The Mariel Boatlift: How Cold War Politics Drove Thousands of Cubans to Florida in 1980 - HISTORY

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The Mariel Boatlift of 1980 was a mass emigration of Cubans to the United States. The exodus was driven by a stagnant economy that had weakened under the grip of a U.S. trade embargo and by Cuban President Fidel Castro's exasperation with dissent.

“Those who have no revolutionary genes, those who have no revolutionary blood...we do not want them, we do not need them,” Castro declared in a May 1, 1980 speech. In a stance that reversed the Communist regime's closed emigration policy, Castro told Cubans who wanted to leave Cuba to leave, and directed would-be emigrants to go to the Port of Mariel. 

Some 125,000 Cubans took Castro up on his words and boarded fish and shrimp vessels, crossed the treacherous Florida Straits and arrived at U.S. shores. Their arrival—over the course of five months—infused the United States with a dynamic group of new immigrants and raised alarm about strains on resettlement facilities and the U.S. economy.

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Under Cold War: Cuban Economy Vulnerable

Castro’s surprise opening of his nation’s border came at the heels of a series of events demonstrating Cuban dissidents’ desire to leave the country. As other global powers allied themselves with the United States in a Cold War against Cuba, the island’s foreign trade was crippled. Cuba faced an economic crisis brought on by pressure from a U.S. trade embargo that began in 1962 and from the slow dissolution of its main commercial support, the Soviet Union.

Cubans—even those who had initially supported the 1959 Cuban Revolution—began to lose faith in the nation. Asylum efforts began in the late 1970s and continued throughout the early 1980s with attempted forcible entries into both the Venezuelan and Peruvian embassies along Havana’s Embassy Row.

On May 13, 1979, a group of Cubans crashed a bus into the Venezuelan Embassy in order to seek asylum. Later that year on June 11, Cuba’s National Revolutionary Police (Policía Nacional Revolucionaria, PNR) opened fire on a group of Cubans trying to force their way into the Venezuelan Embassy. And on July 16, 1979, two Cubans sought asylum at the Venezuelan Embassy. The following year, on April 1, 1980, six Cuban dissidents seeking political asylum rammed a bus into the perimeter fence of Havana, Cuba’s Peruvian embassy.

Cuba’s PNR officers fired submachine guns at the bus full of dissidents that barreled toward the Peruvian Embassy. But one of those bullets ricocheted off the bus and killed PNR police officer Pedro Ortiz Cabrera. Fidel Castro wanted the Peruvian embassy to turn over the people who had commandeered the bus so they could be put on trial for the death of Ortiz Cabrera. But embassy officials refused that request and granted asylum to the dissidents. Frustrated by that response, Castro withdrew all PNR who were guarding international embassies in Cuba.

“In view of the regrettable death of a guard at the Peruvian embassy and the Peruvian government’s tolerant attitude toward such criminals,” said an official statement by the Cuban government on April 4, 1980, “the government of Cuba has decided to withdraw the guards from the Peruvian diplomatic mission. From now on, the embassy’s officials will be solely responsible for what occurs in their embassy. We cannot give protection to embassies that do not cooperate with that protection.”

With the PNR sentry guards withdrawn, even more Cubans took advantage of the opportunity to leave the island’s economic troubles behind. Some 10,000 of Cuba’s political dissidents began crowding into embassy compounds throughout the Cuban capital.

Castro Opens the Border at Mariel Port

It was then, on May 1, 1980, that Castro announced that the port of Mariel—the nearest port to U.S. shores—would be open for the next six months to any Cubans eager to leave—if they could get transportation off the island. Castro dismissed the dissidents as nothing but parasites, living off the Revolution. If they want to leave, he announced, they should go.

In Granma, the Cuban Revolution’s official newspaper, dissidents were deemed “criminals, lumpenproletariats, antisocialists, bums and parasites.” And civilian members of Cuba’s Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (Comités de Defensa de la Revolución) performed “acts of repudiation“ by marching in front of the embassies and chanting, “They should go! They should get out!”

Cuban exiles in the United States sent a 1,700-boat flotilla of hurriedly rented shrimp and fishing boats to pick up their relatives. But when those boats arrived at Mariel, they were forced to take the exiles’ relatives plus other asylum-seekers.

