Cubans Visit the US In Droves, But Most Are Happy to Return


SWEATING profusely, Soe Estevez Padilla makes her way toward Gate 25 at Miami International Airport.

Mrs. Estevez is wearing three pairs of pants, three dresses, a sweater, and two dress jackets. Pinned to the inside hem of the dresses are six pairs of socks, a stuffed animal, and two handbags. Each wrist is circled with three watches and several bracelets. Her straw hat is covered with Christmas tree lights, a rubber snake, sunglasses, pens, barrettes, key chains, a calculator, earrings, and gift bows.

A cross-dresser bound for Christmas in Alaska?

No. The middle-aged female security guards operating the airport X-ray scanner have Estevez pegged right away.

``What [Cuban] province are you from?'' asks one, lifting the hem of the dress and giggling.

The guards have seen this sight many times before. Faced with the 44-pound baggage limit on the crowded daily charter flight to Havana, many returning Cubans transform themselves into walking department stores. The ladies wave Estevez on with a bit of advice about getting through Cuban customs.

For every front-page Cuban fighter pilot who defects or every desperate Cuban who manages to cross the shark-infested waters on a raft to Florida, there are 10 times as many Cubans who come to the US on tourist visas and go home again. Last year, 27,000 Cubans came to shop and visit relatives. United States State Department officials say more than 90 percent go back.

``The shopping is marvelous in the US. But I miss my two sons and my husband,'' says Estevez, a manicurist heading home after a two-month stay with relatives.

``It's certainly more comfortable in the US,'' says Ramiro Garcia, an octogenarian on his way back from a visit with family in Miami. ``But the crime is horrible. Tourists are murdered. Teenagers killing teenagers. In Havana, once every three months you hear about somebody being killed. In Miami, it's every day.''

Carlos Almaguer has just returned to his well-furnished, two-bedroom Havana apartment after a second stay with friends in Montreal. ``It's a beautiful country but you have old people begging in the street. Children are sold drugs in school. You don't see that in Cuba,'' he says.

More and more Cubans are lining up to travel abroad. Until 1992, only older Cubans could apply to leave the country. But the Cuban government has relaxed travel restrictions. Most people over 18 can get permission to go overseas now. And since October, Cuban-Americans are finding it easier to get visas from the Cuban government to visit family in Cuba. Now, the challenge for Cubans is getting the US government to grant them a travel visa.

Cubans seeking travel visas must meet the same criteria as Mexicans, Jamaicans, or any other nationality. They must show US consular officials they have a compelling reason to return to their home country. The rejection rate for Cubans applying for travel visas has been going up as the economy worsens and more young people apply. One State Department official estimates the rejection rate at 50-60 percent.

Cuban officials argue that US policy discourages legal travel to the US while encouraging Cubans to risk death on a home-built raft by attempting the 90-mile journey by sea to the US. If they make it, no matter what their motive, these Cubans have almost no US bureaucratic gauntlet to run.

``The policy is a little wacko,'' says Gillian Gunn, director of the Cuba Project at Georgetown University. ``Under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, the Cuban that arrives on a raft can get a green card in one year. All other migrants or refugees must wait five years.''

Cuban refugees, unlike Haitian refugees, aren't sent back. Indeed, they qualify for immediate US social welfare benefits.

The Cuban Adjustment Act prevents Cubans from being sent back because they would go straight to jail. It is illegal for Cubans to leave the country without permission. Although, Ms. Gunn notes that when Cuban border guards catch people trying to leave the island, the escapees are often given just an official wrist-slapping and let go.

Gunn suggests that if Cuba would decriminalize unauthorized exits from the island, then the US could begin to discriminate between true political refugees and economic refugees.

Meanwhile, those who can, will leave Cuba legally and most will return. ``The economic situation is tough,'' says Mr. Almaguer, the 28-year-old who has visited Canada twice. He can't feed and clothe his young daughter and wife with just the state rations and his warehouse administrator's monthly salary of 232 pesos (US$3). He makes ends meet by working as an unregistered mechanic. Still, he has no plans to leave Cuba permanently.

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