Next month marks the 35th anniversary of the historic Mariel Boatlift. In April, 1980, Fidel Castro — after 20 years of failure that could not be hidden by Soviet bailouts — allowed Cubans to depart for the United States from the Cuban port of Mariel. In a harsh rebuke to Castro, roughly 125,000 Cubans arrived on American shores within six months.
Today, Mariel stands as an American success story that is still a rebuke to Castro’s dictatorship.
For the 20 years prior to Mariel, roughly 700,000 Cubans sought exile in the United States in varying phases. Many of these exiles were professionals and many were generally welcomed.
However, the collective experience of the Mariel Cubans was not as positive. While the vast majority of them were law-abiding Cubans raising families, it was known that Castro sent, along with these political exiles, criminals. For many Americans, a “Marielito” became unfairly synonymous with crime. Many Mariel Cubans, having been set up in camps upon arrival to the United States, were, to quote Jose Martí, travelers to all parts and newcomers to none.
Even in the tightknit Cuban exile community, many Mariel Cubans felt the sting of discrimination. Mariel Cubans came more so from the working class than did prior exiles and a higher number were Afro-Cubans. Many Cuban exiles felt that their status as “model newcomers” was put at-risk by the popular perception of Mariel Cubans. Instead of being seen as the sincere newcomers that they generally were, Mariel Cubans were attacked for Miami becoming a “paradise lost.”
However, Mariel Cubans had been through worse than mere domestic intolerance in Cuba. Many fled violent state oppression. Most arrived with nothing, as 88 percent of Mariel Cubans had less than $100 with them upon arrival. In them existed the same spirit of the prior generation of Cuban Americans, and they fled the same menace in Castro.
Like newcomers before them, Mariel Cubans became beneficiaries of a thoughtful patriotism that welcomes aspiring Americans. And like Cuban exiles before them, they worked hard, mourned for their lost homeland and gave thanks to La Virgen de Caridad del Cobre for their American journey.
To those who measure American exceptionalism by how compassionate and thoughtful we are in our definition of liberty, Mariel stands as a telling American success story. And it is a success in spite of the hurdles thrown by the dictator Fidel Castro. By 2005, according to a report in the Miami Herald, they were earning, on average, more than the average South Florida resident. In the minds of most Americans — including most Cuban Americans — there is no distinction between a Mariel Cuban exile and other Cuban exiles. The experience of Cuban exiles collectively stands as a testament to the greatness of our country and a rebuke to the dictator Castro.
Every society has symbols of both its failure and success. In American society, there are few better symbols of our exceptional nature than Cuban exiles and, among Cuban exiles, few have had more adversity than Mariel Cubans. The great American challenge is, as General Colin Powell remarked, to make the “immigrant who became a citizen yesterday...as precious to us as a Mayflower descendent.” And nowhere was that moral challenge better met than with Mariel.
Perhaps the greatest disservice an American can do is to forget where their family came from, and the internal fires and tribulations one’s immigrant ancestors had to withstand to merely be called an American. In our own time, few know of a greater struggle to merely call oneself an American than the Mariel exile.
When you think about what makes us a great country, think of the Mariel journey that began in 1980. Today, 35 years later, Mariel Cubans stand as equally proud Cuban exiles and Americans, and in their children and grandchildren today rests the future of this pluralistic country.
Attorney Luis E. Viera is vice president of Tampa Hispanic Bar Association.