Key West, Florida — While the jeunesse doreem (gilded youth) promenade down chic Duval Street or work up buttery-bronze tans on City Beach, the Cuban refugees are streaming into a dilapidated Navy base here in a ragtag flotilla of small boats with nothign more than the clothes they stand up in.
Packed on the decks of shrimp boats and cabin cruisers, runabouts and racing crafts, they are tired, anxious, hungry and thirsty, after a 110-mile voyage from the Cuban port of Mariel, 27 miles west of Havana. A number, usually the elderly, ar also sick.
A good many find it hard to grasp that freedom, a world away for so many years, is now at hand. They stare at the approaching quays with dazed, almost disbelieving expressions.
But as they clamber ashore, the realization that Fidel Castro's Cuba now lies well beyond the horizon dawns on them with all the brilliance of a flare on a dark night.
There are shy smiles and exultant cries of "Libertad! Viva Cuba libre! Viva Carter!", clenched-fist salutes, and victory signs.
If there are daunting uncertainties ahead for many, the worst may be over. To escape a disastrous experiment in Caribbean Marxism, they have successfully braved what many are calling "the hell of Mariel" and suvived the tempestuous straits of Florida, where a violent storm on April 27 battered the Dunkirk-style "freedom boatlift."
By May 4, some 10,000 men, women, and children had reached the southernmost US city, renowned for its drug-running, sybaritic lifestyle, and link with Ernest Hemingway.
Most of the refugees are middle class. They wear bright, if badly made, clothes. Some speak a smattering of English. A few of the men look like laborers. The youths seem to be uniformly dressed in bell-bottom trousers, and awkward, clumpy footwear. A man wearing designer glasses and an expensive shirt stands aloofly surveying the coconut palms. Little jewelry is in evidence.
Although the freedom flotilla set out from many different points in Key West, all its vessels are required to return to the Truman Naval Annex, where the refugees they bore to safety can be processed by officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and scrutinized by the US Border Patrol, flown in from California to root out the convicts that the Cuban government appears to have slipped in among the refugees.
Once a submarine base, the 157-year-old naval station was abandoned in 1974 and left to peel and molder in the clammy, subtropical climes of Key West.
These days, it is alive with Florida Highway Patrolmen, US customs officials, and National Guardsmen, called in after Florida's governer, Bob Graham, declared surounding refugee-packed Monroe County a disaster area.
An iron plaque outside the heavily-vandalized adminsitration building announces that the base "has operated through seven conflicts."
Clearly ashamed to present such a shabby face to all the gun-toting, badge-emblazoned officialdom that has descended on it, it is witnessing the fruits of a bitter civil conflict in Cuba that may one day erupt in bloodshed -- between the supporters of Fidel Castro and those who wholeheartedly detest hi Soviet-backed rule.
In the past 21 years, 600,000 Cubans have fled the island for southern Florida. Reportedly, applications for 250,000 exit visas have been lodged with the government, which seems to be prepared to let a million people leave if they so desire, out of an estimated current population of 9,625,000.
The reason for the current exodus was made clear by none other than Fidel Castro himself last December, in a speech to the National People's Government Assembly. In what amounted to an extraordinary condemnation of his own regime, he spoke of the "real, very real difficulties" facing Cuba in the 1980s.
He revealed that blue rust and plant rot had played havoc with teh island's tobacco and sugar crops, long the twin agricultural staples in Cuba, and he talked frankly about the chronic shortages and unemployment that seemed to defy solution.
Fidel Castro has let his people go on at least two previous occasions since he seized power from Fulgencio Batista in 1959. In October 1965 he opened the port of Camarioca for about a month and between 3,000 and 5,000 Cubans escaped to the US. The subsequent "freedom flights" authorized by both Washington and Havana saw the departure of some 265,000 additional Cubans until Castro ended the exodus in 1973.
The Cuban leader was seriously embarrassed by the vast throng that gathered in the Peruvian embassy compound in Havana last month seeking asylum, and he had little choice but to issue exit visas to all 10,800.
Whether out of perversity or a desire to siphon off some of Cuba's burgeoning population and thus ease its economic woes, Castro then opened Mariel to anybody who wanted to leave. "Anybody who wishes to go to any other country where he is received, good riddance," he thundered in a virulently anti-American speech on May Day. But his graceless generosity had something of the vengeful about it.
"Camarioca was nothing compared to Mariel," he told a enthusiastic Havana crowd. "We really have an open road. Now let us see how [the US] can close it."
