It's happening again: Cubans flee in search of better life

The hundreds of Cubans who rushed into the grounds of the Peruvian Em bassy in Havana for asylum at the weekend and the groups of Cubans who have recently resorted to hijacking boats to the United States have one thing in common: They are desperate to flee from their homeland to what they believe will be a freer or better life elsewhere.

What has tiggered this resurgence of a detemination to get out of Cuba?

The immediate cause is almost certainly the effect on Cuban public opinion during 1979 of some 100,000 Cuban-Americans returning to their island homeland for the first time for short visits with relatives, under a recent dispensation of President Castro.

But the effect of these renewed direct personal contacts would not have been as dramatic if the 1980s had not opened with deeper disillusionment than ever on the part of many Cubans at what they see as Dr. Castro's failure to fulfill his promise to deliver the fruits of revolution during the 1970s. One recent Castro speech is interpreted by some as a frank admission to his fellow islanders that they were adrift not on a river but an ocean of troubles -- with no shore yet in sight.

Multiplying these woes has been the dispatch of Cuban soldiers to fight in foreign wars in Africa -- as well as the depletion of Cuba's own reserve of professionals and technicians by the sending of civilian advisers to a whole batch of third- world countries.

Taken together, all these factors have produced a formidable undercurrent ready to be brought to the surface by the psychological effect of visits from relatives who went into penniless political exile in the US and are now coming home relatively well heeled less than two decades after they fled Castro Cuba.

The surge of Cubans into the Peruvian Embassy grounds in Havana at the weekend came after President Castro had withdrawn the guards normally on duty to prevent Cubans from seeking asylum in foreign diplomatic missions. His move was apparently to teach the Peruvians a lesson for having given asylum to a group of would-be refugees who got into the embassy grounds after shooting and killing a guard on duty.

After several hours of tension, a Cuban government loud- speaker van came up to the Peruvian Embassy and announced that all who had sought refuge in both the Peruvian and Venezuelan embassies would be allowed to leave Cuba. The effect of this promise -- if promise it is -- has yet to be reported.

The Cuban-Americans now returning to Cuba for four-day visits for the first time since the Castro revolution are able to make their point about Cuba's shortcomings and the advantages of the US without propaganda in speech or print. The message is implicit in the clothes they wear and in the gifts that they bring with them. These are not luxuries on the US mainland but items of food, clothing, and medicine that are in daily household use. In Cuba, however, they are in short supply at inordinate prices and are often of inferior quality.

The writer was at Miami International Airport at midmorning on a recent Friday. He saw a long queue of travelers lining up for one of the charter flights to Havana. Every one had an unbelievable quantity of baggage and bundles.

Out of sight, Cuban officials flown in for a few hours on the Soviet-built charter plane were checking minutely every piece of baggage. The writer was told the queue had started forming at dawn although the plane would not leave till well in the afternoon, so thorough was the Cuban search.

The passengers were taking to their friends and loved ones as much as they could to help soften the shortages that residents in Cuba have long had to endure. An airport official said that initially the Cuban officials had been fairly generous on what they would let through. But now that the Cuban authorities were recognizing the upsetting effect of these gifts on the resident population and were disallowing an increasing number of apparently harmless items.

The Cuban authorities still make quite a good deal out of the charter flights -- at least in terms of hard currency. Every traveler has to pay $590 in US currency for a four-day stay. That includes air fare and four-days accommodation, even though the visitors are going to stay with relatives.

The writer was told in Miami of a Cuban-American carpenter from Florida who made the trip three times in 1979 -- four days at $590 a time -- to bring cheer and succor to his father, now living alone.

On the first journey the carpenter took clothes and shoes, but was shocked to see how badly his father's home needed painting. So back he went with enough dollars to buy paint in Havana at the exclusive stores selling only to diplomats and others in hard currency. He then painted the house.

Seeing the needs of other relatives, he returned a third time. On this occasion he had emptied bottles of commonly used medicinal pills into plastic bags to reduce their weight. And what did he use for suitcases? Lengths of blue-jean cloth that were fashioned into the outer-covering for bundles and then were left in Havana to make pants and shirts for the family.

Such is the need. And such is the strength of family ties among Cubans.

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