The FBI and the CIA were not on top of the Cuban regime's shenanigans during the Mariel boatlift. A June 15 story, Mariel Boatlift -- Dozens of Cuban migrants picked off as possible spies, might have left readers with the mistaken impression that the federal authorities had a clue.
Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.
As Dade County manager, I received a distress call from a ranking federal immigration official because flotilla refugees were beginning to land in the Keys, and the feds had no place to send or process them. I called Darwin Fuchs, head of the Dade County Youth Fair, and asked if the county could take over his largest building, Edwards Hall, to process arriving refugees. Without hesitation Darwin said ``Yes.''
We later took over Arnold Hall for all the support personnel and Tamiami Stadium so our residents had a place to sit and wait to meet their Mariel relatives.
I designated Assistant County Manager Sergio Pereira to coordinate the influx of what would later prove to be more than 35,000 refugees at the Youth Fair. Pereira, working tirelessly on that assignment, did a great job.
A few days later, I visited Edwards Hall and quickly noticed that many of the refugees had hard faces and hard eyes, unlike the smiling mothers, sisters, brothers, etc., who came on the flotilla. Sensing something seriously wrong, I asked Pereira, ``Where the hell are the feds -- the FBI and the CIA?''
His answer was: ``They are not here.''
I immediately directed Dade police to dispatch an identification unit with cameras and fingerprint pads to start keeping a record of who was coming through Edwards Hall. Contrary to The Miami Herald article, in fact, there was no ``line of tables staffed by about 20 FBI and CIA agents.''
There were no agents present at all at that time, and it would be a week or more before they were present in any numbers. Concerned over the risks involved, I later wrote a lengthy, unpublished manuscript describing how easy it would have been during Mariel for Fidel Castro to have infiltrated this country with saboteurs in small cells bent on destroying critical infrastructure in major American cities.
The FBI and CIA should have been aggressively on top of the potential liabilities of the Mariel flotilla, but I fault President Jimmy Carter most of all. Carter, when threatened by local politicians, reversed his earlier decision not to allow the flotilla. He then made a knee-jerk statement welcoming flotilla refugees with open arms, which proved to be exactly what Castro wanted to hear.
Consequently, Cuba's prisons and mental institutions were quickly emptied, prostitutes and pickpockets were rounded up from the streets and almost every boat in the flotilla that had courageously crossed the Florida Straits with loving family members was forced to bring back the worst of Cuba's society along with legitimate family members. This created terrible problems within our community that would take many, many years to correct.
Merrett R. Stierheim was Dade County manager during the 1980 Mariel boatlift.