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Cuban refugees arriving in crowded boats during the Mariel boatlift crisis
Cuban refugees arriving in crowded boats during the Mariel boatlift crisis

The Mariel boatlift was a mass emigration of Cubans, who traveled from Cuba's Mariel Harbor to the United States between 15 April and 31 October 1980. The term "Marielito" (plural "Marielitos") is used to refer to these refugees in both Spanish and English. While the boatlift was incited by a sharp downturn in the Cuban economy, generations of Cubans had immigrated to the United States before the boatlift in search of both political freedom and economic opportunities.

After approximately 10,000 Cubans tried to gain asylum by taking refuge on the grounds of the Peruvian embassy, the Cuban government announced that anyone who wanted to leave could do so. The ensuing mass migration was organized by Cuban Americans with the agreement of Cuban president Fidel Castro. The arrival of the refugees in the United States created political problems for President Jimmy Carter. His administration struggled to develop a consistent response to the immigrants, and it was discovered that a number of the refugees had been released from Cuban jails and mental health facilities. The Mariel boatlift was ended by mutual agreement between the two governments in late October 1980. By that time as many as 125,000 Cubans had reached Florida.


In the late 1970s, the administration of U.S. president Jimmy Carter sought to improve relations between the United States and Cuba. He lifted all restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba, and in September 1977, Cuba and the U.S. each established an Interest Section in the other's capital. However, relations were still strained because Cuba contributed troops to support the Soviet Union's military interventions in Africa and the Middle East.[1] The two countries struggled to reach agreement on a relaxation of the U.S. embargo on trade to permit the importation of a select list of medicines to Cuba without provoking Carter's political opponents in the U.S. Congress.[2]

Ten members of Congress visited Cuba in December 1978, after which the Cuban government released the American manager of a business in Cuba who had been prevented from leaving in 1963, accused of being a CIA agent and sentenced to 50 years in prison.[3] A group of 55 people who had been brought from Cuba to the U.S. by their parents returned for three weeks in December 1978, a rare instance of Cuba allowing the return of Cuban-born émigrés.[4] In December 1978 the two countries agreed upon their maritime border and the next month were working on an agreement to improve their communications in the Straits of Florida. The U.S. responded to Cuban relaxation of restrictions on emigration by allowing Cuban Americans to send up to $500 to an emigrating relative (equivalent to $1,900 in 2018).[5]

In November 1978 the government of Fidel Castro met in Havana with a group of Cubans living in exile and agreed to grant an amnesty to 3,600 political prisoners and announced that they would be freed in the course of the next year and allowed to leave Cuba.[6][7]

Caribbean Holidays began offering one-week trips to Cuba in January 1978 in cooperation with Cubatur, the official Cuban travel agency.[8] By May 1979, tours were being organized for Americans to participate in the Cuban Festival of Arts (Carifesta) in July, with flights departing from Tampa, Mexico City, and Montreal.[9]

Before 1980 many Haitian immigrants had come to American shores by boat. These immigrants were not granted legal protection because they were considered economic migrants rather than political refugees, despite claims many Haitians made that they were being persecuted by the Haitian Duvalier regime. Presidents Nixon and Ford denied claims of asylum in the United States for Haitian boat people. A backlash by the Congressional Black Caucus emerged claiming the U.S. government was discriminating against Haitian immigrants.[10]

Asylum crisis

Several attempts by Cubans to seek asylum at the embassies of South American countries set the stage for the events of the spring of 1980. On 21 March 1978, two young Cuban writers who had been punished for dissent and denied permission to emigrate, Reynaldo Colas Pineda and Esteban Luis Cárdenas Junquera, sought asylum in the Argentine embassy in Havana without success. They were sentenced to years in prison.[11] On 13 May 1979, 12 Cubans sought to take asylum in the Venezuelan embassy in Havana, crashing their bus through a fence to gain entry to the grounds and the building.[12] In January 1980, groups of asylum-seekers took refuge in the Peruvian and Venezuelan embassies, and Venezuela called its ambassador home for consultations to protest the fact the Cuban police had fired on them.[13] Peru recalled its ambassador in March after he denied entry to a dozen Cubans seeking asylum in his embassy.[14]

