Fidel Castro

How Fidel Castro and the Mariel boatlift changed lives and changed Miami

The Big Baby left Mariel with 216 Cubans bound for the U.S. in April 1980. A Cuban official is at right.
The Big Baby left Mariel with 216 Cubans bound for the U.S. in April 1980. A Cuban official is at right.

This article originally was published in 2010 during the 30th anniversary of the Mariel boatlift. Fidel Castro’s death at age 90 was announced on Saturday morning.

Cesar Odio was at his office at Miami City Hall one morning in late April 1980 when his desk phone rang.

A top federal immigration official was on the line asking Odio's help in locating a big enough place to hold dozens of Cuban refugees who had just arrived in Key West aboard a crowded boat.

It was one of the first boats laden with refugees boarding vessels in large numbers from the Cuban port of Mariel, 20 miles west of Havana.

It was also the beginning of the Mariel boatlift, which brought more than 125,000 Cuban refugees to U.S. shores between April and September 1980.

Thirty years after the biggest refugee exodus from Cuba, local officials who played key roles in the crisis recalled the historic events in interviews with El Nuevo Herald.

While many local officials and private citizens were involved in handling the refugee flood, only a handful came to be widely associated with the boatlift mainly because media attention then fell on them as veritable first responders to the unfolding crisis.

They are people like Odio, then an assistant city manager; Maurice Ferre, then Mayor of Miami; Merrett Stierheim, then Dade County manager and Sergio Pereira, an assistant county manager.

Private citizens whose names remain linked to the exodus include Lula Rodríguez, sister-in-law of then Hialeah mayor Raúl Martínez, who worked as a volunteer in the refugee processing camps, and Siro del Castillo, a human rights activist who helped Mariel refugees at the Krome detention center.

For all, Mariel was an unforgettable experience.

"It simply changed my life, " said Rodríguez, now doing consulting work on corporate communications in Miami.

She says that the plight of many Mariel refugees remains seared in her memory and that the exodus made her realize just how terrible the Castro regime was.

"I saw people who were taken from mental hospitals, " Rodríguez recalled in a recent interview. "Many of them were dazed. They asked questions like 'when is the doctor going to see me?' They were not even aware that they were in another country. That's when I realized the monstrosity of Fidel Castro."

While many top South Florida officials came to deal with Mariel, Odio is perhaps the one whose name is more closely linked to the event.

That's because he ran the Orange Bowl refugee shelter and the tent city under Interstate 95. To this day, thousands of Mariel refugees recognize Odio on the street and stop to thank him for his help.

When Odio talked to El Nuevo Herald recently at La Carreta restaurant in Key Biscayne, the waiter who took the order remembered Odio from the time he arrived in Miami as a Mariel refugee himself.

At the time, Odio was a young official, recently hired as assistant city manager during Ferre's administration. Odio had been in that position for four months when Mariel erupted.

It was his baptism by fire.

The boatlift exploded in Odio's life during one morning in late April 1980 when the first wave of boats began unloading refugees at Key West.

The federal immigration official who called Odio was desperate to find out where the refugees could be held while they awaited processing for formal admission into the United States.

"The call came just before lunch, " Odio recalled. "Immigration called and said 'we have a problem.' "

Odio said the immigration official told him that many Cuban refugees were coming aboard boats and that authorities did not have a big enough space to hold them. He advised that they be taken to the Manuel Artime Community Center in Little Havana, named after the civilian leader of the ill-fated 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.

"I picked that place because it was in Little Havana and the refugees were Cuban and their relatives probably lived nearby, " Odio explained. "I went there to receive the refugees and from that moment my life changed. I worked literally 24 hours a day on the issue."


When Odio arrived at Artime, a crowd had gathered outside -- mostly relatives of the arriving refugees. The large number of relatives calmed his fears that the refugee wave would swamp city resources.

But Odio's initial optimism faded when he saw some of the passengers on the first boats.

"It was an example of what Fidel Castro was sending us, " Odio said. "Criminals and crazies, who had no families here. I began to worry."

As more boats arrived, Artime was swamped.

"We immediately started looking for another place, " Odio said.

He and his county counterpart, Pereira, got together and Pereira moved the refugees to the grounds of the Dade County Youth Fair in west Miami-Dade.

"We responded admirably despite having a 10 percent increase in the population in just 31 days, " Pereira recalled.

Ferre, then Miami's mayor, telephoned the White House and asked for an appointment with then-President Jimmy Carter.

Ferre was told Vice President Walter Mondale would receive him.

The next morning, Ferre was on a plane to the nation's capital.

"I sat for over an hour waiting for the vice president who was meeting with senior officials on Mariel in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, " Ferre said.

