Mariel 1980 and how I got reconnected with Cuba

By the late 1970’s, I had few reasons to think about Cuba.    I was not avoiding Cuba but I was not talking about it either.    Then, the Mariel boatlift began:

“On April 20, 1980, the Castro regime announces that all Cubans wishing to emigrate to the U.S. are free to board boats at the port of Mariel west of Havana, launching the Mariel Boatlift. The first of 125,000 Cuban refugees from Mariel reached Florida the next day.”

By April 1980, the embassies of Argentina and Peru were flooded with Cubans looking for a way out of the island.

It became an international crisis and President Jimmy Carter issued a statement about the situation. He expressed concern about the safety and well being of the 10,800 Cubans at the Peruvian embassy.

Fidel Castro responded by calling on Cubans to leave if they didn’t support the revolution. Immediately, more Cubans rushed to the embassies.

It quickly became an embarrassment, as well as a logistics problem for embassies protecting hundreds of Cubans. Fidel Castro responded again and told Cubans to leave the island.

And thousands did.

Suddenly, Americans saw boats full of Cubans landing in Florida. It soon became a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions.

Then-Rear Admiral Benedict L. Stabile, USCG related the story years later:

The size of the refugee flotilla was staggering.

Trailered boats were lined-up 50 to 100 deep at Key West, waiting their turn to be launched. This went on for 36 to 48 hours; local residence could hear the activity around the clock.

Hundreds of trailers were scattered throughout Key West.

One thousand craft were observed southbound on the afternoon of the 24th.

For the most part, these were Cuban Americans who owned their own boat, typically a 20 to 40 footer relatively well equipped for local pleasure boating.
Reportedly, the tanks in numerous craft had inadequate fuel capacity and the vessels were carrying additional fuel in portable containers.

This, the first wave, resulted in the transit of 1,000 to 1,200 boats to Mariel in relatively short order.

It went on for weeks!

Mariel brought thousands to the U.S. and most of them turned out to be very good additions to Florida. Unfortunately, there were some criminal elements but they were a very small number. Don’t judge “Marielitos” by Tony Montana of Scarface!

Years later, most of the “Marielitos” have contributed much to Miami and the U.S.

For me, Mariel was a turning point in rediscovering my Cuban roots. It reconnected me with the Cuban cause, especially since I saw boats and people leaving the same island that I left as a kid in 1964.

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