The embassy invasions then became a confrontation between the Cuban government and the Havana embassies. A group of Cubans attempted to enter the Peruvian embassy in the last week of March, and on 1 April a group of six driving a city bus was successful in doing so, and a Cuban guard was killed by a ricocheting bullet.[15] The Peruvians announced they would not hand those seeking asylum over to Cuban police.[14] The embassy grounds contained two two-story buildings and gardens covering an area the size of a U.S. football field, or 6,400 square yards [16] The Cuban government announced on 4 April that it was withdrawing its security forces, normally officers from the Interior Ministry armed with automatic weapons, from that embassy: "We cannot protect embassies that do not cooperate in their own protection." Following that announcement, about 50 Cubans entered the embassy grounds.[15] By nightfall on 5 April, that number had grown to 2,000, including many children and a few former political prisoners.

Cuban officials announced through loudspeakers that anyone who had not entered the embassy grounds by force was free to emigrate provided another country would grant them entry. President Francisco Morales of Peru had announced a willingness to accept asylum-seekers. Diplomats from several countries met with the Peruvians to discuss the situation, including the crowd's food and shelter requirements. An official of the U.S. State Department stated on 5 April that the United States would grant asylum to bona fide political prisoners and handle other requests to immigrate following standard procedures,[14] which provided for the issuance of 400 immigrant visas per month to Cubans, with preference given to those with family members already in the U.S.[17]

By April 6 the crowd had reached 10,000, and as sanitary conditions on the embassy grounds deteriorated Cuban authorities prevented further access.[18] The Cuban government called those seeking asylum "bums, antisocial elements, delinquents, and trash."[16] By 8 April, 3700 of the asylum-seekers had accepted safe conduct passes to return to their homes, and the government began providing shipments of food and water.[17] Peru tried to organize an international relief program,[19] and won commitments first from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela to help with resettlement,[20] and then from Spain, which agreed to accept 500.[21] By 11 April, the Cuban government began furnishing the asylum-seekers with documents that guaranteed their right to emigrate, including permanent safe-conduct passes and passports,[21] and in the first two days about 3,000 received those papers and left the grounds.[22] On 14 April, President Jimmy Carter announced the U.S. would accept 3,500 refugees and that Costa Rica had agreed to provide a staging area for screening potential immigrants.[23]

The Cuban government organized acts of repudiation against those who wished to leave the island. In some of these acts mobs would beat their targets, force them to walk around with accusatory signs on their necks, or trash their homes.[24]

The Cuban government facilitated an emigration process giving special privilege to those deemed socially undesirable. People deemed "Homosexual" would be deemed able to leave the country. Those with gender non-conforming behavior were especially targeted by authorities for departure. Some Cuban homosexuals were even given the option between emigration and jail time to encourage departure from the island. Many Cubans would enter police stations to declare their homosexual behavior to be granted permission to leave the island.[25]

The Carter administration was negotiating the legal status of Haitian refugees as the Mariel boatlift began. As Cuban refugees began to arrive in the United States a focus was put on the treatment of Haitian refugees and President Carter declared Haitian refugees and Cuban refugees would be accepted in the same manner.[10] The United States would label all refugees that would come in during the Mariel boatlift as "Cuban-Haitian entrants" and would be approved by the discretion of the Attorney General.[26]


At first emigrants were permitted to leave Cuba via flights to Costa Rica followed by eventual relocation to countries that would accept them. After news coverage of celebratory masses of Cubans emigrating by to Costa Rica the Cuban government declared emigrants could only leave by flying directly to their accepting country. 7,500 Cubans left the country through these initial flights.[25]

Castro stated ultimately on 20 April that the port of Mariel would be opened to anyone wishing to leave Cuba, as long as they had someone to pick them up.[28] Soon after Castro's decree many Cuban Americans began making arrangements to pick up refugees in Mariel harbor. On April 21 the first boat from Mariel harbor docked in Key West holding 48 refugees. By April 25 as many as 300 boats were picking up refugees in Mariel harbor. Cuban officials also packed refugees into Cuban fishing vessels.[29]

