they came ashore in Key West or Miami, they were told it would be a month at most before they would be free to go into America the Beautiful. Now it has been over four months. The Cubans still in the refugee camp feel abandoned.
To a first-generation immigrant like me, the sight of these people is upsetting. It seems that they came minutes too late to get in on America's opportunities. The thousands of other Cuban refugees and millions of refugees from elsewhere before them may have emptied what seemed like the never-ending wealth of America. They may also have worn out America's welcome for refugees. No longer are refugees proof that America is great and everyone in the world wants to come here. Now the refugees are competition for jobs, social programs, space in schools.
For the Cubans here, that reality leaves big questions that confound and disturb them. They can't understand: Why don't the Americans like us? What happened to the high-paying jobs, the nice homes -- maybe a car, no? This is America, after all, the America they heard of from friends and relatives in letters they read and reread. An America of fabulous discos, designer jeans and hit music; the land of plenty.
The America the Cubans live in here is behind rolls of barbed wire and lines of military police in old wooden barracks. The buildings, row after row of the same building, are covered in a drab whitewash that is faded and dirty. There is little privacy in the barracks, but they are not overcrowded. Some Cubans are even lucky enough to have small rooms. On the walls are magazine pictures, Playboy centerfolds or ads that show successful, pretty people striding down big city streets with briefcase in hand. All the pictures are in the bright colors of the America they came to enjoy.
Outside the barracks could be any slum: the Bronx, or a Chicano ghetto in the Southwest where aliens, legal and illegal, live in disappointment and sadness at the ugly streets -- tenements and unemployment -- that are the reality of the America they fought so hard, paid life savings and even hid in trunks to get to. Young men walk around, going nowhere slowly and smoking cigarettes here in the refugee camp just as they do in the slums. Here the cigarettes are doled out one pack a day. A tobacco company donated the cigarettes; cigarette butts cover the ground like a carpet. There is an outdoor boxing ring. And here and there are outdoor English class. The classes recently started. They would have started earlier but the neighboring school district would not contract to send in teachers. They were afraid of the Cubans.
Some Cubans rioted here on Aug. 5. All the Cubans remember that date. Asked about the riot, they all begin in Spanish, "Pertaining to August the 5th . . ." A 19-year-old man was injured in that riot and later died. The trouble began after military police, searching for weapons at about 6 a.m., were accused by young men of manhandling a pregnant woman. The youths ran though the camp, throwing rocks and shouting.
The military police arrested rioters who could be identified from photographs and films of the incident. Seventy-eight Cubans were sent to jails around the country as a result of the outbreak. The riot also put the neighboring towns on guard. A radio reporter said on the air that Cubans had escaped and warned people to arm themselves. In fact, there were no escapes.What remains, even for a visitor to feel when he asks directions to the camp, is loathing for the Cubans among the people who live in this part of the country.
There are daily attempts by the Cubans to get beyond the barbed wire. Few succeed -- one estimate is that fewer than 25 of the almost 20,000 who came here have successfully gone beyond the fence and into the central Pennsylvania towns around the camp, four hours from Washington. And all of those escapees have been returned or jailed. Some were arrested on burglary charges and, according to local reporters, the sentences given the Cubans in some cases were unusually long because the Cubans are not liked.
The military police and Federal Protective Service officers here appear to have dealt fairly with the Cubans. The refugees speak kindly of their guards. But the tension between the guards and the guarded is evident. The guards want to help where they can, but the overwhelming number of poor, non-English-speaking people, all demanding some help, makes the guards callous.
"All I care about is that they don't cause no trouble," says a soldier. "I can't do nothing for these people."
The help the refugees want is help to get them out. The rhythm of the camp is set by people getting out for interviews with social agencies that are trying to help them leave the camp and by people who have made arrangements to leave for good. Now about 29 people leave the camp each day. A month ago it was 50 a day.
Part of the settlement problem now is that so many of the Cubans are listed as Catholics. They were not allowed religion in Cuba. When American social workers asked the refugees what religion they are, most say they don't know or Catholic. As a result, the Catholic social agencies are loaded down with helping most of the refugees.
Now the weather is getting colder. And so is the passion about the beauty of America among the refugees. "Why has it taken so long to get us out?" they ask. There is no answer. The American government has settled 88 percent of the refugees who came in the boatlift, not a bad record. It is just these 12,000 people who are left like a hangover.
One Cuban asks a visitor to wait -- "uno momento" and then brings back a pair of black slacks and a blue and white shirt. He wants to know if the outfit is nice enough for the day he will leave the camp. He is saving the outfit for the big day, even though he has only one other set of clothes to wear in the camp.
The dream may be cold but it is not dead.
"Kiddy City," as this part of the camp is called, is for the 14- to 17-year-olds who came in the boatlift without parents. Some parents sent the children on the promise that a better life lay across the ocean. Others of the teenagers came without telling their parents; they knew they would not get permission. But they had heard of the bright lights and promise of America from the Bee Gees on AM radio waves that drift south into Havana.
Still others were on jail or hanging out on the street, fighting the police and the rules of the Communist Party. In most cases, they were outcasts of a public school system that, they say, pressures teachers and students to cheat on tests or risk being thrown out of the school, or, worse, publicly ridiculed by the party for not learning. When the students reach a higher grade and must cheat so much that it is too obvious, then they are thrown out of school. They say remedial work is rare and vocational schools offer little hope of the good life. Some of these teenagers also have emotional problems. Ten percent of the teenagers in "Kiddy City" will need long-term psychiatric care, according to the doctor working with 160 youngsters here. There are over 500 youngsters still in refugee camps around the country.
Getting sponsors who will take any of the children out of the camp is difficult. Most of the children have no relatives in the United States, but their parents are alive so they cannot be adopted. How to get the youngsters out of the camp is a puzzle unless they have an aunt of some other blood relative in this country. Last week 20 youngsters were able to leave for foster homes -- with the Immigration and Naturalization Service having final responsibility for the children should the foster homes not work out.
Lazaro Rodriguez, 17, is depressed. He has been told that his mother died a month after he left Cuba. He never said goodbye. She had told him to go to America and make something of himself. He fought to get aboard the boats that were leaving.
"When I got to the boats I had casts and bandages from all the fights I had had with the police," he says, laughing. "I was ready to leave."
"I want to work," says Rodriguez, who has spent over a year in a Cuban jail for not going to school and having parties that were not approved by the Communists. "I want to buy a house, a car . . . and to bring my father over." Told it takes a long time to be able to afford a house here, he shrugs. "They pay good in America," he says.
Hipolito Carmero is 79. The big Cuban lives in the senior citizen barracks in Area 5 of the refugee camp. He was set to leave the camp a few weeks ago, but when his sponsor came, the man said Carmero was too old to work -- what can anyone do with a retiree who cannot even receive Social Security?
Carmero had been in jail when the boatlift began. He is the Cuban who sold 25 leaves of tobacco, which he had grown in his own tobacco field, to friends. After six months in jail came the boatlift. The old man left nine children and a wife in Cuba. He thought America would be money, food and freedom -- "you can do what you want, sell to who you want" -- freedom like he had never known before. And he expected to live in warm weather.
"I had thought they would let me loose in Miami," he says. "Miami has a nice climate. I could live there with the Cubans. I have friends in this country in Miami, but no one wants to be responsible for an old man."