Marcos Cerices Rodriguez, 45, a master plumber who spent the last two years in Havana's Cabana Prison on charges of attempting to undermine the Cuban economy through embezzelement, thought it would be a simple matter.
For years, he had held on to the U.S. telephone number of his mother, Juana Rodriguez, who emigrated from Cuba and moved to West New York, N.J., in 1970. Rodridguez's brother Ernesto lives there, too.
So, when the Cabana guards came to him a month ago with an ultimatum to get out of Cuba without his wife and two children, or stay and finish serving a 20-year prison term, Rodriguez figured it would be wiser to leave.
He thought he would come to the United States, ring up his mother and brother, tell them his whereabouts and they would send him a plane ticket or Ernesto would come for him in his car.
That was Rodriguez's plan until he ran into "the process" -- that long, complex, fragile, frustrating procedure of turning raw refugees into freshly packaged legal aliens.
The process -- approximately 22 bureaucratic steps -- has been blamed for the refuge riots here at this 73,000-acre military base and an Eglin Air Force Base near Fort Walton Beach, Fla. The procedure's chief weakness, critics say, is that it is slow and unwieldy.
For Rodriguez, it began May 10, the day he arrived at Fort Chaffee by plane from Key West, Fla.However, unlike many of the other 19,048 Cubans who have come to this refugee camp since May 8, Rodriguez has a lot going for him. He is a skilled tradesman and his mother's telephone number is still valid.
Like his fellow refugees, on the first day at the camp Rodrguez was given a cursory health check ("They asked me if I am sick," he said in English), a dormitory building (number 1558), clothing (five pairs of jeans and some pullover shirts), box lunch, a metal ticket, and a red-and-white, plastic refugee identification card (alien number A-24452030, card number 03503).
"I was happy because they give me everything I need," Rodriguez recalled. "They told me that I may meet my family very soon, but that first, I had much more processing to do to find out if I'm good person, not communist." h
The processors didn't get back to Rodriguez for the next 15 days. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, which along with the FBI is largely responsible for keeping out "undersirables," was badly understaffed at Chaffee when Rodriguez arrived. So, he, like others, was forced to wait for the crucial INS-FBI interview.
The Department of Health and Human Services -- the other key part of the process -- was having a better time of it. However, HHS officials initially were busy taking care of the readily identifiable health problems. For Rodriguez, that meant another wait.
Finally, Rodriguez was introduced into the main flow of "the process." First came a thorough medical examinationa. He passed it and an HHS officila signed and stamped the appropriate forms and clipped the top left-hand corner of Rodriguez's Cuban refugee identification card to attest to his good health.
Then came the INS-FBI interview -- a grueling two-hour session, Rodriguez said. He said that his interrogators wanted to know about his stay in prison and how to got there. He told them it was a matter of $60,000, which the Cuban government accused him of misappropriating for "anti-government purposes." Rodriguez denied the charges here, as he did in Cuba.
"They asked me many, many questions," Rodriguez said. "They asked me if I belonged to Communist Party in Cuba. I said 'No.' They asked me if I belonged to any revolutionary group in Cuba. "I said, 'No.'
"They asked me if I belonged to a counter-revolutionary group in Cuba. I said 'No.' They asked me these things many, many times. I said 'No' many, many times."
At the end of the interview, Rodriguez said the INS and FBI officials told him of the rights he would have as a legal alien in the United States and also advised him of his responsibilities.
"They told me that I would have to work, be a good citizen, and stay out of trouble," he related." I told them that I understand this very, very well."
The INS officials then clipped the bottom right-hand corner of his identification card to indicate that he had passed the initial Justice Department interviews.
Within a week of the interviews, Rodriguez received final clearances from Washington. Next he was assigned to a voluntary agency, the United States Catholic Conference, which was charged with the responsibility of reuniting him with his family. A badge of that assignment is the white "Uscc" sticker taped to the back of Rodriguez's identification card.
Everything seemed to be moving along at last. Rodriguez also was happy that he had run into a cousin, Fidel Garcia Cerices, 30, in the camp. They planned to fly out of Fort Chaffee together en route to their relatives in New Jersey.
But a hitch developed. Somehow -- USCC officials said it was a clerical error -- Rodriguez's cousin was cleared for final departure before he was.
Today, Rodriguez was in the Uscc office trying to work something out that would enable him to leave with his cousin. He was assured that something would be done.
Rodriguez said that although he was concerned at the delay, he was not angry.
"I am not going to go out and strike [riot]," he said, laughing.
"In Cuba, when you're angry with the government, you don't go out and strike because the government kills you. So I don't think it is right for Cubans to got out and strike here," he said, setting down to what he is getting ever better at -- waiting.