The impact of the Mariel Boatlift still resonates in Florida after 38 years

By Robert McKnight

Fidel Castro sent waves of Cubans to the United States during the Mariel Boatlift of 1980.
Fidel Castro sent waves of Cubans to the United States during the Mariel Boatlift of 1980. AP

Picture a 20-foot Feathercraft aluminum boat powered with a 35-horsepower Evinrude motor bouncing in 8 foot seas. There are a dozen family members hanging on for dear life. That is what I saw 38 years ago on CBS live television in Florida Gov. Bob Graham’s office. I still remember it vividly today.

The Mariel Boatlift started with a surprise announcement by Cuban President Fidel Castro on April 20, 1980. He said that he was opening the port for Cubans to leave the Communist island. The Carter administration had secretly worked to improve relations with Castro, but was caught unaware and unprepared for Castro’s decision.

After the start of the exodus, Castro shocked the world by opening Cuban prisons and mental health facilities, transporting the prisoners and patients to the port for the 90-mile trip to Miami. Floridians from Key West to West Palm Beach sent private boats to Mariel to be paid by families and friends to transport the fleeing Cubans across the dangerous Florida Straits. The flotilla that this spurred was described by the press as “Rag Tag Chaos.’

At that time, I represented Miami and the Florida Keys in the state Senate and was in Tallahassee attending the 1980 session of the Legislature. An aide to the governor ran up and asked me to come to Graham’s office immediately. When I arrived (accompanies by my wife, Susan, who was with me at the time), I found the governor, several of his aides and State Rep. Joe Allen of Key West in the office. U.S. Rep. Dante Fascell, chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, was on a speaker phone.

The participants were in the middle of a conference call of shouting as they tried to determine what to do about the crisis. Televisions were on in Graham’s office. ABC, CBS and NBC all had live coverage of Havana, the Straits, Key West and Miami. Helicopters had television crews on board recording thousands of small boats making the dangerous trip in perilous seas, with dozens of distraught Cubans hanging onto the boats. Fascell said President Carter was awaiting Florida’s recommendation for action by the United States.

Somehow, we as Floridians and Americans got through those polarizing times of agony. Assimilation 125,000 Cubans caused great stress to the state’s infrastructure, and that of other states around the country, for many years. (Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton lost his re-election bid, in part, because of having to house Mariel prisoners in his state.) The tensions in Miami over the diversion of social- and criminal-justice resources from African Americans to the Mariel prisoners and patients probably contributed to the McDuffie Liberty City and Overtown riots the next month.

Crimes committed by the new Miami Cubans were recorded almost daily. Most data indicated that the impact of the Mariel Boatlift on the South Florida economy, education resources and labor market was negative, keeping civil and political tensions high. Some in the existing Miami Cuban community had disdain for the Marielitos. It was a tough time in South Florida.

The memory of the Mariel Boatlift is still real. But the strong feelings about it have somewhat abated over time, settling into reality. Miami is a diverse city. But, after 38 years, political discourse from Little Havana is probably not as pointed as it has historically been, and maybe it is a little more forgiving. With

Fidel Castro dead and Raúl Castro stepping down, the discussion now is what is next 90 miles to our south? Whatever it holds, South Florida and the State are more diverse and settled, and should handle whatever comes better than ever before.

Robert W. McKnight is a former Florida representative and senator from Miami and the Florida Keys. He is the author of “The Golden Years...The Florida Legislature, ’70s and ’80s, Reflections on Campaigns and Public Service.”