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The Cuban government subsequently announced that anyone who wanted to leave could do so, and an exodus by boat started shortly afterward. The exodus was organized by Cuban-Americans with the agreement of Cuban president Fidel Castro. The exodus started to have negative political implications for U.S. president Jimmy Carter when it was discovered that a number of the exiles had been released from Cuban jails and mental health facilities. The Mariel boatlift was ended by mutual agreement between the two governments involved in October 1980. By that point, as many as 125,000 Cubans had made the journey to Florida.
The Mariel boatlift had its origins circa 1977 during a period when relations between Cuba and the United States were improving. The Carter administration established an Interest Section in Havana and the Cuban government reciprocated by establishing an Interest Section in Washington, D.C. Cuba subsequently agreed to the release of several dozen political prisoners and allowed Cuban Americans to return to the island to visit relatives—a privilege that had been denied previously to Cuban citizens living abroad.
Initially, the Carter administration had an open-arms policy in regard to Cuban immigrants. Cubans were immediately granted refugee status and all the rights that went with it. Additionally, public opinion towards Cuban refugees was initially favorable.
This situation changed when it was discovered that the refugees included criminals and people from Cuba's mental hospitals. Castro arranged for the inclusion of criminals and people with mental illness (who were still stigmatized at the time) among the political and economic refugees in order to rid Cuba of undesirables and to damage the image of Cuban exiles. This included homosexuals, such as the poet Reinaldo Arenas. United States media accounts such as a May 11, 1980 New York Times article, and the 1983 movie Scarface, suggested that the refugees consisted largely of undesirables.
This heightened tensions between the United States and Cuba.
In November 1978, the government of Fidel Castro met in the City of Havana with a group of Cubans living in exile, where the government acceded, among other important decisions, to start authorizing Cuban exiles to visit their relatives on the island as early as January 1979.
In May 1979 a bus carrying several people crashed through the gates of the Peruvian embassy in the upscale Havana suburb of Miramar. This was the first of several instances of forced entry into the Venezuelan and Peruvian Embassies that took place between 1979 and early 1980 by groups of people seeking political asylum.
|Month||Arrivals (#)||Arrivals (%)|
|April (from April 21)||7,665||6|
The episode started on April 1, 1980 when Hector Sanyustiz acted on a plan he had been organizing secretly for months. He boarded a bus, and along with four others (including the driver), stopped several blocks from Embassy Row in downtown Havana.
The driver, who was a friend of Sanyustiz, announced that the bus had broken down and emptied the vehicle, leaving the four others who were privy to the plan inside. Sanyustiz took control of the bus and drove it through a fence of the Peruvian embassy.
Some of the Cuban guards who were positioned to guard the street opened fire on the bus. One guard was fatally wounded in the crossfire. The five had taken desperate measures to ask for political asylum, so the Peruvian diplomat in charge of the embassy, Ernesto Pinto-Bazurco, granted it.
The Cuban government immediately asked the Peruvian government to return the five individuals, stating that they would need to be tried for the death of the guard. When the Peruvian government refused, Castro threatened to remove the guards at the entrance of the Peruvian embassy, and proceeded to do so on Good Friday, April 4, 1980.
On April 5, 1980, about 750 Cubans gathered at the Peruvian embassy in Havana and said they wanted diplomatic asylum.
The news of these events spread by word of mouth and by Easter Sunday, there were over 10,000 people crammed into the tiny Peruvian embassy grounds. The Cuban government quickly ordered a large number of guards back into place and blocked access along the perimeter of the embassy. Additionally, travel by motor vehicle was halted in the suburb of Miramar, home to most foreign embassies in the City of Havana.
Inside the embassy, people occupied every open space on the grounds, eventually climbing trees and other structures and refusing to abandon the premises despite the lack of basic surface infrastructure. The dangers inherent in this situation were allayed somewhat by the actions of other embassies, including those of Spain and Costa Rica, which agreed to accept a small number of refugees.
Castro ultimately stated that the port of Mariel would be opened to anyone wishing to leave Cuba, as long as they had someone to pick them up. While news of the situation was not broadcast in Cuba, Cuban exiles in the United States rushed to Key West and to docks in Miami to hire boats to transport people to the United States.
As the crisis deepened and the scale of the boat lift grew, the Coast Guard asked for help. In May 1980 the United States Navy dispatched the USS Saipan (LHA-2) and the USS Boulder (LST-1190) to support the Coast Guard with the assistance of refugees who were fleeing Cuba by way of Mariel. The mission of the Saipan and Boulder was to assist, but not directly transport, refugees on their way to mainland Florida. During the mission, Saipan and Boulder took aboard hundreds of refugees in need of humanitarian assistance. Needs included medical attention, food, fresh water, refueling of private watercraft and the like.
Some refugees from Mariel were ferried to the mainland via commercial watercraft. However, many refugees were poor and in rather dire straits. Essentially, these refugees had taken up less-than-desirable modes of transit, i.e. anything that would float. Jerry-built rafts were not an uncommon sight. Poor watercraft often broke down or ran out of fuel.
Upon completion of their mission, Saipan and Boulder officers and crew were awarded the Humanitarian Service Medal for their efforts during the Mariel boatlift.
Also, in May 1980, elements of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, 2nd Marine Division of Camp Lejeune, N.C. provided assistance to the INS; providing around the clock security at Trumbo Point and Truman Annex, interpreters and assisted with the processing of refugees once they arrived in Key West, Florida. Dozens of watercraft arrived daily. 706 refugees were counted on the Red Diamond alone. One craft lost power 60 miles from Key West and had to be towed to the U.S. mainland. Not all vessels that arrived at Truman Annex were carrying Cubans. Canadians were held for weeks in Mariel Harbor before being allowed to leave.
