A WAVE of Cuban refugees fleeing worsening living conditions in one of the world's last bastions of socialism is seeking asylum in Florida.While more than 1,100 Cubans have escaped their island since January in desperate voyages across 90 miles of ocean separating them from Florida, thousands more - perhaps 30,000 this year - are arriving legally on temporary visas but refusing to go home. Daily charter flights from Havana to Miami bring hundreds of Cubans with temporary visas to visit family and friends in the United States. Jacinto - he does not want his full name published because he fears for his family in Cuba - arrived in February and refuses to return. "I tried for years to get permission to leave, but they wouldn't let me go," he said in Miami recently. "I was a factory manager and they said I was too important. My mother was already in Miami, and when she had a stroke, they let me come for a visit." "I'm not going back," he said. Last year the US Interests Section in Havana issued 34,893 visitor's visas, and 14,674 Cuban visitors stayed in the US, most of them in Miami and surrounding Dade County. "Based on the rate at which [the visas] are being issued now, 80,000 ... will be issued this year," said Dade County Manager Joaquin Avi. "We expect 30,000 to 40,000 people will stay." If 30,000 remain, illegal Cuban immigration will exceed a third of the 125,000 Cubans who landed in Florida during the 1980 Mariel boatlift. In 1980 Cuban President Fidel Castro briefly lifted emigration restrictions and people rushed to leave. The reasons for the Cuban exodus now are not hard to find. While socialist countries around the world pursue reform, Castro refuses to consider radical change. Life in Cuba is becoming more and more difficult, in large part because aid from Moscow is dwindling as the Soviet economy deteriorates. Cubans are rationed to five pounds of rice, one bar of soap, and four pieces of chicken each month. To save fuel, 500,000 Chinese-made bicycles are replacing cars on the streets. Although living in Cuba is becoming harder, leaving is becoming easier. "Now younger people are allowed to leave," says Juan Clark, a sociologist at Miami-Dade Community College, who since 1969 has studied Cuban immigration to the United States. "They are usually middle-class people, often professionals, and they are much more likely to stay and make a life here," says Dr. Clark. "The government apparently is ... opening the safety valve of the exodus." With few exceptions the United States allows illegal Cuban immigrants to stay and work. That's what Pablo Mattos Rodriguez, who was a butcher in Cuba, wants. During an interview at Miami's Krome immigration detention center, where he was being held for processing, he said left five daughters behind because he hated Cuba's repression and because his job didn't pay enough to support the family. He was stealing food from work to sell on the black market and was always afraid of being caught. "A salary of 198 pesos ($99 a month at the official exchange rate) wasn't enough to support my daughters, so I had to deal in the black market." Some escapees come in small boats, but these are hard to find in Cuba. The US Coast Guard says most people come on rafts, usually made of inner tubes, sometimes with a wooden frame and covered with canvas. On May 28 at 1:30 a.m., Pablo Mattos and two friends pushed a raft made of three inner tubes into the water at Guanabo just east of Havana. After two days, one of the inner tubes ruptured. Salt water ruined their compass and spoiled their food and water. On the third day they woke at dawn, lost with no food or water. Then they saw a boat. "I told my friends to get up because I thought we'd been found by the Cuban Coast Guard," Mr. Mattos said. "I told them I wasn't going to be caught and if it was the Cuban Coast Guard I was going to jump into the sea. Either swim or die, but I was not going back to Cuba," he said. It was the US Coast Guard. Escapees catch the Gulf Stream that carries them the 90 miles northeast to Florida in two to four days. But the trip can take 14 days, and because of the difficulty in obtaining watertight containers in Cuba, escapees' fresh water and food often run out before they reach shore. Some die of thirst, some of exposure. Some are washed off their rafts. "About one out of three, perhaps one out of four, makes it," Dr. Clark estimates. Dr. Clark figures that about half those who aren't successful are caught by Cuban authorities. The rest die. Through June 26 of this year, 1,148 rafters had successfully made the trip, up from the previous record of 467 last year, the US Coast Guard reported. Dr. Clark calculates that between 1,000 to 2,000 have perished. Coast Guard officials say that the numbers of escape attempts rise in the summer when the seas are calmer.
One in a series of occasional articles on life in the United States.