MIAMI — MIAMI -- Ask Roberto Ramos why he abandoned Cuba and he'll show a smuggled videotape of his neighborhood in Havana, where smelly garbage is piled so high it towers over children playing nearby, where stores are stocked with rotten meat and fruits, and where police threaten residents with guns for no apparent reason. Lema Dukens has no videotape of his village in Haiti, but his memories are just as vivid. A member of a pro-democracy political party, Mr. Dukens still gets dizzy when he remembers being chased out of his house by backers of the armed military officials who seized power from Haiti's first democratically elected president. For days he hid in the countryside, starving and in excruciating pain from a broken leg. Fed up and frightened, these two men from two different worlds reached similar decisions to leave their homes and families rather than endure the nightmare their lives had become. They each boarded fishing boats and headed north in search of a haven: the United States. In January, each arrived in Miami. Here the similarity of their stories ends. Federal officials received the 27-year-old Mr. Ramos as a hero in the struggle against communism and offered him the chance to pursue a peaceful life in Miami. But U.S. immigration officials see Mr. Dukens, 26, as a beggar seeking relief from his country's crushing poverty and have yet to decide if they will allow him to remain. It is a disparity that has outraged Haitian advocates and civil rightsleaders, who see only one reason behind the U.S. government's treatment of Haitian refugees, most of whom are returned to their turbulent country. "It's the color of their skin," said Cheryl Little, an attorney who works with Haitian refugees in Miami. "You have to understand the lengths this country has gone to to keep them out, and you'll realize there's no other reason." Mr. Dukens is one of the 6,600 Haitian refugees who have been allowed to pursue pleas for asylum in the United States since September, when a military coup halted the democratic reforms begun by Haiti's president, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide. More than 18,400 people have fled the impoverished Caribbean country on teetering boats and makeshift rafts. But two out of three have been sent back because the U.S. government believes they are seeking economic prosperity instead of a chance to save their lives. Meanwhile, all Cubans except criminals are welcomed by law no matter what their claims. The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 allows Cubans admitted to the United States to apply for permanent residency one year after their arrival. No other foreigners have such open-ended protections. "It's not that other nationalities are discriminated against; it's that Cubans are discriminated for," said Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman Duke Austin. "We are required by law to give [Cubans] that benefit." Mr. Ramos is one of 300 balseros -- boat people, in Spanish -- intercepted by the Coast Guard so far this year. Last year, more than 2,203 balseros were rescued, while 1,700 other Cubans arrived by plane through a refugee program sponsored by the Cuban National Foundation, one of the most powerful Cuban exile groups in the United States. None was sent back. "We don't begrudge the Cubans the treatment they receive in this country," said the Rev. Thomas Wenski, head of the Notre Dame D'Haiti Church in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood. "Look what they have been able to do for themselves and this country. They have been able to prosper. All that we want are the same opportunities for the Haitian people." Since the early 1960s, when U.S. planes brought over hundreds of thousands of Cuban refugees, the Cuban exile community has amassed substantial wealth and political clout. According to the Census Bureau, 24 percent of the Cuban families living in the United States earn more than $50,000 a year. And with their money they have organized a sophisticated network of services to ease the transition for refugees. For example, a group of Cuban pilots who call themselves Brothers to the Rescue fly over the Straits of Florida each week in search of Cuban refugees stranded at sea. And the Cuban American National Foundation boasts a membership of 50,000 people across the country -- people who are willing to provide refugees with places to live, funds for transportation, job leads and legal assistance until the new arrivals are self-sufficient. Haitian refugees, on the other hand, arrive in the United States and find a Haitian community that is largely poor and unheard. Only a handful of public interest lawyers in Miami are processing asylum applications for the recent wave of Haitian refugees, who spend hours waiting in line at the Haitian Refugee Center or the Catholic Refugee Resettlement Office. The refugees rely on meager monthly grants from church agencies because their families cannot support them. And only those with serious illnesses or injuries receive medical attention. The gap in the reaction to the arrival in the United States of Mr. Dukens and Mr. Ramos is no more evident than in their experiences since they fled their