In recognition of their assistance in support of the Cuban refugee humanitarian operation, entitled Operation Freedom Flotilla, the Marines of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, 2nd Marine Division were awarded the Humanitarian Service Medal and a Certificate of Appreciation for exemplary service at Key West, Florida. F-4 "Phantom" fighter aircraft from VMFA-312 provided air cover. The Marines of VMFA-312, based at MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina, at the time also received the Humanitarian Service Medal.
In May 1980, the US Army dispatched the 503rd Military Police Battalion (commanded by LTC David Humbert) of the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to relieve the Florida National Guard units who were mobilized to handle the on-ground safety and security as well as daily operations of the various refugee compounds established throughout the Miami metropolitan area. These compounds were generally at the various decommissioned Nike-Hercules Missile Defense Sites left over from the Cold War. Other sites were established at the Orange Bowl and various churches throughout the area. Some sites were established to segregate the refugees until they could be provided with initial inprocessing at places like the Nike-Hercules sites at Key Largo and Krome Avenue. Once initially processed and documented, the refugees were quickly transferred to larger compounds in the metropolitan area so they could be reunited with relatives already living in the US as well as to allow interaction with various social action agencies like Catholic Charities, the American Red Cross, and others. It was at these initial processing sites that the undesirable elements were identified and segregated from the general population. The 503rd MP Battalion was augmented by Spanish-speaking soldiers of the 96th Civil Affairs and Psychological Warfare elements of the JFK Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg. As the Haitian refugees started arriving, interpreters were found to be in short supply for Haitian Creole and interpreters from the local Haitian community were put under contract through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). As the end of the initial crisis period wound down and after the vetting of those refugees who could be sponsored had run its course, the decision to transfer the 'hard to sponsor' refugees, which included those with criminal records, to longer-term processing sites at Fort Chaffee, AR and Fort Indiantown Gap,PA also Fort McCoy Wisconsin as a joint operation with FEMA and the US Bureau of Prisons among other federal agencies including the US Army Military Police corps. US Army members participating in this operation were awarded the Humanitarian Service Medal for their service.
About fifty percent of the Mariel immigrants decided to reside in Miami permanently and this resulted in a seven percent increase in workers in the Miami labor market and a twenty percent increase in the Cuban working population.
Aside from the unemployment rate rising from 5.0% in April 1980 to 7.1% in July, which should be expected with such a large increase of workers, the actual damage to the economy was marginal and followed trends across the United States at the time. When observing data from 1979 to 1985 on the Miami labor market and comparing it to similar data from several other major cities across the United States focusing on wages it is clear that the effects of the boatlift were marginal.
The wages for White Americans remained steady in both Miami and comparative cities. Likewise the wage rates for African Americans were relatively steady from 1979 to 1985 when in comparable cities it dropped. Aside from a dip in 1983, wage rates for Non-Cuban Hispanics were stable, when in comparable cities it fell approximately six percent.
There is no evidence of a negative effect on wage rates for other groups of Hispanics in Miami. Wages for Cubans demonstrated a steady decline especially compared to other groups in Miami at the time, however, this can be attributed exclusively to the 'dilution' of the group with the new, less-experienced and lower-earning Mariel immigrants, meaning that there is also no evidence of a negative effect on wage rates for Cubans already residing in Miami prior to 1980.
The Cuban government eventually closed the Mariel harbor to would-be emigrants. Approximately 125,000 Cubans arrived at the United States' shores in about 1,700 boats, creating large waves of people that overwhelmed the U.S. Coast Guard. 27 migrants died, including 14 on an overloaded boat that capsized on May 17, 1980. Upon their arrival, many Cubans were placed in refugee camps. Others were held in federal prisons pending deportation hearings.
Crowded conditions in South Florida immigration processing centers forced U.S. federal agencies to move many of the Marielitos to other centers in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, Camp Santiago, Puerto Rico, and Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Federal civilian police agencies such as the General Services Administration's Federal Protective Service provided officers to maintain order inside the gates of the relocation centers. Riots occurred at the Fort Chaffee center and some detainees escaped which became a campaign issue in the re-election defeat of Governor Bill Clinton.
Many refugees were discovered to be undesirables; for example, criminals who had been released from Cuban prisons or other institutions (such as people with mental illness). The exact number of 'undesirables' that arrived in the boatlift is disputed, with estimates ranging from as low as 7,500 to as high as 40,000.
The majority of refugees were ordinary Cubans. Many had been allowed to leave Cuba for reasons which, in the United States, were either loyalty-neutral or protected: tens of thousands were Seventh-Day Adventists or Jehovah's Witnesses, for example. Some had been declared "anti-socialista" by their block Committees back in Cuba. In the end, only 2% (or 2,746) of the refugees were classified as serious or violent criminals under U.S. law and denied citizenship on that basis.
The Mariel boatlift was the subject of a 1981 PBS documentary film Against Wind and Tide: A Cuban Odyssey, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Fictional depictions include Scarface (1983), The Perez Family (1995), and Before Night Falls (2000). In the pilot episode of the television series Miami Vice (1984), the villain's right-hand man, Trini De Soto, mentions he was in detention with other "Marielito riffraff". Inconsolable Memories a 2005 installation by Canadian artist Stan Douglas is based on Tomas Gutierrez Alea's 1968 film Memorias del subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment) and tells the fictional story of Sergio, a black architect in Havana at the time of the Mariel boatlift. Douglas's installation consists of a 16mm projection with a photographic series of contemporary Havana.
Notable Mariel boatlift refugees ("Marielitos") include: