Cubans Find Rough Start in New American Life
Luis Fournier has picked tomatoes in Florida, plucked chickens in Mississippi and cut tobacco in North Carolina. But the former literature teacher from Cuba, now unemployed, has found that landing a job in his chosen profession is an impossible American dream.
Alipio Hurtado was the general manager of a Cuban resort hotel before fleeing by boat two years ago. After a frustrating year of looking for work, he took a job installing metal railings at construction sites.
For the latest wave of Cuban refugees, the United States remains a land of freedom and opportunity, especially compared with the impoverished, Communist-ruled homeland they left. But with a depressed job market in Florida and signs of compassion-fatigue in the Cuban community here, many recent arrivals find it more difficult to adapt to life in this country than they had imagined.
The latest major exodus started in August 1994, when the government of Cuban President Fidel Castro began turning a blind eye to illegal departures by thousands of Cubans aboard flimsy rafts. More than 30,000 balseros, or rafters, set out for Florida in the following weeks.
The Clinton administration sent the Cubans to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, on Cuba’s southeastern shore. In May 1995 came an agreement with Cuba to promote “legal, orderly emigration” and a decision by the Clinton administration gradually to admit the rafters detained at Guantanamo.
Many languished at Guantanamo for more than a year. About 1,000 gave up and returned to Cuba, and 983 were repatriated. But nearly 31,000 were paroled into the United States, the last group arriving Jan. 31.
According to Msgr. Bryan Walsh, former director of refugee resettlement for the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami, by keeping the Cubans in the Guantanamo camps for so long, at an estimated cost of more than $250 million, U.S. authorities “created maximum conditions for traumatic stress.”
After months of enforced idleness while being fed and sheltered at Guantanamo, the Cubans were given unprecedented U.S. government assistance once they reached Miami, including an initial $200, full access to Medicaid and $300 a month in cash and food stamps for eight months.
“As long as some assistance is being given, they really don’t feel like going out and looking for a job,” Walsh said of some of the newly arrived Cubans. Another adjustment is that “when people grow up in Cuba’s Marxist-Leninist society and come here and find out they can be fired from a job or kicked out of an apartment if they don’t pay the rent, this comes as an enormous shock.”
Many recent arrivals find they enjoyed greater worker rights in Cuba than in Florida, where “unions are extremely weak,” said Oscar Alvarez, a Cuban American social worker.
“It’s difficult for them to understand that they’re not going to be taken care of by the state,” Alvarez said.
Many face a double-edged language barrier. Since Spanish is widely spoken in Miami, Cuban newcomers can get by. But to get better-paying jobs, they need to learn English, which they find difficult in part because Spanish is so prevalent.
Professionals, especially, tend to become disillusioned when they realize they often cannot simply resume their careers as doctors, engineers or managers, but have to take menial jobs.
“Many of them break down,” Alvarez said.
Although the 600,000-strong Cuban community here publicly proclaims common cause with the newest refugees, in practice “there is very little support for these people,” Alvarez said. “There has been no real solidarity.”
One difficulty is their relatives in the United States tend to be recent arrivals, still struggling themselves. Alvarez said he has found “more understanding and more solidarity” from native-born American employers than from Cuban exiles.
At Miami’s Aire Lok Co., which makes aluminum railings and other metal products for new buildings, Vice President Gary Pierce expressed satisfaction with Cuban refugees he has hired, who now make up most of the firm’s 23 employees.
Hurtado, the hotel manager in Cuba, advanced from installer to shop supervisor and “came up with some terrific ideas” for tracking production costs, Pierce said.
Hurtado, 43, said he fled with 15 other people by boat in April 1994, primarily to reunite with his two children. “Looking for work was frustrating for me,” he said. Although his $440 a week supervisor’s salary far exceeds the $3.20 a month the Cuban government paid him, it is modest compared with what he could earn as a hotel manager here. He aspires to get back into the hotel business and is studying English.
Gustavo Gonzalez, 31, a former baker in Cuba, drifted on a raft of truck-tire inner-tubes for three days in August 1994 before being picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and taken to Guantanamo.
There, he said, he spent one year, one month and one week. The United States admitted him in October. He enjoys his $5.50-an-hour job as an assembly worker at Aire Lok, he said, but misses his wife, parents and 13-year-old daughter in Cuba.
“I knew that the United States is not like they paint it in Cuba,” he said. “It is a country of opportunity, but you have to work. I had this in mind, so nothing disappointed me. The United States opened its door for me, and I will never forget that.”
Jose Antonio Caceres, 29, said he has found it “very difficult to adapt” since arriving a year ago after being rescued from a raft in bad weather and then spending nine months at Guantanamo. He earns $7.50 an hour as a welder and holds a second job delivering pizzas. But he struggles to make ends meet, suffers from stress and has no time to study English, he said.
Fournier, 49, received a U.S. visa in May 1993 after applying as a dissident writer, but he has encountered rough going since he arrived. Although the majority of the Cuban population now is of African origin, Fournier found himself in a small minority of blacks in Florida’s Cuban exile community.
“My treatment by the Cuban community has not been very good,” he said. “They have a lot of racial prejudice.”
Unable to find a job as a literature teacher or writer, Fournier became an itinerant farm worker and chicken plucker, a big climb down for a self-described “specialist of literature with tremendous dignity.” Now unemployed, he is trying to finish a novel he started in Cuba.
“In Cuba, the problem was censorship,” Fournier said. “Here the problem is economic.”