A month ago, Luis Valladares, a 22-year-old boat mechanic who fled Cuba last summer, was practicing his English in a class at Fort Chaffee, Ark. Yesterday he was still studying English, but his classroom was the Fellowship House Farm in Pottstown, Pa.
After eight months of confinement in resettlement camps, he is finally on his way to a sponsorship family, joining the 120,000 Cubans who have been resettled in the last several months.
There are another 4,700 Cuban refugees still at Fort Chaffee, however. Like Valladares, most are young, single black men with few job or language skills and no friends or relatives in the United States. Their chances for resettlement have been hurt too because many have criminal records, some are gay and several hundred have been receiving psychiatric care.
Federal officials charged with finding sponsors for the remaining refugees insist that 70 percent can be resettled without major difficulty. But the pace has been slow, fewer than 30 a day in January. It costs about $400,000 a day to operate Chaffee, and the bill for resettling the newcomers is expected to reach $720 million by the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30.
Chaffee director Barbara K. Lawson and Jim Coyle, resettlement director for the federal Cuban-Haitian Task Force in Washington, like to emphasize the work volunteer agencies have been doing in setting up small living and counseling centers for the Cubans. A Puerto Rican group in New Jersey is sponsoring up to 300 in the next few months. A Cuban group in Miami just opened a site in Detroit last week for more than 50.
They'd rather forget altogether the experience one resettlement agency had last month in Marshall, Tex. Scores of townspeople and state and local officials turned out to declare their opposition to moving Cuban refugees from Fort Chaffee to the east Texas countryside. Some speakers cited a lack of jobs and housing in the area.
State Rep. Buck Florence was more direct. He said he didn't want the Cubans around because "they urinate in public and are prone to masturbation."
"I've never experienced anything like it," said Grady Mangham, of the sponsoring World Relief Corp. "There were some very nasty remarks at that meeting."
Others who attended said the resettlement plan was doomed because of erroneous information that the evangelical church agency wanted to move 2,000 Cubans to the area immediately. The plan now has been shelved, WRC official said.
While the enclave at Chaffee is the most visible symbol of this continuing national problem, other signs are apparent in the Miami area. Each week, for example, up to 150 refugees wander into the Bay Front Park auditorium looking for some kind of help -- often a new sponsor -- from officials of the Cuban-Haitian Task Force.
The Dade County medical examiner said last month that 10 Cuban refugees have committed suicide since settling in south Florida, usually after suffering depression stemming from having left their families behind.
The Haitians are less visible because only about 10,000 of them have entered the United States in last spring's tide of Caribbean refugees. Rulx Jean-Bart, head of a Haitian-American community association in Miami, said that about 60 percent of the Haitian newcomers are unemployed. He claimed that the Cubans in the area get better treatment.
"It's a general attitude," he said. "The Cuban side [of the Cuban-Haitian Task Force] is more efficient, more resonsive. There are Cubans in high positions here."
Experts who have dealt with other refugee groups say the Cubans have been hurt as a group by the actions of a relative few. There were several violent disturbances by the Cubans at Chaffee and in earlier resettlement camps. And President Fidel Castro used the boatlift from Cuba to expel many jail immates and mental hospital patients. In addition, press accounts about the large number of gays in the refugee population added to the bad publicity the Cubans received.
The refugee issue caused political trouble for the Carter administration and such local elected officials as Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who cited the Chaffee refugees as a factor in his narrow defeat in November. Several federal officials privately criticized the time of the administration's announcement just before the election that a new camp would be opened in Fort Allen, Puerto Rico, as the height of political cynicism.
Clinton and Florida officials didn't want any more refugees in camps in their states and Puerto Rico had no electoral votes, critics noted. More than $10 million was poured in Fort Allen but it never has been occupied, because of court challenges by opponents.
The intermittent controversy over the Cuban refugees is not without ironies. At the Marshall, Tex., meeting, for example, Ruben Guerrero, minister of a Spanish-speaking Baptish church in nearby Longview, said that he had sponsored nine Chaffee refugees into the area without any outcry.
"The people of east Texas are tremendous," he said. "They gave a warm reception to the newcomers -- until Monday [the day of the meeting]."
A similarly quiet immigration has been going on nationally ever since the fall of Saigon in the Spring of 1975. More than 450,000 Indochrinese refugees have been settled in the United States, and they are still arriving at the rate of 14,000 a month.
