The images of the Cuban exodus are unforgettable.
1980: Shrimp boats jammed with refugees sailing from Mariel to Key West. In five months, 125,266 arrived in a tumultuous exodus that forever changed Cuba and South Florida.
1994: Flimsy rafts of wood and inner tubes overloaded with Cubans float in the Florida Straits. After dramatic U.S. Coast Guard rescues, and months in limbo at dusty camps in the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, 35,000 settled in Dade County.
Twice in two decades, Cuban leader Fidel Castro opened wide the gates to his island and allowed disaffected Cubans to leave en masse for the United States. But the floodgates were never really closed throughout his decades in power.
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There was Operation Pedro Pan in the early 1960s, the Camarioca boatlift in 1965, and the Freedom Flights from 1965 to 1973. In the late 1990s, and the early part of the new century, up to 20,000 Cubans were obtaining U.S. visas each year and thousands more were fleeing the island and trickling in to the United States — any way they could.
Cubans paid smugglers — and some ended up dead, the overloaded boats overturned on the high seas. A few hijacked planes. Three men were executed in Havana after they attempted to commandeer a ferry to Florida. Thousands traveled to Latin America and Europe, then made their way to America.
For Castro, the flights of so many of his countrymen were international embarrassments, but also a way to unload tens of thousands of unhappy Cubans clamoring for change and a better life than his communist regime could afford them.
For the United States, each exodus posed political challenges, but none more traumatic than the Mariel boatlift — the most disorderly migration in the country’s history and a political disaster for President Jimmy Carter, who first welcomed the refugees only to learn that Castro had included thousands of criminals and mental patients among the good people seeking escape.
In South Florida, the turbulent exodus came at a time of great social stress. At the dawn of the 1980s, Miami was riddled with violence: Colombian drug lords openly fought cocaine wars on the streets, and African Americans protested police brutality and their lack of access to economic and political power.
The Mariel boatlift forever changed the ethnic landscape, cementing the Cubanization of Miami and expanding the exile community to more broadly reflect Cuba in terms of race and age, economic and social strata, as well as political perspectives. It also prompted the biggest surge of white flight from Dade, fueling the growth in Broward and Palm Beach counties and pitting English and Spanish speakers in Dade in an angry battle over bilingualism.
Branded escoria, scum, by Castro and now faced with the stigma of criminals among them, the Mariel refugees quickly became a flash point of the discontent in South Florida and the nation. For many Cuban exiles who had come earlier in more gradual waves, it was a shock to coexist with a generation raised under communism.
When the balsero crisis in 1994 threatened to become “another Mariel,” the Clinton administration ended the traditional U.S. welcome for all Cubans and ordered the Coast Guard to interdict the refugees in the high seas and ship them to Guantánamo.
At first intent on returning the refugees to Cuba, the Clinton administration eventually began an orderly process of screening and resettling most of the Cubans, including 3,000 children, with family members in South Florida. Many of the rafters turned out to be professionals and highly educated Cubans who, for the most part, began to successfully rebuild their lives in South Florida.
Eventually, some 30,000 reached the United States. Washington and Cuba signed immigration agreements in 1994 and 1995 in which the United States pledged to issue 20,000 visas to Cubans each year as means to ensure a safe, orderly and legal migration from the island.
When the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana announced in 1998 that it would take applications for a visa lottery, 541,000 Cubans signed up in 30 days. Apparently embarrassed by the rush to abandon the island of 11.3 million people, the Cuban government refused to allow another visa lottery signup.
But Mariel remains a case study in the chaotic nature of U.S.-Cuba immigration relations.
It all began April 1, 1980, when six Cubans crashed a bus through the Peruvian Embassy gates in Havana. Peru refused to turn the defectors over to the Cuban government, and Castro angrily ordered all security guards removed from around the embassy. Within three days, the complex was jammed by more than 10,000 Cubans clamoring for asylum.
After a two-week standoff, Castro announced that the asylum seekers could leave the embassy grounds and return to their homes because he would allow them to leave the island.
Carter offered to grant U.S. asylum to 3,500 of those who had been at the embassy — and Castro upped the ante by saying that Mariel, 30 miles west of Havana, would be open to anyone who wanted to leave. Cubans in the United States immediately organized a flotilla to pick up their relatives, renting every available boat in South Florida.
The first 50 refugees arrived in Key West April 21 aboard the lobster boats Dos Hermanos and Blanche III. By month’s end, 7,655 had made the crossing and thousands were on their way. At the peak of the boatlift, about 2,800 Cubans were arriving in Key West every day; on June 3, more than 6,000 were counted. The death toll: 26, some as a result of overcrowding on the boats.
Faced with mounting opposition to the disorderly exodus, Carter ordered the Coast Guard to stop more boats from leaving Florida for Cuba, seized vessels returning with refugees, and indicted 336 people on charges of aiding illegal immigration — charges later dismissed by a federal judge.
The U.S. measures slowed the flow, but didn’t stop it. Castro finally halted departures Sept. 25. Four days later, the last boats arrived in Key West.
THE CUBAN EXODUS AT A GLANCE
▪ Cubans close to deposed dictator Fulgencio Batista and disenchanted revolutionaries were first to leave, 1959-1961.
▪ Operation Pedro Pan brought 14,000 unaccompanied children during the early 1960s.
▪ 5,000 people left by boat from Camarioca port in 1965.
▪ 260,000 came aboard the Freedom Flights, 1965-1973.
▪ Mariel boatlift of 1980 brought 125,000 in five months.
▪ In 1994, 35,000 balseros fled on homemade rafts.
▪ With the dawn of the new millennium and no end of Castro’s rule, thousands more traveled to Europe and Latin America and stayed. Many later moved to the United States.
▪ Thousands more came with tourist visas to visit relatives and stayed, won the U.S. visa lottery, or came to study, teach or perform and defected.