The sunset burned copper on the horizon as Gladys Cuesta scanned the darkening waters for a small speck of hope. In 10 days, there had been no sign of the "Better Wing," a fishing boat that sailed for Cuba almost two weeks ago.

Through thunderstorm and burning sun, Cuesta, 47, a Miami seamstress, has stood on the concrete dock of the old Navy base here straining against a chainlink fence. Hundreds of other Cuban Americans are there too, redeyed and weary, waiting for relatives to return on the "Freedom Flotilla."

"All night, I look at the sea," she said. "My husband is out there. I don't know if he will come back or not," she said. Her hand clutches the collar of a jacket that only partly shields her from the drizzle. She has stood on the concrete dock for 11 hours; the night before, she slept off and on in her automobile.

The story of Gladys Cuesta is the story of hundreds of thousands of Cubans whose families were torn apart by the revolution. Cuesta and her husband, Alberto, a 60-year-old carpenter, and their son Johnny came to America 13 years ago on the "Freedom Flights" -- the last mass exodus of refugees from Fidel Castro's regime.

They left behind a 12-year-old son who was compelled to stay because he was of military age. Since then, years full of yearning have passed."I was crazy to see him," she said.

"I left him thinking I could get him out. I tried to bribe the Czechoslovak embassy [in Cuba] with $5,000. You could get people out that way in the early days. But he never came.

Now her son is a school teacher in the town of Cardenas. Last year when Castro opened Cuba to tourists for the first time, she visited him. "His eyes were bulging out like a crazy person's," she said. "He told me, 'Mommy, I'm scared the police will arrest me. Please get me out.'"

Cubans who have family in the United States are automatically under suspicion. Disloyalty or even apathy toward the Castro regime is punishable with jail terms, according to refugees.

Now Cuesta, watching the boatloads of refugees docking nearby, fears she may have lost both her husband and her son. Two severe thunderstorms have swept through the Florida Straits in the past week, the second one Friday night. Only 350 of the 3,000 boats which sailed for Cuba have returned, and no one nows how many may have been lost at sea.

Returning families tell of disastrous conditions in the crowded harbor of Mariel on Cuba's north coast 90 miles away. The wait for family members to pick up relatives and sail could be more than a month, while food and drink are running scarce and tempers flare between Americans and Cuban police.

But Cuesta has no doubts that the trip is worth the risk.

"Freedom!" she exclaims. "Do you know what that means, to be free? Before the revolution, Cuba was joyful, clean, happy, pretty. No one was scared. Now, terror and sadness is everywhere. The houses are not painted. The garbage is in the streets."

Friendships have flourished along the chain link fence where a green pickup truck sells pina coladas and "Cuquita Snow Cones." Cuesta affectionately pats the man standing next to her. They met at the fence and discovered both were from the small town of Ciego de Avila in the province of Camaguey.

"His brother is married to my cousin," she said delightedly.

The man, Angel Dias, a Miami security guard, was waiting for his wife, who had set off with other would-be rescuers in a 78-foot boat, the Lady Voncil. She went to fetch her 72-year-old mother, her sister, brother-in-law and two nieces.

"I was afriad to let her go," Dias said, "but she insisted. She said, 'It is my family, so I must be the one to get them.'"

In 1967 Dias, then a Havana gas station attendant, escaped with his wife and 9-year-old daughter on a stolen boat. They drifted four days at sea before being picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard. They have no other relatives here.

"It has been 12 years since our family was separated by communism," he said. "We have not been able to hug them or to give them shelter. We want to share our joy and our sadness with them. A person without family is sad."

A new cargo of refugees rounded the pier as he spoke. They piled into a green Army bus for the short ride to the reception building. Most were men in their early 30s who had sought asylum in the Peruvian embassy in Havana three weeks ago. A lone boy stuck his head out the window.

"A child!" Dias shouted, clapping his hands above his head as the crowd of relatives cheered. The boy, tired and seasick from the long boat ride, smiled shyly.

"Let me tell you, Cuba is not coming because of hunger but because of freedom," Dias said. "For me, the United States is the most beautiful country in the world. Here there is liberty, not a dictatorship."

Dias has not lost hope of seeing his in-laws, although many Cuban-Americans are returning without their relatives. The Wanda J. docked yesterday with 60 refugees. Lourdes Ramos, 41, a Miami schoolteacher, was discouraged.

She and four other Cuban-Americans had hired the boat to fetch 34 relatives. Cuba said they would be allowed only 15. They had fought bitterly over which ones.

In the end, they brought back a group of strangers so hungry that they tore open tin cans of food with their teeth. "I paid $1,300 (to the boat captain) to get my brother and three nephews," Dias said. "But Castro is playing a game with us. I don't know if my family will ever be free."