Inside the former base administration building, where the refugees are given a meal and second-hand clothing, they tell of a Cuba they grew increasingly disillusioned with -- of food shortages, exorbitant prices for clothes, and growing surveillance both by police and neighbors recruited to watch them.
A young Cuban, holding a black cane and sporting a brown cotton jacket he has just pulled from a mound of free clothing, puts his hadn around his throat when he mentions Cuba. "Nothing to eat and work, work, work." he says, adding with a broad smile: "Here is liberty."
An elderly woman, who is proudly wearing a lime green coat she has recovered from the pile, is talking excitedly to Dulce Maria gonzales, a young volunteer from Hialeah. "Please don't mention Fidel's name or she'll get a heart attack," requests Miss Gonzales, who hopes to be reunited with a mother she hasn't seen in 23 years if her sister and aunt (who have left for Mariel) can bring her back. The woman with the coat considers herself lucky to be alive. "The sea was so bad, she almost drowned," Miss Gonzales adds.
The free clothing does not make everybody quite so loquacious. "Many complain because they don't want to wear used clothes," says volunteer Elizabeth Pena, a high school student from Miami who emphasizes that there is an urgent need for men's clothing -- particularly shoes. Many are arriving barefoot, it seems. Others walk awkwardly in shoes with flapping soles. Two borrowed a penknife from this reported to hack them off.
Last week, meals in what was formerly the base's finance office included a stew of hamburger in tomato sauce with dollops of potato. When potatoes ran out , they were replaced by bread and crackers. Most wolfed it down.
"What they want is apples," says volunteer Olga dePoo, wh feesl she must have served thousands of meals since the emergency began. "They remeber apples when Cuba was open. They haven't had one since."
Close by, young and old alike are holding out their hands for free candy that has been donated by stores in Miami. It's a treat that is unobtainable in Cuba, according to Miamian Caridad Rangel, who's distributing it as fast as she can go. Her name means "charity," she explains with a smile.
One girl in cowboy boots distributes her prized confectionery among hungry compatriots. A younster kisses her Marathon candy bar as she bears it triumphantly away to show her parents. Old men grin delightedly as the candy is pressed into their outstretched palms.
The arrival of the refugees has gone almost unnoticed by Key Western, prevented as they are from stronglling into the base to watch the proceedings. Nevertheless, the influx has prompted the production of T-shirts commemorating the freedom run.
Convoys of buses have been taking the Cubans to reception centers in and around Miami (including the Orange Bowl) 160 miles north. But these buses have sped out of Key West up Route 1 -- though bolder occupants have occasionally yelled ecstatically at uncomprehending citizens.
Since the fleeing Cubans have been officially designated applicants for asylum rather than refugees, those without relatives in south Florida are being bused to nearby Boca Chica Naval Air Station and flown to a tent city originally set up for Vietnamese refugees at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida's Panhandle.
News of the Cuban arrival seems to have scared conventioneers away from Key West. A building materials supplier cancelled reservations at the swank Casa Marina Hotel, fearing criminals were wandering the streets and that all the food and water in the city had been consumed.
Criminals are indeed turning up in the refugee boats. INS officials said over the weekend that they had detained 72 suspects so far. Judging from the stories skippers tell, they will be arresting many more.
In a rescue operation so vast and chaotic, all the participants -- Cuba and American -- have stories to tell, stories that will be proudly passed on to grandchildren and no doubt embellished with the passage of time.
Luis Ribera, a young Miami fisherman, won't easily forget how he and a band of companions set out in tow boats for Mariel only to be told after waiting there for eight days that they would only be permitted to take out two family members -- along with 15 prisoners. They decided to come home empty-hended.
While in Mariel, Mr. Ribera visited the infamous Triton Hotel in Havana, where hundreds of angry and dispirited Cuban-Americans are waiting for their families. Rooms in the closely-guarded hotel are reportedly always booked. A plate of chicken, rice, and potato chips in the tawdry establishment costs $17. 50.
"It was the worst place you could go to," says Mr. Ribera, who suggests that the Cuban authorities are delaying rescuers in Mariel Harbor "so they can get all their money."
On the return journey, one of the boats broke down and they were forced to abandon it in heavy seas. What should have been a four-hour journey became a 14 -hour nightmare. Although they had "a pretty big hassle" to get out of Mariel, Mr. Ribera and company say they are going back. But not for a day or two
Exhausted and sunburned, their hair matted with salt, their eyes red-rimmed, and their faces prickly with stubble, they seem destined for a good many hours sleep.
