To some of the hundreds of Cuban refugees camped here, the three vast concrete stretches of freeway that run right above them are fitting symbols of the brave new world they have entered.
The roar of traffic overhead echoes almost non-stop against the asphalt below, mixing with blaring radios, low-flying planes and near tangible heat.
"Life in an acoustic torture chamber," an economist camp-dweller calls it. "I'm not ungrateful, but only in America, the inventor of the highway, would the homeless live under an expressway overpass."
More than 120,000 Cuban refugees have poured into the United States this year, and every day more run a Coast Guard blockade to enter. Most have found sponsors and are beginning to rebuild their lives. Miami's tent city, however, shows the underside of the refugees flotilla: misery and disillusionment deep enough to make some of them wish they had stayed in Cuba.
Beneath Interstate 95 in downtown Miami, this became the federal residence of about 750 Cuban refugees six weeks ago. It is only their latest stop on an odyssey to a new life that has seemed to go nowhere and has been far from free.
They started out surrounded by police dogs as they left Cuba in April and May. They were locked behind American military fences in June and enclosed by the bleachers of the Orange Bowl stadium in July. They were moved to the olive green tents under the highway because the football season began.
More than 3,000 people so far have moved in and out of this tent city. Most of them, at one time, had been accepted in the homes of sponsors, family or friends, but could not get along or were seen as a burden and shipped out again. Homeless and penniless, they moved back into the tents.
Greater Miami, which by some accounts has absorbed as many as 70,000 of the Cubans, is saturated. Dade County officials and refugees alike -- for quite different reasons -- talk about being driven to the crisis point. Police talk about crime rates going up.
Some of the men in the camp say they have tried everything to find a job. They walked Miami; took buses as far as New Jersey. Chicago and Los Angeles: they offered to scrub floors, collect garbage, or work at any price. They came away with the same message: No English, no work.
Now their camp under the highway will be phased out. Squabbles between federal and city officials over poor conditions led to the closure.
The men, women and children and their handout clothes will move on again.
On a recent stagnant, humid morning, a group of residents sat around scoffing at the "serious hazards" cited by health inspectors -- lack of drainage, open electric wiring, showers cold, not hot.
To them it seemed American busywork, fussing over issues that bore no relation to either the cause or the depth of their despair.
"Some of us here are so depressed we'd rather be dead," said a young man who said he used to work as a diver at the Havanna docks. "In the meantime the Americans worry about the bacteria."
A middle-aged man who described himself as an economist from the province of Cienfuegos, tried hard to fight back tears, "I made the biggest mistake in my life" he said. He came here because his 7-year-old daughter has a rare eye disease which could not be operated on in Cuba. He hoped to bring her over. "Now I found out the operation costs tens of thousands of dollars. I have been here five months and not earned a cent. By the time I can earn the money she will have gone blind."
A printer's apprentice from Holguin said that, for the last four months, "I've been making a disgrace of myself. Most of us are used to hard work. That's what you do in Cuba. I expected to send money to my wife and two babies. Now I'm living on charity."
To these penniless men, the irony is that other people have made money, if not small fortunes, off the Cuban refugees. The printer's apprentice recalled how he paid $250 to a policeman in Holguin in exchange for two documents stating falsely that he was a derelict and had served time in Holguin jail. Other people, he said, "also paid off authorities for the same thing because if you were a criminal you had a better chance to get out" of Cuba.
Owners of American boats who picked them up in Cuba, the men recalled, had charged up to $2,000 per person, and the Cuban government had turned handsome profits selling overpriced fuel, rum, and food to the boat captains while in Mariel port.
Three of the men in tent city claimed that friends had paid bribes to American officials as well. The Havana diver, who did not want his name used, said that after 52 days in Fort Indiantown Gap military reservation, "someone on the outside paid $500 for the exit paper for me to leave the camp. I was going crazy and there was trouble about my release. But the money fixed it. My friend paid it to whoever gave him this," he said, showing a small white visa-like document.
Two other men, who also refused to give their names, claimed they had left Fort Indiantown Gap the same way. One said the exit paper "cost a friend of mine from Miami $1,200." The other said $1,000 was paid for his. All three said they would have to pay back the loans as soon as they got work. a
So far there has been little trouble at tent city compared to the four large U.S. Army camps where close to 13,000 Cuban refugees are still held. Unlike them, these people are free to come and go. The former prisoners stay in a section by themselves -- tough tattooed folk who move about only in threes and fours.
One night, however, there was shooting in the ex-prisoners' section. "Sure enough, we sent one guy badly wounded to the hospital," said the only policeman from the Miami Police Department on duty here. "They get frustrated and fight. It's easy enough for them to get guns. They break into people's homes or cars."
The mood is tense, and any outsider who ventures in is closely watched. A group of men flashed stilettos at a television team attempting to film the camp.
Although many refugees say they will never go back to Cuba, there is still a lot of talking and scheming by others who say they would return to whatever awaited them. They follow the news on the Spanish language radio station of other refugees hijacking planes to return to Cuba. A factoryworker from Banes said, "But nobody here has the money to buy the ticket to get on aboard."