Haitian refugees had been continuously coming to the United States before the Mariel boatlift and continued to do so with the flotilla.[29]

After the arrival of thousands of refugees Florida Governor Bob Graham declared a state of emergency in Monroe and Dade counties on April 28. According to a U.S. Coast Guard report, 15,761 refugees had arrived in Florida by early May. On May 6, President Carter declared a state of emergency in the areas of Florida most “severely affected” by the exodus, and an open arms policy where all refugees fleeing Cuba would receive temporary status. On June 20 the Cuban-Haitian Entrant Program was established and Haitians would be given the same legal status as Cuban refugees in the United States during the Mariel boatlift. Around 25,000 Haitians would enter the United States during the boatlift.[29]

In response to the United States' open arms policy Castro called for the deportation of convicted criminals, the mentally ill, homosexuals and prostitutes. President Carter then called for a blockade on the flotilla by the U.S. Coast Guard. At least 1,400 boats would be seized but many slipped by and over 100,000 more Cuban and Haitian refugees continued to pour into Florida over the next five months. The Mariel Boatlift would end by agreement between the United States and Cuba in October 1980.[29]

Arrival and processing

Refugees were processed at camps set up in the greater Miami area, generally at decommissioned missile defense sites. Other sites were established at the Orange Bowl and various churches throughout the area. Some sites were established to segregate the refugees until they could be provided with initial processing at places like the Nike–Hercules sites at Key Largo and Krome Avenue. Once initially processed and documented, the refugees were quickly transferred to larger compounds in the metropolitan area so they could be reunited with relatives already living in the United States as well as to allow interaction with various social-action agencies such as Catholic Charities and the American Red Cross. At these initial processing sites the undesirable elements were identified and segregated from the general population.

As the Haitian refugees started arriving, interpreters were found to be in short supply for Haitian Creole, and interpreters from the local Haitian community were put under contract through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). As the end of the initial crisis period wound down and after the vetting of those refugees who could be sponsored had run its course, the decision was made to transfer the "hard to sponsor" refugees, which included those with criminal records, to longer-term processing sites at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, and Fort McCoy in Wisconsin.

Crowded conditions in South Florida immigration processing centers forced U.S. federal agencies to move many of the Marielitos to other centers in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania; Fort McCoy, Wisconsin; Camp Santiago, Puerto Rico; and Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Federal civilian police agencies such as the General Services Administration's Federal Protective Service provided officers to maintain order inside the gates of the relocation centers. Riots occurred at the Fort Chaffee center and some detainees escaped, an event that became a campaign issue in the re-election defeat of Governor Bill Clinton.

The majority of refugees were ordinary Cubans. Many had been allowed to leave Cuba for reasons that, in the United States, were either loyalty-neutral or protected: tens of thousands were Seventh-Day Adventists or Jehovah's Witnesses, for example. Some had been declared "antisocialist" by their CDRs back in Cuba. In the end, only 2.2 percent (or 2,746) of the refugees were classified as serious or violent criminals under U.S. law and denied citizenship on that basis.[30] By June 2016, 478 remained to be deported; according to the Department of Homeland Security, some are elderly or sick, and the Department had no desire to send these back to Cuba. Under a 2016 agreement with the Cuban government, the U.S. will deport the final remaining migrants deemed as serious criminals.[31]

In 1984, the Mariel refugees from Cuba received permanent legal status under a revision to the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966. Haitians were instead considered economic refugees, making them unable to get the same residency status as Cubans and subject deportation. Two years later, under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, all Cuban-Haitian entrants that had immigrated in 1980 were able to apply for permanent residency.[29]


Out of the around 125,000 refugees that entered the United States around 16,000 to 20,000 were estimated to be criminals according to a 1985 Sun Sentinel magazine article. In a 1985 report around 350 to 400 Mariel Cubans were reported to inhabit Dade County jails on a typical day.[32]

About half of the Mariel immigrants decided to live in Miami permanently, which resulted in a 7 percent increase in workers in the Miami labor market and a 20 percent increase in the Cuban working population.[33] Aside from the unemployment rate rising from 5.0 percent in April 1980 to 7.1 percent in July, the actual damage to the economy was marginal and followed trends across the United States at the time. When observing data from 1979 to 1985 on the Miami labor market and comparing it with similar data from several other major cities across the United States, focusing on wages, the effects of the boatlift were marginal.[34]

