MIAMI -- Ten days ago, at a ceremony in Havana, German Pompa Gonzalez was awarded a medal for "exemplary service" to the Cuban Revolution for his performance as a helicopter pilot.
Yesterday morning, he sat in the living room of his sister-in-law's modest house in a Miami suburb, a wanted man back in his homeland but a hero to thousands of Cuban exiles in Miami.
Mr. Pompa's journey to freedom began Friday in Cuba and ended after flying his family 200 miles across the Florida Strait, when he landed at Tamiami Executive Airport and kissed American soil.
"We were flying barely two yards above the water, and there was always the danger that Castro's radar would detect us and force us down," Mr. Pompa, 27, a lieutenant in the Cuban air force with two years of combat service in Angola, said of his daring flight. "Nevertheless, I felt a tremendous sense of equilibrium and calm. I knew that one way or another, it would soon be over."
After requesting political asylum, Mr. Pompa and all but one passenger were released from an Immigration and Naturalization Service detention center Saturday to the custody of relatives. They will be eligible for legal residency in the United States in a year.
Yesterday morning, Mr. Pompa and 13 other relatives awoke in Opa Locka in the two-bedroom house of his wife's sister, Mery Diaz, a former political prisoner who arrived in Florida two years ago.
There, he learned of news reports from Havana saying the Cuban government was demanding the return of both the helicopter and its pilot. In addition, there were new uncertainties. "We need to put a roof of our own over our heads," Mr. Pompa said. "How do we find jobs? Who's going to give us orientation on how you live here?"
Ms. Diaz's house, whose principal decorations are a few religious pictures and a pair of small television sets, is normally home to five people.
Mr. Pompa's wife, Maria de la Caridad Carrazana, emphasized that neither her sister nor their parents, who remain in Cuba, knew of the escape plan in advance.
Mr. Pompa said it was his wife who initiated the idea of a mass escape by helicopter, because of her growing dissatisfaction with life under communist rule. "She was the planner, and I was the instrument," he said.
"I lived for many years cherishing the revolution," said the 44-year-old Ms. Carrazana, who has four children from an earlier marriage. "I loved it and worked for it and sacrificed for it, but the Cuban people have no rights any more, and nothing to eat or enjoy as diversions. Before too long, Cuba is going to be thrown back to the conditions it was in when Christopher Columbus discovered America."
As Mr. Pompa's brother and 20-year-old stepson Emilio, an automobile mechanic, examined a car parked in front of the house, another sister-in-law, who had not seen Ms. Carrazana since she left Cuba as a former political prisoner, entered and embraced Ms. Carrazana. "Girl, you look good, considering what you've just been through," she said.
"And why shouldn't I," Ms. Carrazana retorted. "Now we can begin to live. Now my grandchildren are going to know what it is like to say what they want, to celebrate Christmas and New Year's and the Three Kings' Day, to buy a soft drink or a bicycle when they want. In Cuba, there's no freedom, there's nothing."
Sustained for many years by subsidies from the Soviet Union that have been gradually cut off, the Cuban economy has gone into a tailspin.
Ms. Carrazana said that a personal turning point came with October's Communist Party Congress, which party officials and the state press had hinted might bring political and economic change. But when Fidel Castro made it clear that he had no intention of instituting such change and called for greater sacrifices and renewed revolutionary ardor, the populace felt a sense of betrayal and disgust, she said.
"Everybody was waiting, waiting, waiting for the Congress, thinking they would put things in order," she said. "But things only got worse."
She said the family's plan to flee Cuba began about three months ago, when her 24-year-old daughter Inova Lara, a model, "came to me and said, 'Mommy, I can't stand it here any more. I'm going over in a raft, and I'm taking my child with me.' "
Mr. Pompa, it turned out, had also grown disenchanted and wanted a new life.