countries. Two tries from Haiti Mr. Dukens, a fisherman and a farmer, had to flee twice before he was allowed to seek asylum in Miami. His first escape was in November. Friends carried him onto an unseaworthy fishing boat -- crowded with more than 100 other refugees -- because he had broken his leg while running from the Tonton Macoutes, armed supporters of the military coup. He remembers feeling relieved when the boat was intercepted by a Coast Guard cutter, but there were no reassuring looks from U.S. officials. Soon after the Haitian refugees boarded the cutter, it began heading back toward Haiti. "All they asked me was where I lived and who was my father and who was my mother," said Mr. Dukens. "They put a cast on my leg, and then they took us back." A few days later, battered and bruised after being beaten by Macoutes, Mr. Dukens boarded another boat. "I felt I would jump overboard if the U.S. tried to take me back to Haiti again," he said. This time, Mr. Dukens said, the Immigration and Naturalization Service heeded his claims of political persecution and took him to Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba. "They treated us like dogs there," he recalled. "One major put me in a little cell in the sun because he thought I had stolen a newspaper picture of myself. They finally took me out of the sun when I collapsed." In January, a thin and weakened Mr. Dukens was taken to Miami. He was greeted at the airport by a woman who spoke Creole. After a preliminary interview at the Catholic Refugee Resettlement Office, he was allowed to leave with a cousin. Mr. Dukens sleeps on the living room floor of his cousin's drab one-bedroom apartment in Little Haiti, a neighborhood of boxlike, one-story flats and family businesses in northeast Miami. Out of the $180 check he receives each month from the Catholic agency, Mr. Dukens pays his cousin $100 a month. He stretches the rest of the money to pay for bus fare, food and clothing. "They brought me over here, they call on me to come and sign papers, but nobody explains to me what these papers are for," Mr. Dukens said through a translator. "I do whatever they ask me to and just hope they are dealing with me honestly. "But I'm always feeling confused. I don't know what I am allowed to do. Can I find a job? Am I going to be allowed to stay here, or are they going to send me back to Haiti? No one has explained this to me." The only place Mr. Dukens has been able to go for answers is the Notre Dame D'Haiti Church, which operates in an abandoned school in Little Haiti. Each day, Mr. Dukens takes the bus there for basic survival classes with about 15 other refugees. His teacher, Roger Biamby, explains everything from how to cross streets to how to use a telephone to how to greet someone in English. "I love school," Mr. Dukens said. "It gives me something to do and gives me hope. I know that if you don't go to school you get into drugs and other bad things. I don't want that." When Mr. Ramos' boat -- loaded with 14 passengers and at least a dozen valuable Cuban paintings -- was intercepted in January, the Coast Guard crew held an impromptu celebration. "They were so happy to find us," Mr. Ramos said. "There were photographers. They gave us food and drink and let us shower. They treated us like old friends returning home." "You can see these people come in and you know what's going on in their country," said a Coast Guard officials the day Mr. Ramos and his friends were rescued. "They've been out on the water. They haven't eaten . . . and still they smile." The Coast Guard towed Mr. Ramos' boat to Miami and then held the group of refugees for two days at the Krome Detention Center, a facility operated by the INS to detain refugees while their applications for residency are screened. "It was very nice there," remembers Mr. Ramos, who worked as a photographer in Havana and sold jewelry on the black market. "Everyone there was very kind to us and they fed us a lot." After Mr. Ramos and his wife, Maura, were released, they moved into a comfortably furnished home with Mrs. Ramos' sister on the southwestern edge of Miami. He has had no luck finding a job, but until he does, his relatives have agreed to support him and his wife and they helped him buy a used car for transportation to interviews. In a couple of months, Mr. Ramos plans to sell some of the paintings he smuggled out of Cuba. They should bring in thousands of dollars, he says. "I tried to make a good life in Cuba, but the government would not allow it," he said. "So now, I will try to make a good life here. As soon as I learn English, it will be easier. But I know we will make it." Looking to tomorrow Mr. Ramos spends his days looking for jobs and getting reacquainted with relatives and old friends. Mr. Dukens thinks about the day he will be able to safely return to a democratic Haiti. At night he tosses and turns worrying not only about the lives of his mother and siblings still in Haiti but also about the hundreds of refugees who are returned each day by the Coast Guard. "They are my people," he said. "They are like me, they didn't want to leave. They were forced to leave. And now they are forced to go back to face their death."