A Miami car salesman, who asked not to be identified, also came back empty-handed after waiting seven days in the Cuban port for his wife's family. His wife, who accompanied him, described conditions in the hargor as "desperate. It's a concentration camp in the bay."
She claimed the Cuban authorities are charging $12 for a gallon of water and says she was forced to pay $4 to make a telephone call to Havana and $50 to have a message delivered to her parents.
Her husband points that it is the Cuban government that is shamelessly gouging the rescue flotilla. "Everything is controlled by the government -- just like Russia."
Will they return?
"No, never," exclaims his wife.
"If there's anything I can count on, I might go back," declares her husband bravely.
Anywhere between 2,000 to 3,000 boats are still jamming Mariel harbor, their crews running short of money, food, and water, growing tired and irritable after sleeping on board for days. While the horror stories from the Cuban port may well deter a number of would-be rescuers, they have not shaken Jesus Sanchez and wife Barbara, who despite repeated problems with their 33-foot motor launch "Fortuna," planned to set out for Cuba at the weekend to bring bak 20 relatives.
No sooner had the vessel left Miami than its propeller broke, stranding Mr. and Mrs. Sanchez on Miami Beach all night.Before the Fortuna reached Jey West, it suffered a broken fan belt and water pump. Its engine exploded off Elliott Key and shortly after a rebuilt one was installed, the ill-named vessel ran aground and stripped a section of keel from its hull.
But the irrepressible Barbara Sanchez has no doubt the Fortuna will survive the trip to Mariel. She is prepared for a long wait: food for a two-month stay is stashed aboard the vessel. "My husband has a construction company and all the people we are going over to get will work for him. We're not taking jobs from Americans."
She points out that many Cuban immigrants, far from swelling the welfare rolls, go to work for their families in grocery stores, laundries, adn construction companies.
It is an anxious time for wives of men in the rescue fleet. Ray Merrill from Islamorada in the Keys took his boat "Ding Dong Two" to bring back a Cuban friend's four sons. His 17-year-old son Richard, who went with him, hitched a ride back to Key West after they had waited nine days to no avail.
Mr. Merrill's wife, Frances, says her husband took very little money with him. "The only boats getting out are bribing Cuban officials and that's why my husband is still stuck there. I hope he'll be okay," she says. Many of the wives of men there, she says, are "very, very worried."
The boatlift has already been marred by tragedy. After the recent storm that lashed Florida straits, the Key West coast Guard found 16 vessels drifting and abandoned, and confirmed that four people had drowned.
People are desperate to bring relatives out. Scores have driven here with their boats from Miami and points north and launched them at the first opportunity, leaving cars and empty trailers by the roadside.
"Two people were picked up in a rowboat," recounts Dave Mason, who himself has made one trip to Mariel and started out again last Saturday. He adds that he has heard of a man who paid $30,000 to charter a modest 26-foot craft to get his relatives out of Cuba.
The "freedom boatlift" may have made some skippers rich, but many of those who thought they would slip across to Cuba and return in time for dinner with a consignment of refugees and a fortune in their pockets have been disappointed. The lengthy waiting at Mariel is just not conducive to quick profits.
"Most of the guys coming back are never going again," says Mr. Mason. On his first trip aboard the "Tuxpan," a large, if elderly, fishing boat, the vessel was forced to wait in the Cuban harbor for nine days, returning with only four of the 32 people it had planned to collect. Cuban authorities forced it to taken on 73 prisoners.
For all the anxiety and confusion of the rescue mission, there are jocular characters, amusing moments, and poignant incidents that raise everyone's spirits.
There's Dr. Pedro Cedre in a white coat and stethoscope, wearing at trucker's cap with the Ford emblem on it.His genial presence seemed to bring new courage to the sick.
When a refugee-laden shrimp boat limped into the Naval Annex, with a man standing on the wheel house in a blue bathrobe, one wit cracked: "He must have been taking a shower just before he got on board."
A little girl in her father's arms was being spattered with large raindrops as they waited patiently to enter the administration block. Captain Lawrence Holmes of the Salvation Army, who has been handing out encouraging literature and some 10,000 cups of soup, stew, and coffee, looks around vainly for something to protect her with.Apologetically he handed her father a trash bat that was lying on the wet grass. The Cuban thanked him and fashioned it into a rain hat for his daughter.
These are just two of the Cubans Havana radio described recently as "parasites, delinquents, and bums."