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Why Cuban refugees are fleeing Castro's island

What makes a person jump at the chance to leave his or her country, leaving behind loved ones with no assurance that a reunion ever will take place? Behind the general platitudes of "I don't like the system," why are thousands of Cubans jamming the Cuban port of Mariel in hopes of following a current flow of refugees to the United States -- a flow now approaching 40,000, with no end in sight?

In lengthy, informal interviews with this newspaper, some of the approximately 10,000 refugees here at "Camp Liberty," a makeshift city of crowded tents and dusty paths, spoke of day-to-day life in Cuba and why they decided to leave.

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Among their main complaints are low pay and high prices.

In Havana, according to refugees, it takes: four to six months' pay to buy a television; one month's pay to buy a pair of blue jeans (if available); two weeks' pay to buy an imported sweater; and three days' pay to buy shoes which are poorly made.

Refrigerators, and especially cars, are far beyond the hopes of the average Cuban, they say.

Another major complaint: not enough food.

Food rationing limits families to a monthly supply of four pounds of sugar per person, five pounds of rice per person, and three small cans of milk only for children.

"It's not enough; it's not good," says Mario, who arrived here last week with his 4-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter, Milagros. His wife had just arrived in Miami, much to his relief.

"I ate my first apple today," said Milagros, smiling as she sat on her cot. Her father looked at her fondly. "I came," he said, "because I believed my children had no future in that system."

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Mario's 22-year-old son is still in Cuba. The government did not allow him to come, he explains. Meanwhile, his younger son sleeps soundly despite the continuous blare of the camp loudspeaker.

"For liberty you have to make some sacrifices," he says softly.

Milagros explained an aspect of the political system in Cuba that she does not like: neighborhood watch committees. These are made up of "volunteers," on shifts from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., who report on the nightime movement of people -- who visits whom, who gets any deliveries.

She participated but did not like it. Her father says many Cubans practiced "passive resistance," and he holds his hands over his eyes to emphasize the point that not everyone watched as closely as the Communist Party wanted them to.

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