When the meeting broke up, Mondale approached Ferre and told him a National Security Council aide would see him instead.

"My question to federal officials was 'what are you guys going to do?' " Ferre recalled.

U.S. officials told Ferre they were prepared to stop the exodus by preventing exiles from leaving Florida for Mariel to pick up relatives.

Ferre said he urged federal officials to use caution, and argued in favor of admitting the Mariel refugees.

"I said 'you have to be very careful, ' " Ferre said. "And I also said, 'I think you ought to let these people in.' "


Meanwhile, back in Miami, local officials were growing alarmed because the Carter Administration did not seem to be reacting forcefully.

"The federal government was totally unprepared, " Stierheim said recently. "As a result, local governments really had to step in and relieve the problem."

While Stierheim remains upset about the federal response, he praised the reaction of the Cuban exiles. "The community showered us with tons of donations in supplies for the arriving refugees, " he said.

Though the days of the boatlift were "very dark indeed, " in the end "our county emerged stronger from the experience."

Stierheim and Ferre said Miami and Miami-Dade County worked closely together to deal with the exodus. Both remembered setting up a city-county executive crisis committee on which various officials worked together to respond to the exodus.

"We met periodically to assess the situation and needs, " Stierheim said.

Local officials received substantial help from Cuban exiles, particularly young Cuban-Americans eager to welcome the refugees.

Among the young volunteers was Rodríguez, a University of Miami sociology student who later became a senior State Department official under former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Rodríguez served at some of the main refugee processing sites including Opa-locka Airport and Krome.

At Opa-locka, she was assigned to interview arriving refugees and gather basic information from them.

She had a lot of empathy toward the arriving refugees because she herself had fled Cuba with her sister and brother under the Pedro Pan program that brought 14,048 unaccompanied Cuban children to the U.S. mainland 50 years ago.

She was also hoping to see her mother, who had stayed behind in Cuba, among the arrivals. She never did. Her mother died in Cuba last year.

Her most memorable moment came when a young boy sneezed as she interviewed him and his relatives.

"I said 'Jesús, ' to the boy, which in Cuba meant 'bless you' after someone sneezes, and the boy turned to me and said, all serious, 'My name is not Jesús, it's Carlos, ' " Rodríguez recalled. "Then the mother reminded him about how back in Cuba they used to kneel and pray at night and he was not supposed to talk about it.

"That stayed with me because it shed light on the oppression and fear people in Cuba suffered under the regime."

After Opa-locka, Rodríguez went to work for the Public Health Service, which established a clinic to check arriving refugees. By the time the exodus wound down, Rodríguez had become director of the PHS clinic at Krome.

A closed Cold War missile basis, Krome was reopened as a processing and detention center as Mariel unfolded. Siro del Castillo became Krome camp commander at some point working for the State Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"After 30 years, the legacy of Mariel is everywhere in the Cuban community in the United States in all fields, economic, cultural, social, " Del Castillo said recently.


"Also, today there is no more talk of the "Marielitos" as a separate and distinct class of Cuban refugees. Today they are assimilated into society, like all immigrant groups in the past. They are doctors, engineers, nurses, teachers, fully integrated."

As more and more refugees arrived, it became obvious that a big place was needed to hold them.

On May 2, the Orange Bowl stadium opened as a temporary refugee shelter. Refugees housed there were bused in from Key West and then to Opa-locka Airport where immigration officials formally processed them, releasing those who had relatives.

By then it was clear the exodus was unstoppable, that it was going to continue for weeks or months. It went on until Sept. 26, when the boatlift officially ended.

In July, Miami began emptying the Orange Bowl of refugees. The city formally shut down the stadium as a refugee shelter on Aug. 10 to make way for football season.

Many of the refugees were then relocated to the tent city under I-95, where Odio became a fixture in media interviews.

Odio said the I-95 tent city was a deliberate effort to send a message to the rest of the nation that Miami needed help.

The site opened on July 29, days before the Orange Bowl was vacated.

Eventually, unsponsored refugees were taken to other sites, including Krome, as well as military bases and prisons elsewhere in the country.

Mariel was traumatic for South Florida, Odio said -- but it also prepared the community to deal more efficiently with future crises, including the rafter exodus of 1994.

On balance, Odio and other former officials said, Miami and Miami-Dade benefited from Mariel because the majority of the refugees went on to become successful citizens.

"Mariel was very bad in the beginning, but it was very good in the end, " Ferre summed up. "The vast majority of these people were honest, decent, hard working, industrious people . . . who are now doctors, bankers, entrepreneurs and who really uplifted the community."