On April 20, 1980, Fidel Castro announced that Cubans would be allowed to board ships in Mariel, Cuba, and leave the country, sparking an exodus of 125,000 Cubans to the United States.
125,000 Cubans Escape in Mariel Boatlift
In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, a weak economy, housing and job shortages, and resentment toward Fidel Castro’s regime compelled some desperate Cubans to escape from the island by driving vehicles through barricades into the embassies of Venezuela and Peru and demanding political asylum.
On April 1, 1980, Hector Sanyustiz drove a stolen bus with four other people through a fence of the Peruvian embassy. Cuban guards fired at the bus, and one guard was killed in the crossfire. Castro demanded that the five be given up to go on trial, but Peru refused.
On April 4, Castro removed his guards from the embassy. Two days later, on Easter Sunday, there were more than 10,000 Cubans gathered at the embassy to request asylum. They were locked inside the embassy grounds for two weeks as various foreign countries offered to accept a small percentage of the refugees.
On April 20, Castro announced that anyone wanting to leave Cuba could gather at the port of Mariel to load into boats bound for the United States. By the next day, the first in a wave of refugees escaped to Florida.
Cuban guards packed refugees onto approximately 1,700 boats in unsafe numbers. One boat capsized under its weight and 14 people were killed. As the number of departures increased, U.S. officials were stepped up patrols and responded to frequent distress calls. The boatlift proved to be a considerable challenge for the Coast Guard. The agency was also handling many inquiries from boaters looking to head to Cuba to pick up refugees.
For President Jimmy Carter, the boatlift was a public relations disaster. Many of the “Marielitos”—as they came to be called—were criminals and former mental patients who had been forced out by Castro. These immigrants were detained or held in refugee camps.
Cuba and the United States mutually agreed to end the exodus in October 1980. An estimated 125,000 Cubans reached the U.S. during the seven months of the Mariel boatlift.
Watch a Cuban newsreel announcing the Mariel boatlift. It is in Spanish with an English transcript.
The Experiences of the Marielitos
Sources in this Story
- Miami Herald: The Mariel exodus: from trickle to tsunami
- History.com: Castro announces Mariel Boatlift
- United States Coast Guard: U.S. Coast Guard Operations During the 1980 Cuban Exodus
- Time: Working Hard Against an Image
- The New York Times: The Long Voyage From Mariel Ends
- The Huffington Post: Remembering the Mariel Boatlift
- PBS: POV: 90 Miles
- The BBC: Castro: Profile of the great survivor
In 1983, Time noted that many of the Marielitos who had made the trip to the United States were still working on improving their image in their new country.
A few Marielitos were able to adjust well to their surroundings with the help of relatives and friends who had come to the United States before them. Others were not so successful, handicapped by limited knowledge of the English language or poor education.
Some organized a festival to thank Miami for its help with their situation, and showcase some of the talents of the people who arrived in the boatlift.
Choreographer and Dancer Pedro Pablo Peña, who was directing the “Creation Ballet” in Coral Gables at the time, said, “This is the other face of Mariel. It shows we are succeeding and contributing to this country.”
Of the boatlift, award-winning Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez said that those who left were not given an easy farewell. “The eggs were flying here and there, some they threw and others they smashed on their faces, doors and windows.” Families who separated often stopped speaking to each other.
Sanchez concluded, “I don’t think we’ll go back to having other events such as the Mariel Boatlift. Emigration happens more quietly now, in rocky coves where—in the early hours every morning—someone launches themselves into the sea, and in the consulates crammed with people looking for a visa. They no longer use the harsh adjectives of the past, now they’re called ‘economic emigrants,’ but the property they leave behind continues to be confiscated. To the west of Havana, however, we have the sad reminder of when thousands screamed, ‘Scum get out! Go! Go!’”
Cuban filmmaker Juan Carlos Zaldívar chronicled his experiences taking part in the boatlift as a child in the 2003 PBS documentary “90 Miles.” Though Zaldívar himself was reluctant to leave Cuba, he adapted well to living in the U.S.; however, his parents and older elatives, who were eager to leave, found the transition difficult.
“Zaldívar’s father, especially, grew depressed and remote from his son after arriving,” explains PBS. “The father’s dream of building his own home in Cuba, derailed by the Revolution, seemed to lose its power in the United States, where many Cuban men find themselves working jobs well below their professional level. Feeling betrayed by the Cuban Revolution and defeated by the ‘American Dream,’ Zaldívar's father withdrew into himself.”
Key Player: Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro “outlasted no fewer than nine American presidents” from the time he assumed leadership of Cuba in 1959, according to the BBC. He fell ill a few hours after the Revolution Day celebrations on July 26, 2006. A year later, he had still not returned to public life and it became increasingly unlikely that he would emerge from semi-retirement.
In 2008, Castro declared that he would not seek another presidential term. He was the longest surviving Cold War-era world leader.