The wages for white Americans remained steady in both Miami and comparable cities. The wage rates for African Americans were relatively steady from 1979 to 1985 when in comparable cities it dropped. Apart from a dip in 1983, wage rates for non-Cuban Hispanics were stable, while in comparable cities it fell approximately 6 percent. There is no evidence of a negative effect on wage rates for other groups of Hispanics in Miami. Wages for Cubans demonstrated a steady decline especially compared with other groups in Miami at the time. This can be attributed exclusively to the "dilution" of the group with the new, less-experienced, and lower-earning Mariel immigrants, meaning that there is also no evidence of a negative effect on wage rates for Cubans living in Miami prior to 1980.[33]

The Refugee Education Assistance Act of 1980 provided $100 million in cash and medical and social services and authorized approximately $5 million per year to facilitate the refugees' transition to American life. The 1980 Census was also adjusted to include Mariel children to ensure that additional assistance would be available to them through the Miami–Dade County Public Schools via Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Assistance Act (ESEA).

In 2016 Harvard economist George J. Borjas revisited David Card's analysis in light of new insights into immigration effects since 1990. He used the same current population survey (CPS) data. However, he focused only on workers who were

  • non-Hispanic (as the best approximation to the native-born)
  • aged 25–59 (prime working age)
  • male
  • high-school dropouts

The last characteristic was especially important, because 60 percent of Marielitos did not complete high school. And even many of the remaining 40 percent who did complete high school were looking for unskilled jobs, thanks to their lack of linguistic and other skills. So Marielitos competed directly with high-school dropouts.

Borjas next compared the inflation-adjusted wages of Miami residents who had these characteristics with wages of the same segment of the American population in all other American metropolitan areas except Miami. His analysis shows that the Miami wages for native-born men without high-school diplomas were much lower than the wages for similar workers in other U.S. metropolitan areas during the 1980s, and then again in the late 1990s, following the two spikes of Cubans migrating to Miami. During the 1980s, wages in Miami were fully 20 percent lower than they were elsewhere, a very substantial effect.[35][36]

According to economists Michael Clemens and Jennifer Hunt, conflicting results can be explained by the changes in the subsample composition of the CPS data. Exactly in 1980, the share of non-Hispanic blacks doubles in the subgroup of Miami male prime working-age high-school dropouts studied by Borjas. No similar increases occurred in the subgroups of populations in the control cities identified by either Card or Borjas. Since there was large and significant difference between wages of black and nonblack high-school dropouts, the changing composition of the CSP subgroups created a spurious decline in the wages of the native population. According to Clemens and Hunt, this compositional effect accounts for the entire impact of the Mariel boatlift on the wages of native workers estimated by Borjas.[37]

Fidel Castro would attempt to state how those leaving in the Mariel boatlift were undesirable members of Cuban society. With Castro's condemnation and reports that prisoners and mental health patients were leaving in the exodus it was believed by some that Marielitos were undesirable deviants. Opponents of then U.S. President Jimmy Carter and the Democratic Party would hail the Mariel boatlift as a failure of his administration. Ronald Reagan would instead praise Marielitos in his ideological campaign against Cuba. The boatlift would also help spark policy demands for English only government paperwork after Miami Dade County residents voted to remove Spanish as a second official language in November 1980. U.S. President Donald Trump's senior policy adviser Stephen Miller used the boatlift as evidence of the dangers of unchecked immigration.[38]

In popular culture

The boatlift has been the subject of a number of works of art, media, and entertainment. Examples include:

The events at the Peruvian embassy are depicted in:

  • Todos se van (Everyone's Leaving) (2006 in Spanish; 2013 in English), a novel by Wendy Guerra[50]
  • 'Cuerpos al borde de una isla; mi salida de Cuba por Mariel(2010), a memoir by Reinaldo García Ramos about his experiences during the Boatlift

Notable Marielitos

Notable Mariel boatlift refugees include:

  • Reinaldo García Ramos, poet and memoirist

See also

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