Castro, Cuba, and a Fleet of Fishing Boats: The Causes and Effects of the Mariel Boatlift

Today’s post was written by Lynn Nashorn, textual processing and accessioning archivist at the National Archives at College Park.

In 2020, the United States marked the 40th anniversary of the Mariel boatlift that brought approximately 125,000 Cubans to the United States in the course of just over six months. The journey to this mass exodus began in the late 1970s when groups of Cubans, under economic strain from the effects of a 1962 U.S. trade embargo and reduced commercial support from the Soviet Union, started forcing their way into Venezuelan and Peruvian embassies in attempts to gain asylum. These events came to a head starting in 1979.

            On May 13, 1979, several Cubans seeking asylum crashed a bus into the Venezuelan Embassy. Two months later, on July 16, Cuba’s National Revolutionary Police or Policia Nacional Revolucionaria (PNR) started shooting at Cubans attempting to forcibly enter the Venezuelan Embassy. Finally, on April 1, 1980, PNR officers opened fire on six Cubans who crashed a bus into the fence surrounding the Peruvian Embassy. However, one of the PNR bullets ricocheted off the bus and fatally shot PNR officer Pedro Ortiz Cabrera.

            In response to Cabrera’s death, President of the Council of State Fidel Castro ordered the Peruvian Embassy to release the Cubans to the government so that they could be tried for the death of Ortiz Cabrera. The embassy refused Castro’s demands and, in retaliation, Cuba withdrew all PNR protections from international embassies in the country. Without PNR officers guarding embassies, an estimated 10,000 Cuban dissidents flooded embassy walls throughout the capital of Havana.

            Meanwhile in the United States, President Jimmy Carter was in the process of loosening restrictions on travel between the two countries. In September 1977, the President established an Interests Section run by the Department of State in Havana and, likewise, Castro set up an Interests Section in Washington, D.C. A group of congressmen visited Cuba in December 1978 and, by 1979, Americans started organizing tour groups to visit Cuba despite the United States never reaching an agreement to ease its trade embargo with the country.

            Within this context, on April 20, 1980, Fidel Castro declared that Cuba would open the port of Mariel for the next six months for all dissidents who wanted to leave the country as long as they could arrange transportation. Castro dismissed dissidents as “parasites” feeding off the Cuban Revolution in his speech and Granma, the Cuban Revolution’s official newspaper called them “antisocialists”, “bums”, and “gusanos” (the Spanish term for worms) and members of Cuba’s Committees for the Defense of the Revolution led chants of “They should go! They should get out!” outside embassies. Concurrently, Cuban exiles in Florida speedily arranged a 1,700 boat fleet of rented fishing and shrimp boats to carry their relatives from Cuba to the United States.

4 fishing boats on open water loaded with many people
Overloaded boats during the Mariel Boatlift, 1980 (Dale McDonald Collection, Florida Keys Public Library)

            On April 21, 1980, the first boat from the port of Mariel arrived in Key West, Florida carrying 48 Cuban exiles and, within four days, nearly 300 boats arrived in Mariel Harbor to ferry many more refugees to the United States. Cuban officials eagerly started loading fleeing dissidents into Cuban fishing boats and Haitians, who immigrated to the United States before the Mariel boatlift, joined in the mass exodus. Within a week, Florida’s Governor Bob Graham declared a state of emergency in Monroe and Dade counties in response to the thousands of Cuban exiles arriving on Florida’s shores. Immigration from Cuba peaked in May of 1980 with 86,488 refugees comprising 69% of all Mariel boatlift exiles (or Marielitos) arriving in Florida that month alone (Cuba Press Clips, Records of the Office of the Public Liaison, NAID 134757680).

Cuban refugees on a sailboat, clipped from New York Times article
Image from New York Times article, “Harbor in Cuba A Floating City of 1300 Boats” Apr 26, 1980 (NAID 134757680)

            After declaring an “open arms” policy towards Cuban exiles in May, President Carter announced the formation of the Cuban-Haitian Entrant Program (CHEP) in June that gave refugees temporary status as well as access to asylum processing and community assistance. In response, Castro (called a dictator by immigrating Cubans) deported those he deemed “trash” to the U.S.: including convicted criminals, sex workers, and people on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum.

            By the time the U.S. negotiated an end to the boat lifts in October 1980, the Mariel boatlift had become the largest single migration of Cubans to the United States in history, and the Carter administration struggled to handle the influx of refugees. Decommissioned missile defense sites, the Miami Orange Bowl, churches, and other venues acted as processing centers for the refugees and the American Red Cross, Catholic Charities, and others assisted immigrants. However, critics argue that Marielitos received less overall assistance than previous groups of refugees because of their darker skin tones, sexual orientations, and just their sheer number.

dozens of people sitting in a large hanger
Cubans await processing at an emergency shelter in Boca Chica, FL (USCG Historian’s Office)
overhead view of dozens of people in hanger
In 1980 those arriving during the early stages of the boatlift from the port of Mariel, Cuba were housed temporarily in hangars at the Boca Chica airbase in the Florida Keys (USCG Historian’s Office)

            In November 1980, President Carter lost his bid for re-election to Republican challenger Ronald Reagan.  Analysts saw his handling of the Mariel boatlift as one of many factors leading to his defeat, but Carter stood by his handling of the mass migration saying, “I have not been elected President of the United States to kill refugees.” Then-governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, also lost his run for re-election, many claim, as a result of taking in hundreds of Marielitos in Fort Chafee.  However, Clinton served as Arkansas governor again from 1983 to 1992, and handily won the 1992 U.S. Presidential Election against George H. W. Bush.

            Under a revision of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, all Mariel refugees from Cuba received permanent legal status in 1984.  Two years later, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 allowed all Cuban-Haitian Marielitos to apply for permanent residency. As of June 2016, 478 Marielitos cannot be admitted to the United States under immigration laws.  Age and poor health prevent the deportation of some of these individuals but, in accordance with the Cuban government, the United States plans to deport the small number of refugees deemed serious criminals.

dozen plus men standing on a boat transporting them from Cuba
A boat crowded with Cuban refugees arrives in Key West, Florida, during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift (Dept of Homeland Security)

            In the 1990s, journalists and politicians used the term “Mariel” to allude to the threat of an immigration disaster. However, despite increasing Miami’s workforce by seven percent, according to studies compiled during the Clinton administration, the influx of refugees from the Mariel boatlift did not meaningfully impact native-born Miamians’ employment or wages (Weekly Economic Briefing of the President of the United States, April 25, 1997 NAID 147871313). The International Herald Tribune further noted in 2020, on the 40th anniversary of the boatlift, that Marielitos “revitalized” Latino art in the United States.

summary of studies showing that influx of immigrants not displacing native born workers
Immigrants Have Little Effect on Native Migration, Weekly Economic Briefing of the President of the United States, Apr 25, 1997 (NAID 147871313)

            Time’s columnist, Julio Capó wrote in 2017 that the Mariel boatlift was an “outlier” in our country’s immigration history and resulted from “Cold War posturing between the United States and Cuba.” Yet, even with the Cold War in the past, immigration remains one of the most complex and controversial issues in American politics as our country of immigrants continually diversifies itself.