Over and over the word comes tumbling out as if it explained everything one needs to know about why these children of the Cuban revolution have suddenly become brand-new Americans:

"Libertad ."

For Lazara Basart, a young Havana housewife, libertad is freedom "to say what you think, to talk and express yourself."

For Caridad Carrodeguas, a bookkeeper, it is freedom from "the exhausting anxiety that you will be arrested for buying food on the black market when the ration card runs out."

For Antonio Leon Morera, a 24-year-old baker, it is the freedom "to work where i can earn enough money to have a better life."

The picture these refugees -- the first of 2,100 in what is expected to be a massive wave of Cubans to land on the Florida shores -- paint of Cuba today is one of disillusion. No great drama of torture, murder or starvation, it is merely the endless, dull repression of widespread poverty, constant fear of arrest for petty offenses and a life of rationing necessities while a bureaucratic elite enjoys luxuries.

Butchers, bakers, teachers, truck drivers, they are labeled "scum, parasites, vagabonds" and "anti-social elements", by an embarrassed fidel castro regime. but their principal sin seems to be that old American virtue -- wanting to get ahead.

The recent rush of 10,800 Cubans to seek asylum in the Peruvian Embassy in Havana was not, they claim, the result of economic hardship. "Everyone i know has always wanted to get out", said Leon Morera, who was a toddler when Castro took power two decades ago. Until the guards were taken away from the embassy "we just never had the opportunity", he said.

Leon Morera is a slight, dark-skined man with a feathery moustache and wavy black hair. He sits patiently among the crowd of Cubans in a corner of a vast warehouse in Tamiami Park here, waiting to be interviewed by US immigration officers.

"I worked in a candy factory called 'Free America', but there was nothing free about it", he said. "I worked eight hours a day, but I didn't earn enough money. there was no way to develop yourself".

Leon Morera lived in a small house in Havana with his 15-year-old fiancee, Evelyn Figueredo, and her mother, sister and brother-in-law. Evelyn is three months pregnant, "but we couldn't afford to get married. It costs money to have a wedding. And I couldn't afford baby clothes", he said.

Poverty was largely what prompted Leon Morera and his fiancee to rush to the Peruvian Embassy when the Cuban government withdrew the guards April 4 and indicated that Cubans could seek asylum there.

"But even if I made millions in Cuba, I would not have stayed", he said. "I have been swallowing bitterness all my life. For 10 years, I have wanted to come here.

"I did not like the regime. The police is always asking to see your identity cards. You are standing on a corner and they call you over just to provoke you. They think you are not working or that you are anitsocial. They just want an excuse to send you to jail".

Many youths, such as Leon Morera, spoke of a new law called "La Lay de la Peligrosidad", a sort of catchall vagrancy statute, under which the police have sweeping arrest powers.

Unlike many of the new refugees, Leon Morera has no family in the United States. He does not know where he will live or find work. "But when you want liberty, you can't feel scared", he said.

This kind of blind hope seemed to shine from hundreds of weary faces as the refugees were fingerprinted, photographed, x-rayed and interviewed in a huge makeshift center set up here to process the refugees.

Although the US government is less than welcoming, Miami's huge Cuban community has rallied with thousands of dollars in free food, clothes and toys.

"How much does a pair of jeans cost"? Leon Morera wanted to know, opening his wallet to reveal $40, part of $500,000 collected by Spanish-speaking radio stations here to help refugees.

Nearby, the two children of Lazara Basart played excitedly with water pistols, dolls and a Superman watch. "In Cuba, each child was allowed only three toys a year, given on a certain day in July", she said.

Basart, who took refuge in the embassy with her husband, a government driver, said she has noticed no recent economic change in Cuba.

"I have had my ration card for 10 years, and always the amount has been the same. Three-quarters of a pound of meat per person every nine days, five pounds of rice, four pounds of sugar, one an a half pounds of grease per month. With that, you could not live a week. Sometimes we had nothing to cook. Many times, we were hungry".

Basart has no relatives here but she is not worried. "I have freedom", she said.

Other refugees left their homes when US relatives sailed to Cuba to pick them up. "My brother-in-law was laid off from the factory and he could not get another job", said Caridad Carrodeguas, a bookkeeper from the small city of Batabano."The factory managers want good revolutionaries. When you have family abroad, you are a marked person".

Carrodeguas, 39, said her family bought 85 percent of their food on the black market, with the constant fear of the police. "Everyone in Cuba buys on the black market", she said. "The penalties can be five or 10 years in jail. We were in a constant state of exhaustion and anxiety just to find the bare necessities of life".

When their prosperous cousins from the United States were allowed to visit Cuba last year for the first time since the revolution, many Cubans saw for themselves that life had more to offer.

For Pablo Alvarez, a Havana X-ray technician the incentive to flee was mainly economic. In 11 years of marriage, he had yet to share a home with his wife. He lived with his parents, his sister and one of his sons in his parents' two-bedroom house. His wife lived three blocks away with another son and her parents.

"We just wanted to live alone with our children", he said. "The government said there was no housing. but we saw that houses abandoned by refugees were given to friends of the government housing officials. The big cars are for the ministers and senators".

Favoritism and elitism were rampant, the refugees said. Pedro Sobrado, 32, a cataloger in Cuba's National Museum, said, "There is a little group who can watch Fellini movies. Because of their political position, they have video cassettes. They saw "The Exorcist" and "Star Wars" while the people of Cuba are not allowed these things.

"I did not come to the US because of hunger or because I want new clothes. I came because I don't like communism. Cuba has a totally regimented way of life. I want liberty of movement. I want liberty of creation", he said.

Lazaro Castro Rivera, 29, who has his own painting shop, said he left because the Cuban government forces store owners to give it half ownership of their businesses.

Most of the refugees interviewed over two days had steady jobs in Cuba. A few, however, had run afoul of the system. Pedro Barrios Arbelo, 44, a translator of German and French, was forced to quit his job in 1969, after he asked permission to study abroad. He was made to do manual labor in agriculture and construction until his health failed. Since then he has taught Spanish to foreigners, always in fear of arrest for not having a legal job.

Sixto Lima Vidal, 26, said he was forced to resign as a history teacher at the prestigious Escuela Lenin when he refused to serve with Cuban forces in Angola. He was working as an electricain when he took refuge at the Peruvian Embassy.

The sentiments of the overwhelmingly youthful group of embassy refugees was perhaps best expressed by Lazaro Bijande, 18, a physical education student from a Havana:

"I was born in the revolution. They taught me that all this was good. In the end , it's all a fraud. Cuba does not advance. There is no security of life. The many bad things there outnumber the good things".