What Was the Mariel Boatlift From Cuba? History and Impact

A Large-Scale Exodus From Socialist Cuba

A fishing boat loaded with Cuban refugees heads towards Key West.

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The Mariel boatlift was a mass exodus of Cubans fleeing socialist Cuba for the United States. It took place between April and October 1980 and ultimately included 125,000 Cuban exiles. The exodus was a result of Fidel Castro's decision, following protests by 10,000 asylum seekers, to open the Mariel Harbor to allow any Cubans who wanted to leave to do so.

The boatlift had wide-ranging repercussions. Before then, Cuban exiles had mainly been white and middle- or upper-class. The Marielitos (as Mariel exiles were referred to) represented a much more diverse group both racially and economically, and included many gay Cubans who had experienced repression in Cuba. However, Castro also took advantage of the "open arms" policy of the Carter administration to forcefully deport thousands of convicted criminals and mentally ill people.

Fast Facts: The Mariel Boatlift

  • Short Description: A mass exodus by boat of 125,000 exiles from Cuba to the U.S.
  • Key Players/Participants: Fidel Castro, Jimmy Carter
  • Event Start Date: April 1980
  • Event End Date: October 1980
  • Location: Mariel, Cuba

Cuba in the 1970s

During the 1970s, Fidel Castro set about institutionalizing the initiatives of the socialist revolution during the previous decade, including nationalization of industries and the creation of universal and free healthcare and education systems. However, the economy was in shambles and worker morale was low. Castro critiqued the centralization of the government and aimed to promote more political participation by the population. In 1976, a new constitution created a system called poder popular (people's power), a mechanism for the direct election of municipal assemblies. Municipal assemblies would elect the provincial assemblies, who chose the deputies who made up the National Assembly, which holds legislative power.

In order to address the stagnant economy, material incentives were introduced and wages were linked to productivity, with workers needing to fill a quota. Workers who exceeded the quota were rewarded with a wage increase and given preferential access to large appliances in high demand, like televisions, washing machines, refrigerators, and even cars. The government addressed absenteeism and underemployment by introducing an anti-loafing law in 1971.

All of these changes resulted in economic growth at an annual rate of 5.7% during the 1970s. Of course, Cuban trade—both exports and imports—was heavily targeted toward the Soviet Union and eastern bloc countries, and thousands of Soviet advisors traveled to Cuba to provide technical assistance and material support in construction, mining, transportation, and other industries.

CONSTRUCTION IN HAVANA
Construction workers use antiquates methods in Havana, Cuba. Circa 1976.  Pictorial Parade / Getty Images

During the later 1970s, the Cuban economy stagnated again and there were food shortages, putting pressure on the government. Moreover, housing shortages had been a major problem since the Revolution, particularly in rural areas. The redistribution of homes that had been abandoned by exiles fleeing Cuba had ameliorated the housing crisis in urban areas (where most of the exiles lived), but not in the interior. Castro prioritized housing construction in rural areas but there were limited funds, many architects and engineers had fled the island, and the U.S. trade embargo made it more difficult to obtain materials.

Although major housing projects were completed in Havana and Santiago (the island's second largest city), the construction couldn't keep pace with the population increase and there was overcrowding in cities. Young couples, for example, couldn't move to their own place and most homes were inter-generational, which led to familial tensions.

Relations With the U.S. Before Mariel

Up until 1973, Cubans had been free to leave the island—and around one million had fled by the time of the Mariel boatlift. However, at that point the Castro regime shut the doors in an attempt to halt the massive brain drain of professionals and skilled workers.

The Carter presidency ushered in a short-lived detente between the U.S. and Cuba in the late 1970s, with Interest Sections (in lieu of embassies) established in Havana and Washington in 1977. High on the U.S.'s list of priorities was the release of Cuban political prisoners. In August 1979, the Cuban government freed over 2,000 political dissidents, allowing them to leave the island. In addition, the regime began allowing Cuban exiles to return to the island to visit relatives. They brought money and appliances with them, and Cubans on the island began to get a taste of the possibilities of living in a capitalist country. This, in addition to discontent regarding the economy and housing and food shortages, contributed to the unrest leading to the Mariel boatlift.

Protest outside Peruvian Embassy on April 19, 1980
A huge demonstration, counting nearly one million persons, parades in Havana on April 19, 1980, off the Peru Embassy, in protest against the Cuban refugees inside the Embassy. AFP / Getty Images 

Peruvian Embassy Incident

Beginning in 1979, Cuban dissidents began to assault international embassies in Havana to demand asylum and hijack Cuban boats to escape to the U.S. The first such attack was on May 14, 1979, when 12 Cubans crashed a bus into the Venezuelan Embassy. Several similar actions were taken over the next year. Castro insisted that the U.S. help Cuba prosecute the boat hijackers, but the U.S. ignored the request.

