The Mariel Boatlift

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April 2020 marks the 40th anniversary of the Mariel boatlift, a mass emigration to the US of Cuban nationals hoping to escape the economic downturn and political oppressiveness of Castro’s Cuba. Al Pacino’s portrayal of fictional Tony Montana in Brian De Palma’s 1983 film Scarface may be the most notable example of the life of a Marielito in America, the true story of these people and this event is equally compelling.

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Overcrowding at the Peruvian embassy.

After 10,000 asylum-seeking Cubans entered the grounds of the Peruvian embassy – about the size of a US football field – the Cuban government finally relented and said that anyone wishing to leave Cuba for the US could do so with priority given to those with family in the States. The Cuban government began issuing safe-conduct passes and visas to asylum-seekers, initially handing out papers to 3,000 Cubans. US President Jimmy Carter announced he would willingly accept 3,500 asylum-seekers. 

The Cuban government then began sanctioning and carrying out violent acts against those who wanted to leave the country. Pro-Castro Cubans attacked and slandered those of their neighbours who wanted to leave. Cuban Americans began to hire boats in Florida to go and pick up their relatives. A temporary camp was set up at Mariel harbour for those awaiting the boats sent by their American families. When a boat arrived at Mariel, the captains were asked who they were there to pick up. Cuban soldiers would then go to the camp and announce to the asylum-seekers that their “ride” had arrived. This lead to confusion however and often a boat captain would be expecting one family and getting another. When the soldiers were informed of the mistake, they forced the boat captains to leave the harbour anyway. Additionally, these boats were loaded by the soldiers with more people than it was safe to carry.

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“‘You have to take these people. No? Well, then you can’t take anyone. And your relatives go on the next boat’. They would stuff 300 people on your boat that was only made for 50 people and your relatives were not among them.”


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By April 25, 300 boats were picking up refugees and the Cuban government began stuffing people on Cuban fishing boats just to get them out. By early May, 15,761 Cubans had arrived in Florida and President Carter had to declare a state of emergency in the state. Human rights concerns lead Carter to implement an “open arms” policy, which said any and all people arriving on Florida’s shores would receive at least temporary status.

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Once Castro learned of the open arms policy, he made his move to open his jails and dump all manner of convicted criminals onto American shores. He also forced the exodus of the mentally ill, homosexuals and prostitutes. Some Florida boat captains recall Cubans being bound and thrown aboard boats going to America; the Cuban government simply wanted rid of them. Carter had no choice but to call for a blockade. By the fall, though, 125,000 Cubans had arrived in the US.


“They told us we should not say that we had been in jail. ‘If, when you arrive, you say that you were in jail they will jail you or return you. And we don’t want you coming back’.”


Most refugees were legally admissible into the country but about 2.2% were declared serious criminals and denied admission. Also, if a Cuban had no “sponsor family”, they were held in camps that were created for the purpose. By ‘84, the Marielitos were legally allowed to apply for citizenship but by ‘87 many were still detained and inadmissible under immigration law. Of the 125,000 refugees, an estimated 20,000 were criminals. Half the immigrants settled in Miami but this was deemed to have had a minimal effect on the economy and the jobless rates in the city.

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However, many American citizens in South Florida were vocal in their disapproval of the influx of what they considered “foreigners” and “criminals” who were thought to be “invading” America. Additionally, government aid dollars were spent on the Marielitos while many Americans felt that money could be better spent on needy US citizens.


“I am truly very grateful to this country. And I am very grateful to…President Carter…he is the one who opened the doors for us and I am very grateful to him.”


Notable Marielitos include a Pulitzer Prize winner, poets, business people, actors and musicians. Also gang members, arsonists and at least five convicted murderers.  Undoubtedly though, most Marielitos were truly in search of a better life. They sought to escape the injustices of their homeland and to live in the freedom of the US. Most spent their lives contributing to society and many were eternally grateful to President Carter for giving them this opportunity. Some though lamented their loss. Some left loved ones in Cuba, never to see them again. Some also watched, from the crowded deck of a fishing boat leaving Mariel harbour, their island recede over the horizon, their home – the beauty of which had been ruined by political chaos – lost to them forever.

The quotes in this article and a lot of my perspective on this historic event came from an excellent documentary made by Lisandro Perez-Rey. You can watch it here.

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