Fidel Castro: score one to the maximum leader

The Mariel Boatlift brought bad news for Miami and for Jimmy Carter. James Ferguson explains the craft – in more senses than one – of the Cubans


The history of Cuban-American relations since Fidel Castro’s revolutionary forces seized power on New Year’s Day, 1959, has been a heady mix of drama, tragedy and farce. The most heart-stopping moment was in October 1962, when the world came close to the brink of nuclear war during the missile crisis, while in April 1961 the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion had left some 2,000 combatants and civilians dead. The tragedy took many forms – divided families, the suffering inflicted by the US embargo, the denial of freedoms and human rights. As for the farce, one need only think back to the exploding cigars, poison pills and other bizarre gimmicks with which the CIA tried to attack Castro.

Castro, of course, always frustrated the various US presidents who had the unenviable task of confronting him. By the time he announced that he was to relinquish the Cuban leadership in February 2008, he had outlasted – and usually outwitted – no fewer than nine of them. And rarely was this tactical cunning more evident than 30 years ago, in April 1980, when the jefe máximo turned a potential disaster on its head, and in doing so discomfited the hapless Jimmy Carter. The event was known as the Mariel Boatlift.

The months preceding the boatlift were tumultuous in Cuba. The island’s economy was in the doldrums, US sanctions were biting hard, and, not for the first time, Castro’s regime was under pressure from a significant number of Cubans tired of shortages and everyday restrictions. While not as aggressive as many other administrations, Carter’s government tried to support internal opposition by adopting an open-arms policy towards Cuban refugees – and to embarrass Castro by emphasising how many Cubans wanted to escape his regime. Anti-Castro policies were also vociferously supported by the large Cuban population in Florida, many of whom had fled the revolution and left family and property behind. Any Cuban who made it to the US was deemed welcome – unlike the thousands of Haitians who harboured the same ambition.

The crisis came to a head when a handful of disaffected Cubans sought political asylum in the Peruvian Embassy in Havana by driving a bus through its gates. When the surprised ambassador granted them asylum, Castro retaliated by removing guards from outside the building, thereby encouraging a flood of would-be asylum seekers. Within a few days, a staggering 10,000 people had crowded into the small embassy compound, occupying every square inch of the grounds, climbing into trees and threatening a riot or worse. If this was revenge on the Peruvians, it was also part of a bigger plan, as Castro then announced that any Cuban who wished to leave the island was free to do so.

It was, on the face of it, an extraordinary move. Commentators saw it as a sign that the communist regime was crumbling, that it had lost control. But the truth was rather different. As Miami’s exiled Cuban community rushed to charter boats to make the 90-mile crossing from Florida, thousands headed towards the rundown port of Mariel, some 25 miles west of Havana, where Castro had said a flotilla would be allowed to pick up those who wanted to go. Many were ordinary people, desperate for a new start and to find lost relatives. The majority were poor and working-class, unlike their more prosperous compatriots who had fled from the 1960s. But many too were less ordinary – criminals and psychiatric patients, whom the authorities delivered by the busload to Mariel.

Over the ensuing days and weeks a Caribbean version of the Dunkirk evacuation took place. Some 1,700 vessels set sail from Florida, returning crammed with refugees. The boatlift went on for three months, and in the end an estimated 125,000 Cubans departed from the island. Of these, 27 died en route in accidents, and many more were lucky to arrive in overcrowded and unseaworthy boats. The US Coast Guard was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers involved, detaining the great majority in holding centres or jails while the authorities struggled to process their asylum applications.

Meanwhile, in Cuba, Castro made predictable political capital out of events. Those who wanted to leave the fatherland, he said, were “scum”, the sort of undesirables that the state was glad to be rid of. People who were known to want to join the boatlift had their homes surrounded by chanting, egg-throwing mobs. These so-called “meetings of repudiation” were intended to deter those who were tempted and to strengthen the resolve of others who would never dream of abandoning the revolution.

By the end of September the boatlift was over. Castro could congratulate himself that he had got rid of a large number of “undesirable” individuals from jails and institutions, at the Americans’ expense. He had withstood a storm of negative publicity around the world and, if anything, was more firmly in control.

As for the US, the consequences were less clear-cut. Thousands of ordinary Cubans were reunited with their families, and this was cause for celebration. Many of the so-called Marielitos seized opportunities in education or ended up working as professionals. But there was also a darker side. In the opening to the 1983 film Scarface, which starred Al Pacino as a refugee turned drug baron, Oliver Stone estimated that 25,000 Mariel refugees had criminal records. While others thought the figure lower (a US congressional report eventually settled on ten per cent of the 125,000), Miami underwent a spectacular crime wave, briefly becoming murder capital of the world. Time magazine described Florida as “paradise lost”, while, ironically, long-established Cuban residents quickly grew to resent and despise the newcomers, with their taint of criminality. Unemployment rose dramatically, and others in Miami’s ethnic melting-pot complained that Cubans were receiving preferential treatment for political reasons.

Ultimately the Mariel Boatlift claimed a number of victims. Jimmy Carter, who might have boosted his flagging popularity by scoring against Castro, instead alienated the important Cuban-American lobby and lost the presidential election that November to the hard-line Ronald Reagan. Bill Clinton, who as governor of Arkansas, had presided over a riot by Cuban detainees in a refugee centre, also lost his bid for re-election. Race relations and crime statistics in Florida took several years to recover. Fidel Castro, meanwhile, could congratulate himself on another victory over the American enemy, safe in the knowledge that he would not have to face the judgment of an electorate.