Havana Does Not Believe in Tears

Prize-winning author Roberto Uria landed in hot water in Cuba. Granted refugee status in the U.S., he must now sink or swim.

After Uria spent three years in a kind of limbo, a friend with diplomatic contacts was able to get him an application for refugee status in the United States. (Cuban citizens cannot just walk into the U.S. Interests Section in Havana; instead they must apply for an appointment by mail.) As a last resort, Uria filled out the form. "I made that form a work of art," he remembers, pantomiming how he pressed out the wrinkled application with an iron and carefully composed the answers to each question. "I didn't become a writer in vain."

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, D.C., requires that foreign nationals applying for refugee status prove that they are "being persecuted or that they have a well-founded fear of persecution based on their religion, nationality, race, political beliefs, or association with a certain group or class of people." Explains INS spokesman Russ Bergeron, "They have to establish a credible claim that they have been persecuted. That can mean a loss of employment, being deprived of a certain standard of living. They have to show that they've experienced or have reason to believe they will experience persecution that results in an individual being unjustly treated compared to others within that state." (INS statistics show that so far in 1995, 7199 Cubans have been awarded refugee status.)

Uria received a letter from the U.S. government informing him that his application had been accepted for consideration. He put his court records, his stories, his 13 de Marzo award certificate, and other personal papers in a plastic bag and went to the office of the U.S. Interests Section, housed in the old U.S. Embassy building. After his interview with a young American woman, he was accepted for refugee status on August 2, 1994. Three days later, on August 5, the rafter crisis began in earnest, considerably delaying Uria's departure.

Finally he was given a ticket by the U.S. government for a flight scheduled to leave Cuba on April 5, 1995, exactly four years to the day after he was expelled from the Casa de Las Americas. He was being sent to Las Vegas, where he would be resettled under the auspices of the Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada refugee program.

On the morning of April 5, he went with his family to the airport, still uncertain whether the Cuban government would allow him to leave. "I said goodbye to my family, but I told them to wait. I didn't know if I was getting on the plane or going to prison. In any case I didn't know if I would ever see them again," he says, tears welling up in his eyes. "If you haven't lived through it, you really can't imagine what it's like. You're at God's mercy."

After an odyssey that took him to airports in Cancun, Miami, and Dallas, Uria finally reached Las Vegas. "I had never been so oversaturated with fatigue and pain A physical and moral pain," he recalls. "I was dizzy for several days, that dizzy sensation of unreality. Well, I arrived in an unreal place."

Uria's case had been referred by the INS to the United States Catholic Conference, which in turn handed it over to Catholic Charities in Las Vegas. "Our goal is to empower and enable refugees to become productive American citizens," says Katherine Haisan, director of resource development and communication at the Nevada agency. A representative of the group was supposed to meet Uria at the airport, but no one showed up. A couple who spoke Spanish, at the airport to meet someone else, agreed to give him a ride to the address written down for him at the U.S. Interests Section office in Havana. Uria found himself in a shabby efficiency in a rooming house in downtown Las Vegas, a place residents commonly refer to as the Cucarachera (the Roach Motel). It was surrounded by a high chainlink fence because of the violence in the neighborhood.

"There were a lot of drugs, shootings, police sirens all the time," Uria notes with a shudder. "It was a nightmare."

"Well, it is probably not an area that the elite would move into," Haisan confirms.

Uria stayed in his room for two days before daring to check out the city. "I spent hours at the supermarket with a dictionary looking at labels," he says. "In the beginning I started to keep a record of all of the absurd things that happened to me. It was like my culture-shock diary. I bought some grapes and started to eat them, but the last time I had eaten grapes, grapes had seeds. So I put the first grape in my mouth and I start chewing and I swallowed it. And I realized that I must have swallowed a seed. So I spent the rest of the time tearing the grapes open and looking for the seeds until it finally dawned on me that maybe there are seedless grapes. My first night in Las Vegas I couldn't take a shower because I couldn't turn on the faucet. Every electrical appliance is new for me A the TV remote control, the gas pumps. I learned that in this country tires have steel belts instead of inner tubes A incredible. And that the movie theaters have a lot of little theaters inside -- in Cuba it's just one big theater and that's it. It was a fascinating new world. I'd see something and say, 'Now what could that be?' Hey, it could be a can of dog food, but for me it was new."

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