Sunday, May 20, 2012

Mariel memories: The boatlift that changed everything

Posted on Saturday, 05.19.12

Great migration

Mariel memories: The boatlift that changed everything

A reporter recounts the high drama and danger of the Mariel Boatlift and
reflects on how that event changed South Florida's cultural landscape.

The year 1980 in Miami was a time of intrigue and euphoria, a year when
emotions in the local Cuban community rode a roller coaster. As a young,
Spanish-speaking reporter in United Press International's Miami bureau,
it often fell to me to talk with those who claimed commando raids on the
island, listen to the stories told by relatives of political prisoners
and to file articles on a wave of bombings that rocked Miami, pitting
exiles against other exiles perceived as too soft on Fidel Castro.

For Miami Cubans that April had begun on a high with news that 10,000
Cubans had poured into the Peruvian Embassy in Havana seeking asylum. It
was taken as a sign that Castro's time was short, his government on the
verge of toppling.

A call for food donations for those inside the embassy from
Spanish-language radio station WQBA brought out exiles and morphed into
a joyous, spontaneous demonstration in the streets of Little Havana. I
covered the story as thousands of exiles waved Cuban flags, leaned on
their car horns and paraded a bearded effigy of Fidel Castro around
until the wee hours of the morning. "The pent-up emotion of 20 years of
frustration,'' said then-Mayor Maurice Ferré.

Emotions were running high in the community when, a few weeks later,
news reached the UPI office that a group of Miami Cubans was headed to
Havana by sea to pick up relatives who had rushed into the Peruvian
Embassy and bring them to Florida under a deal brokered by Napoleon
Vilaboa, a Bay of Pigs veteran.

At first there was skepticism in the UPI office, but we kept tabs on the
story and on Monday, April 21, startling news reached Miami: Some boats
in the flotilla were on their way home — and they were bringing Cubans
with them.

I raced to Key West — in time to meet the second returning boat, the Dos
Hermanos. Somehow in the dark, just as the boat was pulling up to a
Stock Island dock, a photographer and I stumbled upon it before any
authorities arrived.

That's how I became the unofficial welcoming committee for the second
group of Mariel refugees to arrive. They stared at us and the
photographer and I stared back before I decided to hop aboard to
interview them. "Welcome to the United States,'' I said.

So it went in the first few days before anyone realized that the dozens
of arriving boats — Ochun, Big Baby, Little Hobo, Capt. Preston, their
names still stick in my mind more than 30 years later — would become
hundreds and then thousands and that something quite amazing was playing
out in the Florida Straits.

It soon became apparent that the Castro government was allowing far more
Cubans than those in the embassy to leave from the Cuban port of Mariel,
and exiles beat a path to Key West. They bought, begged and rented
boats. Many perceived it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get
family out of Cuba. By the time the Mariel Boatlift ended some six
months later, more than 125,000 Cubans would come to U.S. shores.

On April 24, an estimated 1,000 boats were headed south looking like so
many ducklings following a mother duck.

But the next weekend that optimism turned to terror as a front with
hurricane-force gusts swept through the flotilla, sinking some ships and
plunging people into the water. You will know how many boats didn't make
it, one woman told me, by counting the empty boat trailers in Key West
parking lots when this is over.

But that rough weekend didn't really deter exiles. Many just started
renting bigger boats.

It was easy at first to mingle and chat with new arrivals as they milled
around the tree-shaded lawn of the Latin American Chamber of Commerce
waiting for transportation to Miami and INS processing.

But bureaucracy quickly took over. All arriving boats were directed to
the Truman Annex in the former Key West naval station and chain-link
fences went up around the docks. There was no more hopping aboard boats,
but there were still opportunities to learn about who the new arrivals were.

From the first days of the boatlift, the official communist press had
vilified the refugees as "degenerates,'' "antisocials'' and "lumpen''
who didn't want to work, insisting that many who had streamed into the
Peruvian Embassy were criminals.

"In this stage of our revolutionary development, the
counterrevolutionary and the common criminal tend to become one,'' said
one editorial in Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Communist

But that wasn't the picture down at the docks. There were grandfathers
who fell to their knees to kiss the soil of the United States when they
arrived; little girls who tripped off the boats with their mothers. and
young men like 27-year-old Hugo Landa, who told me: "I think this
country is so large, there are so many opportunities. Perhaps I will
clean the toilets or be a millionaire. I just don't know, but I'm full
of hope.''

Rather quickly, the makeup of those aboard the boats began to change. If
the Granma editorials weren't at first true, Fidel Castro — always a
master of stagecraft — would make them true. Salted among the family
groups were people the government wanted to dump — criminals, the
mentally deficient, the infirm.