President Jimmy Carter Takes Political Heat

U.S. President Jimmy Carter had promised that Mariel Cubans would be welcomed “with open arms” in the United States. In June 1980, he established the the Cuban-Haitian Entrant Program (CHEP), which granted temporary status and access to asylum processing and community assistance to both Cubans and thousands of Haitians fleeing to the United States. The U.S. had a long history of welcoming Cuban Revolution dissidents and Carter initially offered to grant U.S. asylum to 3,500 people under the Refugee Act of 1980. 

Castro, taking advantage of Carter’s open-door policy, forcefully deported convicted criminals, mental hospital patients, LGTBQ people and prostitutes—people Castro crudely labeled as “escoria” (trash). In total, some 125,000 Cubans left the island during the Mariel Boatlift: up to 20,000 had criminal records and thousands had served time in mental institutions.

In the span of five months, 125,266 Mariel Cuban exiles arrived in Florida in the largest-ever single migration of Cubans to the United States. In October 1980, the Carter administration negotiated with the Cuban government to end the boat lifts. But the sheer number of refugee arrivals and the government’s difficulties with handling them led political opponents to claim that the Carter administration had been unprepared to handle the influx.

Cuban refugees, Mariel boat lift 1980

Cuban refugees at Eglin Air Frorce Base in May 1980 following the Mariel boatlift.

'Marielitos' Represented New Kinds of Cuban Americans

The arriving refugees faced a dearth of support from their new host country. Amalia Dache, assistant professor in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, says so-called 'Marielito' refugees were granted less time to be on refugee assistance and given less employment, education and federal assistance than previous Cuban exiles.

“Marielitos differentiated from other Cubans in several aspects: they were of darker skin and there was also a part of the community that was homosexual—at the time, it was the 1980s, there was still a huge stigma in Cuba about homosexuality. So that part of the Marielitos conditioned the U.S. media to seeing them as this dark group, in various senses like with sexuality, race, criminalization—think about ‘Scarface’—those are the kinds of negative attributes they were choosing to use to categorize Marielitos.”

'Marielitos' Change Image of Cuban Migration

The Afro Cuban, working class, LGBTQ, formerly incarcerated and former mental institute patients who were all part of the Mariel Boatlift transformed the image of Cuban migration to the United States. Miami, Florida’s already-established Cuban American community had to find a way to incorporate the Marielitos, and later the more than 35,000 Balsero Cubans who immigrated in 1994 (many on makeshift rafts), into their ranks.

Ultimately, the Cuban Americans who immigrated to the United States during the Mariel Boatlift and later carved out a broader understanding of Cuba, its people and the islands’ politics. In the 1980 U.S. Information Agency documentary “In Their Own Words,” Cuban refugees spoke about having survived the Mariel Boatlift. 

Among those interviewed was novelist Reynaldo Arenas, who described his experience leaving Cuba for his new home country. 

"In reality, what I’m feeling isn’t in any way a victory, as if we are arriving with great happiness. But I can say that I feel at peace. I made it out and I’m alive," he said. "It’s the same feeling you get when your house burns down. You escaped…but still, the house burned down.”

Sources

“A 35 años de la embajada de Perú,” March 4, 2015, 14ymedio

Harry S. Truman: The Coming of the Cold War by Nicole L. Anslover, published by Taylor & Francis Group, 2013. 

“En recuerdo a un joven combatiente: Pedro Ortiz Cabrera,” April 3, 2010, Granma Año 14 / Número 93. 

The Impact of the Cold War on US-Cuban Economic Relations, 1946-1952, Library of Congress. 

“Pedro Ortiz Cabrera, una vida arrancada por el odio” by Reinier del Pino Cejas, Emisora Provincial Radio Artemisa, April 1, 2020. 

“Statement from the Revolutionary Government of Cuba.” El Gallo, vol. 12, no. 2, 1980, p. 3. JSTOR.

Cuba-cronología. Cinco siglos de historia, política y cultura by Leopoldo Fornés Bonavía, published by Editorial Verbum, 2008.

“In Their Own Words,” C-Span, Oct. 30, 1980.

“90 Miles,” written and directed by Juan Carlos Zaldivar, 2001.

“Refugee Act of 1980,” Kennedy, Edward M., The International Migration Review, vol. 15, no. 1/2, 1981, pp. 141–156. JSTOR.

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