Thirty years ago, the end of the Mariel boatlift, marked end of Jimmy Carter's efforts to normalize relations with Cuba
Miami's Merle Frank never expected what followed after she asked President Jimmy Carter in 1980 how he could help her city with the mass of Cubans arriving on the Mariel boatlift.
``We'll continue to provide an open heart and open arms,'' Carter told Frank, then-head of the Miami League of Women Voters, during a League conference in Washington.
Fidel Castro took Carter at his widely reported word. Six days later, on May 11, Mariel set the one-day record for arrivals and newly freed criminals began boarding the boats.
No U.S. president, before or since, has tried as hard as Carter to establish normal relations with Castro. And none have been burned as badly.
The boatlift officially ended Sept. 26 1980, when Cuban solders ordered the last 150 boats in Mariel to leave the port west of Havana, without passengers.
By that time, 125,000 Cubans had landed in Key West, Carter had secured his image as indecisive and Castro was boasting of another blow to the ``empire.''
``Unfortunately, a democracy is at a disadvantage when a totalitarian regime decides to do something like this,'' said Robert Pastor, the Carter White House's point man on Cuba.
Carter already faced other crises when the Mariel boatlift erupted in April of 1980 -- the aftermath of the failed Iran hostage rescue raid and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
There were gasoline lines across America, Sen. Ted Kennedy was challenging Carter in the Democratic Party primaries and GOP presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan was gaining ground.
The key factor in the Mariel crisis, Pastor said, was the early-on decision that Washington could not halt the boatlift without harsh measures that could endanger lives at sea.
``The truth is, once it was determined the only way we could stop the flow was to risk loss of life -- and that was too high a price -- we were never able to take control of events and after that we were just reacting,'' he said.
But the problems went well beyond that decision, David W. Engstrom wrote in his 1997 book about Mariel, ``Presidential Decision Making Adrift.''
The Carter administration initially considered the crisis a problem between Cuba and Peru, whose embassy in Havana was jammed with 10,000 asylum seekers, Engstrom wrote.
Then it waffled between trying to ensure the safety of the Cuban migrants and trying to avoid encouraging even more migration, he argued.
While the State Department was warning that the boatlift amounted to migrant smuggling and telling exiles that they were only helping Castro, the Coast Guard was urging exile boaters to carry enough life vests and file sailing plans.
Not until May 14 did Carter personally attend a meeting on the crisis, and no single federal agency was put in charge from the start, according to Engstrom.
``Governments were fighting with each other -- federal against state against county against city, and the decisions changed day by day,'' recalled Sergio Piñon, then a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigator.
Then Carter made his May 5 comment during the question and answer period after a speech to the LWV, opening the floodgates to the Mariel exodus.
``At the time, we all looked at each other and basically agreed that he didn't offer any specifics,'' recalled Frank, a real estate agent. ``But Castro must have said, `Oh, great. What an opportunity for us.''