Peru's Cuban refugees dream of better life in first-world nation

Today, some 250 Cuban refugees mark more than six years of life in Peru, longing to leave and clutching a now-tattered dream of a better life in the developed world. In April 1980, more than 10,000 Cubans invaded the Peruvian embassy in Havana seeking guaranteed passage out of the country. But after days in the heat, lack of food, and overcrowding, most of them ended their occupation. A few hundred eventually left for Peru, accepting a government offer of temporary refuge in order to end the embassy drama.

Some 260 -- mostly professionals -- were quickly accepted by countries such as Canada, the United States, Brazil, and Australia soon after they came to Peru, says Betty Roman of the Peruvian Catholic Immigration Commission. But those left behind either do not have the professional skills or direct family ties needed to emigrate or are competing for quotas with thousands of refugees from around the world. But they refuse to give up hope.

``We left Cuba looking for a future,'' says Ocillia Hern'andez Rodriguez, who lives with her son, daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren in a one-room house built by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. To support her family, Mrs. Hern'andez now washes clothes and does other odd jobs, while her son sells pieces of cake on the street.

The Cubans have resisted most attempts at permanent settlement in Peru, say spokesmen for the UN refugee office in Lima. For the first four years after their arrival, the Cubans lived in tents and other forms of makeshift housing in a Lima park, with food provided by the Peruvian government. They resisted a UN plan to provide them with new housing units -- even staging a hunger strike before finally accepting the move.

There are strong political differences between the Cuban refugees and their Peruvian shantytown neighbors, says one Cuban woman. Most local shantytown residents support Peru's communist-leaning United Left Party, she says. This party advocates the type of politics she and her husband, who spent two years living in a forced labor camp in Cuba, have been trying to escape.

``People have been waiting years to leave,'' says Mrs. Hern'andez. ``Going illegally seems the only way.``

Ms. Roman says at least 60 Cubans have left for the US hoping to gain illegal entrance by paying as much as $2,500 to those who know the human smuggling route. For others the wait continues.

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