On April 1, 1980, bus driver Hector Sanyustiz and five other Cubans drove a bus into the gates of the Peruvian Embassy. Cuban guards started shooting. Two of the asylum seekers were injured and one guard was killed. Castro demanded the release of the exiles to the government, but the Peruvians refused. Castro responded on April 4 by removing guards from the Embassy and leaving it unprotected. Within hours, over 10,000 Cubans had stormed the Peruvian Embassy demanding political asylum. Castro agreed to allow the asylum seekers to leave.

Castro Opens Port of Mariel

In a surprise move, on April 20, 1980, Castro declared that anyone who wanted to leave the island was free to do so, as long as they left via the Mariel Harbor, 25 miles west of Havana. Within hours, Cubans took to the water, while exiles in south Florida sent boats to pick up relatives. The next day, the first boat from Mariel docked in Key West, with 48 Marielitos aboard.

A boat arrives in Key West, Florida with more Cuban refugees April, 1980 from Mariel Harbor after crossing the Florida Straits.  Miami Herald/Getty Images

During the first three weeks, responsibility for intake of the exiles was placed on Florida state and local officials, Cuban exiles, and volunteers, who were forced to construct makeshift immigration processing centers. The town of Key West was particularly overburdened. Anticipating the arrival of thousands more exiles, Florida Governor Bob Graham declared a state of emergency in Monroe and Dade counties on April 28. Realizing that this would be a mass exodus, three weeks after Castro opened the Mariel port, President Jimmy Carter ordered the federal government to begin helping with intake of the exiles. In addition, he proclaimed "an open-arms policy in response to the boatlift which would 'provide an open heart and open arms to refugees seeking freedom from Communist domination.'"

A baby is hoisted in the air as an act of celebration by a group of Cubans May 5,1980 at an Airforce Base in Florida.  Miami Herald/Getty Images

This policy was eventually extended to the Haitian refugees (referred to as "boat people") who had been fleeing the Duvalier dictatorship since the 1970s. Upon hearing about Castro's opening of the Mariel port, many decided to join the exiles fleeing Cuba. After critique from the African American community regarding a double standard (Haitians were often sent back), the Carter administration established the Cuban-Haitian Entrant Program on June 20, which allowed Haitians arriving during the Mariel exodus (ending on October 10, 1980) to receive the same temporary status as Cubans and to be treated as refugees.

A Coast Guard patrol boat lands at Miami, Florida, carrying 14 Haitian refugees rescued at sea while attempting to get to Florida in a leaking boat. Bettmann/Getty Images

Mental Health Patients and Convicts

In a calculated move, Castro took advantage of Carter's open-arms policy to forcefully deport thousands of convicted criminals, mentally ill people, gay men, and prostitutes; he viewed this move as purging the island of what he termed escoria (scum). The Carter administration attempted to blockade these flotillas, sending the Coast Guard to seize incoming boats, but most were able to evade the authorities.

The processing centers in south Florida were quickly overwhelmed, so the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) opened up four more refugee resettlement camps: Eglin Air Force Base in northern Florida, Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, and Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. Processing times often took months, and in June 1980 riots broke out at various facilities. These events, as well as pop culture references like "Scarface" (released in 1983), contributed to the misconception that most Marielitos were hardened criminals. Nonetheless, only about 4% of them had criminal records, many of which were for political imprisonment.

Schoultz (2009) asserts that Castro took steps to stop the exodus by September 1980, as he was concerned about harming Carter's reelection chances. Nonetheless, Carter's lack of control over this immigration crisis tanked his approval ratings and contributed to his losing the election to Ronald Reagan. The Mariel boatlift officially ended in October 1980 with an agreement between the two governments.

Legacy of the Mariel Boatlift

The Mariel boatlift resulted in a major shift in the demographics of the Cuban community in south Florida, where between 60,000 and 80,000 Marielitos settled. Seventy-one percent of them were black or of mixed-race and working-class, which was not the case for the earlier waves of exiles, who were disproportionately white, wealthy, and educated. More recent waves of Cuban exiles—such as the balseros (rafters) of 1994—have been, like the Marielitos, a much more diverse group socio-economically and racially.

Sources

  • Engstrom, David W. Presidential Decision Making Adrift: The Carter Presidency and the Mariel Boatlift. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997.
  • Pérez, Louis Jr. Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution, 3rd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Schoultz, Lars. That Infernal Little Cuban Republic: The United States and the Cuban Revolution. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
  • "The Mariel Boatlift of 1980." https://www.floridamemory.com/blog/2017/10/05/the-mariel-boatlift-of-1980/