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Home beckons U.S. Cubans

First of two parts

At one end of his uncle's long swimming pool, Ramon Grau built an aquarium and filled it with colorful tropical fish. He can remember, 40 years ago, plunging in among the fish to clean the glass.

Grau, 69, hasn't seen the pool or the house as they are now. They remain fixed in his mind's eye, glittery with nostalgia, like thousands of other details in the memories of Cubans in Florida. But Cuba has changed.

For 30 years politics has made the 90 miles from Havana to Florida into a wall dividing memory and reality. Most of the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who emigrated from the island have never gone back, and after they left their property was confiscated and taken over by other people.

Now the Cold War is over and Cubans are expecting a change. If the wall breaks down, Cubans wonder, what will happen to the property? Will owners return, seeking their former houses and businesses? If so, they will share Cuba with its present inhabitants. They may even share some of the houses.

Ramon Grau said he wouldn't want to evict whoever is living in his house; he wants to join them. There is plenty of room.

"I understand it's empty," Grau said in Miami, where he lives in a small apartment with walls covered by mementos of Cuba. "If someone's living there, I would be the first one not to ask them to leave. I will be content with a place on the floor," he said.

The house occupies a block of Havana's stately Fifth Avenue. It was built while Grau's uncle, Ramon Grau San Martin, was president of Cuba from 1944 to 1948. President Grau is said to have promised to live modestly, and to have announced he was building himself a choza, or shack. The house is still famous among Cubans as La Chocita, or Little Shack. It has 21 bathrooms, according to the present occupants.

Another elegant old house across the street has been made into the Museum of the Ministry of the Interior, or security police _ the agency that made Ramon Grau a political prisoner from 1965 to 1986.

The Grau house is not empty. Just inside its front doors, a portrait of Lenin gazes down from a wall. "We wanted to make it an institution where one would feel the presence of Lenin, the love of Lenin and the tenderness of Lenin toward children," says Ana Rosa Tarraza, who is in charge of the house. It has become an orphanage, and it is named Presence of Lenin.

Ramon Grau, a former congressman, conspired against the government of Fidel Castro after the revolution in 1959. Among other activities, he helped send nearly 14,000 unaccompanied children from Cuba to Florida in the early 1960s.

In 1965 he was imprisoned. Former President Grau continued living in the house until he died in 1969. "When he died, it went to the revolutionary government," Tarraza said proudly. "The (Cuban) Federation of Women took it over and made it into a school." In 1985 the house became a home for children "without family support."

One of the children, Adonis Carbonell, 17, was left behind by his parents. They were among 100,000 Cubans who rushed to Florida in the Mariel boatlift of 1980 and never came back.

"Now the revolution is raising him," Tarraza, 55, said proudly.

She is among the declining number of people in Cuba who speak in rousing, proud tones of the revolution. She sees the house where she has worked for 23 years as a monument to the revolution.

"What was built with the effort of the people came back to the people, to the children of the workers, to those in need." The children range in age from toddlers to teenagers.

"They (critics of the revolution) complain because there was a social change," said Gladys Noriega Suarez, 55, who also works at the home, "but they had everything on a silver tray. Things were very poorly distributed."

The house still contains paintings and some furniture belonging to the Grau family, and old paintings share the walls with Lenin and Che Guevara. An immense and ancient television set rests on a second-floor landing.

Former President Grau's grand second-floor office has been left mostly undisturbed except for a small museum of the house itself: a series of photographs in glass cases along the walls. The first ones show Grau's extended family, including Ramon and his sister Polita, and later photographs are of children who have lived in the house more recently, orphans at coming-out parties, New Year's and their weddings.

A bust of Lenin sits on Grau's desk, near a small statue of a gorilla contemplating the head of a man. "That belonged to him," Tarraza said.

The room still includes some of Grau's special features. Two secret doors are built into the wood paneling, one to a hidden stairway out of the house; the other leading into another room, for more temporary escape. (The Cuban political term gangsterismo was coined during his rollicking, prosperous 1940s administration.) Now there is a playroom behind the old velvet curtains at one end of the office.

Asked whether they would welcome Ramon Grau back to his home, Tarraza and Noriega, who described herself as the general secretary of the union of the home's employees, snorted. "We prefer that the island (of Cuba) sinks a thousand times," said Noriega, using one of Castro's favorite phrases, "than that he comes back." Then she added with sudden gentleness, "But we invite (Grau) to come and visit. We would attend to him with pleasure, as if we were his servants."

"We are taking care of the house," Tarraza added.

Ramon Grau's aquarium is still there at the end of the swimming pool, and it has some fish in it, but one can hardly see them. The glass is opaque with algae.

About a mile away, another house is slowly decaying. Manuela Santos, who lives there, regrets it and wishes she could repair the house, but she doesn't have the money and hopes she won't be there long. "And it's not mine after all," she said wistfully.

All of the first-floor windows are shuttered dark. Blue water lilies grow crowded in the swimming pool, and half of the balcony is sagging toward the ground.

"Nobody, nobody has fixed up this house," she said. "To repair it would take thousands of pesos."

The house on 32nd Street between 1st and 2nd avenues belongs to the Department of Education of the municipality of Playa, west of Havana's downtown. Santos, an employee of the department, was given permission to move in a year and a half ago because she and her nephew and retarded son had nowhere to live.

To get permanent housing, she joined a microbrigada, a construction crew that builds houses for each of its members in turn. Then their work was "paralyzed," she said, because of shortages of building material. There are shortages of almost everything in Cuba because of the Soviet Union's collapse.

Now Santos, a thin, wiry 49-year-old woman, is working with her brigade on building tunnels under Havana that the government says will be used in case Cuba is invaded. Her brigade's tunnel is under the Tropicana nightclub, she said. Her plans to move have evaporated.

Over the years the 32nd Street house has been used as a school, a library, a carpentry shop and a warehouse, she said.

Before that, it was where Raul Rodriguez rescued his baby brother from the bottom of the swimming pool. Rodriguez, now an architect in Miami, lived in the house for two years before he left Cuba at age 11, just after the revolution.

There was a bar by the swimming pool, Rodriguez remembers, and a phonograph playing Frank Sinatra records. He also remembers a Fernando Alvarez song that went, in Spanish, "You've got plenty today but you may not have enough tomorrow."

Rodriguez, 44, is among the minority of Cuban-Americans who have returned to Cuba, so he has seen the dilapidated house and met one of its earlier occupants, an eccentric, Communist botanist who conducted experiments in the back yard. The botanist died last September.

"I've (already) visited all the shrines of my youth," Rodriguez said, including the 32nd Street house, another one built by his grandfather, and his family's Partagas cigarette factory.

He said he had no particular interest in returning to either house, or in claiming title to the property. "My interest in Cuba is deeper than the stucco on those houses," he said. "The houses are obviously of great sentimental value, which is I think something that most people would hold most dear."

But "the most important issue is what about the country? The subject of property rights and all that kind of thing is secondary to whether I will have a life there," he said.

Manuela Santos wanted to know who held the original title to the house; who built it. "I want to say a prayer," she said, "just with the name and a glass of water. What he did has given me a roof for myself and my son. Even if it was not done for me, it has given me shelter." (In Miami, Rodriguez said he did not know the first owner's name.)

If Rodriguez ever wants to come back, Santos said, they could always share the house. The downstairs is empty.