More boats, their crowded decks packed with men — lone men — started to

In an April 27 dispatch from Key West, I wrote the INS had interviewed
refugees whose passports said they had been in the Peruvian Embassy but
who admitted they had been taken from jail directly to the departing
boats at Mariel.

On April 30, the INS southern regional commissioner said that at least
41 suspected criminals had been found among the refugees. "We found the
whole gamut of crimes among them — murder, some narcotics violations,
you name it,'' said Commissioner D.E. Powell.

The INS got its first tipoff when Cubans coming off the boats told them
there were people aboard who had come directly from Cuban prisons. Some
of them were political prisoners. But others — the ones who kept to
themselves and tried their best to keep their mouths shut — had been
convicted of violent crimes.

By May 1, the INS had stiffened its screening procedures to ferret out
suspected criminals and I watched as they marched many male refugees —
four abreast — into the old Coast Guard station for questioning.

Castro also included other surprises to hammer home his message about
ridding the island of so-called degenerates. I remember one boat loaded
mostly with prostitutes and another that ferried a group of
transvestites. Before coming ashore they combed their hair and primped
so they would look their best as they took their first steps toward a
free life.

One of the boats still docked in Mariel harbor had begun to take on
mythic proportions among Cuban exiles who gathered in Key West to await
word of their relatives.

That boat, more than anything else, came to define the negative aspects
of the Mariel boatlift. It was a red and white 100-foot catamaran called

The America was the fantasma boat, rumored to be carrying as many as
1,000 to 3,000 passengers. For two weeks before it actually docked in
Key West on May 11, 1980 — Mother's Day — the Cuban-American grapevine
always fixed its arrival as imminent.

A week before it actually arrived, a National Guard spokesman, convinced
it was about to dock, had phoned me before dawn so I wouldn't miss it.

Volunteers at the cafeteria set up for the refugees near the docks were
so sure it was going to arrive at 7 p.m. May 10 that they laid in extra
stocks of sandwiches, fruit and drinks to feed 1,000 arrivals.

When the America finally appeared on the horizon 12 hours later, it more
than lived up to its billing — but not in the way many Cuban exiles had

Dozens of Cuban exiles had chartered the one-time Chesapeake Bay
excursion boat, hoping to ferry family members to the United States.
Instead, the skipper said he was forced to load hundreds of strangers,
then nearly 400 convicts and finally mental patients.

It was by all accounts a journey from hell that began badly and got
worse. When Carey Cole, the skipper, protested the loading of the
convicts, he said the Cubans told him "if I didn't take them, they would
seize my boat, name it The Fidel and put me before a firing squad.

"I believed them'' he said. "One of the Cubans also said the America was
going to be in the lead of a present to the United States of 8,000 scum.''

A Cuban gunboat zigzagged across the path of the America as it left
Mariel harbor and a Russian research vessel set course as if to ram it,
but veered away at the last moment, according to the crew.

A few miles outside Mariel, two passengers became so unruly — one trying
to strangle others aboard — that the crew lashed them to the ship's
railings and forced dozens of people they deemed "the worst element'' to
the top deck of the ship, said Rick Mena, a Miamian who had accompanied
the America to Mariel.

The America was so grossly overloaded that the Coast Guard cutter
Dauntless removed women and children and those from the top deck — 425
people — while the catamaran was still at sea.

When the America finally arrived with some 475 passengers aboard the
media was waiting.

The symbolism wasn't lost on anyone that day. And the arrival of that
boat came to embody — unfairly — the Mariel boatlift for many Americans.
It was exactly the impression that Castro wanted to leave.

The U.S. government categorized nearly 2,800 Mariel refugees as
"excludables'' subject to deportation for committing serious or violent
crimes, and they were sent to U.S. prisons until the Castro government
agreed to begin taking them back in 1984. Years later I would run into
some of them on the streets of Havana and to a man they all asked if I
knew any way, any possibility to get them back to the United States.

Despite the Cubans' orchestration of Mariel propaganda, Fidel Castro
didn't really get the last laugh about the so-called "scum'' he sent to
the United States.

That wasn't what the vast majority of Mariel refugees were about.

They went on to hold jobs, start businesses, raise families and
contribute to their new country.

And tucked in among all those supposed "degenerates'' were artists,
musicians, novelists, poets, dancers and playwrights — the beautiful
surprise of Mariel — who reinvigorated a tired cultural scene in Miami
and made their presence felt well beyond South Florida.

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