Round and round they went. Step-step, hip waggle. Step-step, hip waggle. The basement of the Fairfax County brick home throbbed with the Latin beat. In a circle around them, the beaming faces watched. Mario Gonzalez and his wife Xonia, Cuban refugees four hours in their new home, whirled faster and faster.
"Did you dance like that in the Peruvian Embassy?" someone shouted in staccato Cuban Spanish.
Gonzalez smiled dreamily, hardly looking from under his half-lidded eyes, cigarette clinging crazily to his lower lip.
"We lived a joke for 20 years," said his wife. "Now at last we can laugh."
The Gonzalezes and her eight-year-old daughter Dayana, arrived here late Friday. They were among the first Cuban refugees to reach the Washington area since the floodgates opened in Cuba a month ago.
Along with some 10,000 other Cubans, the Gonzalezes had raced from their one-room apartment, taking only the clothes on their backs, and crammed themselves into the Peruvian Embassy compound in Havana on April 4. There they braved beatings, ground muddied by human excrement, and nine days without food for the chance to leave the Socialist paradise that Premier Fidel Castro has created.
Behind they left a life of shortages, where each of them was allocated typically three-quarters of a pound of meat a month, where they could buy only one pair of shoes for each one of them a year, where three tins of Russian condensed milk was their monthly ration because they had a child when sweeter Cuban condensed milk was being exported for hard currency.
There were personal risks, and the prospect that they would never see their families or friends again. But Gonzalez never hesitated.
"We never had a choice," said Gonzalez. "There was nothing there worth living for."
As he sat in the comfortable suburban home of his aunt and uncle while long lost and new friends eddied eagerly about him -- crying, laughing, joking -- he smoked American cigarette after cigarette, sipping an imported beer, marveling at the new world he had discovered.
"When we finally arrived in Miami last week," he said, "and when we had found (one of his relatives), we went shopping in a supermarket. There was food there of every kind. Anything you could want. If you had the money you could buy anything.
"I looked at the shelves of food and I cried. I cried for all the hungry people in Cuba. And I cried that I had been able to bring my family here." p
Gonzalez has been trying to leave Cuba since 1962 when he was 14. He and other members of the family had been working at the printing shop of his uncle, at whose house in Falls Church he will now live. But even then, the ominous turn of the revolution was becoming apparent as the government took more and more control over the business.
By 1964, his uncle's business had been expropriated, his uncle jailed, and rationing of almost every conceivable item imposed. He had been on the list to leave with one of his other aunts, but when she left in 1965, he was forced to remain behind because he was too close to military age.
In 1969 he was left behind again. This time it was his uncle, Raul Caballero, who had won permission to leave. Gonzalez began writing long letters that took months to arrive and months to get a reply to, beging for information from relatives in America about whether there was any hope for him to leave, asking for money so he could begin the costly and highly difficult process of winning his own exit permit.
But as the years passed, there was never a glimmer of hope that he could leave. He served in the military, found a job as a computer programmer, earning about $50 a week, and married Xonia, a divorcee, and waited.
At the end of 1978 Castro opened the door a crack, and the light that flooded Cuba changed the situation there dramatically.
Castro said that he would now allow Cubans who had fled for America to return to visit relatives. For years, everyone had been told of poverty in America, of shortage that exceeded anything they could conceive of in Cuba.
But one look at the Cuban-Americans who began trickling in proved all the propaganda wrong.
They came in fine clothes with jewelry and wore different pairs of shoes according to where they went and what they were doing. They brought pictures of their homes and cars and told of television sets and supermarkets. They talked with unexpected frankness about how they felt about American political leaders and told how in the next election their voices would be heard.
Everywhere in Cuba, the dramatic display of American affluence and worldiness far exceeded anything anyone had dreamed of. Even accounting for bragging, there was no doubt but that the standard of living 90 miles across the Ocean in Florida was far superior to anything in Cuba.
"We were shocked," said Gonzalez. "We couldn't believe it. Everyone was talking about it. From that time on, everyone wanted to go to America."
Gonzalez began writing anew to authorities for permission to leave early the next year. He applied to go as a relative of his aunt in Florida. Twice he was rejected. Finally, he decided to apply as her son, and earlier this year he was given permission to leave.
But the prospect for immediate departure was bleak. To begin with, Cuban authorities were nervous about the impact of the visits of the Cuban-Americans. Further complicating the matter was the mysterious appearance on the shortwave radios of some of Gonzalez's friends of an illegal broadcast by a man who called himself David. g
David's broadcasts began in July or August of 1979. He said he was located somewhere in the same mountains in which Castro had hidden during his revolutionary days. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, between 9 and 10 p.m., David would crackle onto the airwaves with stories about how some Cuban ambassador overseas was supporting three mistresses in three different luxury apartments, and another Cuban ambassador was driving around in huge cars while the Cuban people were starving.
Almost immediately, the spying on neighbors by the local Communist party members was stepped up. People, already cautious, closed window shades even tighter and sat in inner rooms to listen to David's broadcasts and those of the Voice of America.
So when Gonzalez happened to hear on the Cuban government radio broadcast at 7 a.m. on April 4 that the guards outside the Peruvian Embassy gates were being withdrawn, he decided on the spot that the time to leave was then or never.
Without leaving a note to other family members who shared the three-bedroom house, without packing a bag or taking a raincoat or food save for three tins of condensed milk, Mario grabbed his wife and stepdaughter and ran to the embassy.
Outside its gates, crowds surged forward, many trying to get inside, others beating and kicking them. Finally, Gonzalez slipped his family around a large group trying to fight police and angry crowds and stepped into the jammed compound.
Ten days later, after those inside heard a Voice of America broadcast saying that Cuba had pledged to allow them to leave the country, he and most everyone else left for home to begin the vigil for word that they could leave for the port of Mariel and then to Florida.
After six days locked inside their house with other family members, terrified at what they had done, and beseiged by angry neighbors outside, they received permission.
Friday night, only hours after arriving by plane from Miami at National Airport, Gonzalez watched as his daughter played with a toy tugboat similar to the one that had brought them to Florida.
"It's still a dream," he said. "It's still a dream."