"The difference is that the Cubans didn't behave; the Vitnamese did," said Art Brill, spokesman for the Cuban-Haitian Task Force. "The comparatively few troublemakers [among the Cubans] have given the American people the impression they aren't grateful for us allowing them to stay."
Officials such as Chaffee director Lawson acknowledge they have some bad cases at the camp. Security forces have uncovered drugs, homemade stills, and "machetes" fashioned from metal bed slats. One refugee murdered another at Chaffee last month and another was slashed to death with a machete over the weekend after a disagreement over a game of dominoes.
The worst troublemakers are shipped to the federal prison in Atlanta, whose more than 1,700 with serious criminal records are being consolidated for exclusionary hearings and, officials hope, eventual return to Cuba.
From the beginning of the boatlift, Carter administration officials have said they would accept an "orderly flow" of refugees from Cuba, if Castro would agree to take back the hardened criminals and mental defectives he forced into the boats. For months the Cubans refused even to discuss the matter except as part of a wideranging dialogue on other problems between the two countries.
But in the past two months, the two sides held face-to-face talks in New York for the first time on the refugee issue. No agreement has been reached, however, and State Department officials said recently that any further moves would have to await the approval of the Reagan administration.
Meanwhile, time drags for the refugees at Chaffee. They have Spanish-language television and radio for entertainment, but most of those interviewed on a trip through Chaffee last month emphasized their desire to leave for a job, any kind of job, on the outside.
Armando Hechavarria Brosaro, 28, said he was jailed in Castro's Cuba because he refused to take a government-required job. He said he was a mechanic, but was told to be a crocodile hunter. He was studying beginning English under teacher Ed Pena Jr.
"I tell them this [language training] is their first job in America, that it will help get them sponsored," Pena said.
The majority of the refugees still at Chaffee, however, do not study. Humberto Cairo, 26, spends his time boxing.
"One learns English quicker in the streets," he said through translator Linda Sell. He left Cuba, he said, because "the place is on fire." Cario appeared stoic about the long wait for a sponsor.
"Someday, we'll all be out of here," he said. You can't grab a sponsor by the neck."
There are only about 130 women in the camp, and many are pregnant. Several new American citizens have been born at Chaffee. Felina Perez Sanit and her husband, Juan E. Perez Boza, are among the expectant parents. He was jailed in Cuba for robbing a store to feed his family, he said. She was picked up and jailed too, she said, because she didn't belong to her block's political group. They said they would be willing to take any job to leave Chaffee.
At the camp's craft center, an admitted gay called "Cookie" said that in Cuba he was not allowed to make the colorful wall hangings he sews here and sells for $35 and more. His "husband" had been offered sponsorships twice, but turned them down because the two men want to leave as a couple, he said.
About 200 of the Chaffee refugees have returned to the camp after sponsorships failed. Officials insist that the failure rate is only 3 percent to 5 percent.
"Some just have their high expectations disappointed," said Paul Dominique, of Church World Service. "To them, America's streets are paved with gold. They don't understand Social Security and withholding tax. pYou're going to have breakdowns."
Jack Freeze, the mayor of nearby Fort Smith, Ark., said his consitituents were upset when some of the refugees found their way back to his community after failed sponsorships.
"I guess some of those guys thought volleyball and Frisbee and three free meals a day was a lot better than changing truck tires in Miami," Freeze said.
Dave Hermann, of the U.S. Catholic Conference, which has resettled the most Cubans nationwide, said his group is doing in-depth interviews with its refugees in an effort to get advance warning of possible psychological problems. In one such interview, an illiterate Cuban claimed that he had seen visions. The USCC case worker recommended that he undergo further evaulation before being approved for release to a sponsor.
The Catholic Conference has begun concentrating its efforts on sending small groups of refugees to halfway houses around the country, where the men can have access to a full-time counselor and continue with language studies. There now are 25 men in two houses and an apartment in Washington, for example, and plans call for bringing in another 84 in the next few months, a USCC official said.
Jack O'Sullivan, head of transportation for USCC at Chaffee, said the sight of refugees gathering in the predawn darkness to leave for a new life is inspiring.
"You watch human beings who have been dragging around this camp come to life," O'Sullivan said. "It makes it all worthwhile.