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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
Caribbean Holidays began offering one-week trips to Cuba in January 1978 in cooperation with Cubatur, the official Cuban travel agency. 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.
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. 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. 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. Peru recalled its ambassador in March after he denied entry to a dozen Cubans seeking asylum in his embassy.
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. The Peruvians announced they would not hand those seeking asylum over to Cuban police. 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  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. 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, 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.
By 6 April the crowd had reached 10,000, and as sanitary conditions on the embassy grounds deteriorated Cuban authorities prevented further access. The Cuban government called those seeking asylum "bums, antisocial elements, delinquents, and trash." By April 8, 3,700 of the asylum-seekers had accepted safe conduct passes to return to their homes, and the government began providing shipments of food and water. Peru tried to organize an international relief program, and won commitments first from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela to help with resettlement, and then from Spain, which agreed to accept 500. 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, and in the first two days about 3,000 received those papers and left the grounds. 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.
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|Month||Arrivals (#)||Arrivals (%)|
|April (from 21 April)||7,665||6|
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. While news of the situation was not broadcast in Cuba, Cuban exiles in the United States rushed to Key West and to docks in Miami to hire boats to transport people to the United States.
Initially, the Carter administration had an open-door policy in regard to Cuban immigrants. Cubans who reached the United States were immediately granted refugee status. Public opinion toward Cuban political refugees was also favorable.
Dozens of watercraft arrived daily. Some 706 refugees were counted on the Red Diamond alone. One craft lost power 60 miles from Key West and had to be towed to the U.S. mainland. Not all vessels that arrived at Truman Annex were carrying Cubans. Canadians were held for weeks in Mariel Harbor before being allowed to leave.
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.
This situation changed when it was discovered that the refugees included criminals and people from Cuba's mental hospitals. However, according to a Brookings Institution Study in 1980, the vast majority of Mariel refugees (technically Cuban-Haitian entrants, status pending) had blue-collar skills that matched perfectly with the labor force in Miami at that time.
The Cuban government eventually closed the Mariel harbor to would-be emigrants. Approximately 125,000 Cubans arrived at the United States' shores in about 1,700 boats, creating large waves of people that overwhelmed the U.S. Coast Guard. Twenty-seven migrants died, including fourteen on an overloaded boat that capsized on 17 May 1980. Upon their arrival, many Cubans were placed in refugee camps. Others were held in federal prisons pending deportation hearings.
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. By June 2016, 478 remained to be deported; according to the Department of Homeland Security, some are elderly or sick, and the Department has 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.
As the scale of the boatlift grew, the Coast Guard asked for help. In May 1980 the U.S. Navy dispatched USS Saipan (LHA-2) and USS Boulder (LST-1190) , and the USS Ponce (LP-15)to support the Coast Guard by assisting, but not directly transporting, refugees en route to the U.S. Saipan and Boulder temporarily took on board hundreds of refugees in need of humanitarian assistance, medical attention, food, and fresh water. They also refueled private watercraft. The ships' officers and crew were awarded the Humanitarian Service Medal for their work.
Elements of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines and 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, 2nd Marine Division of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, supported the Immigration and Naturalization Service by providing security at Trumbo Point and Truman Annex in May 1980. The Marines supplied interpreters and assisted with processing refugees in Key West. They were awarded the Humanitarian Service Medal and a Certificate of Appreciation for exemplary service. F-4 Phantom fighter aircraft from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 312 and later Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 251 based at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina, provided air cover, and those Marines also received the Humanitarian Service Medal.
In May 1980 the U.S. Army dispatched the 503rd Military Police Battalion of the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to relieve the Florida National Guard units that had been mobilized to handle security and operations at the refugee compounds established in the Miami metropolitan area. The 503rd was augmented by Spanish-speaking soldiers of the 96th Civil Affairs and Psychological Warfare elements of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg. The U.S. Army Military Police Corps worked alongside FEMA and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and other federal agencies to transfer refugees for long-term detention. U.S. Army personnel who participated in this operation were awarded the Humanitarian Service Medal.
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. 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.
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.
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 decided to revisit 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 that were
The last characteristic is important, because 60 percent of Marielitos did not complete high school. And even many of the remaining 40 percent who did were looking for unskilled jobs owing 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 but Miami. His analysis shows that the Miami wages for native-born men without high-school diplomas were much lower than 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 Miami wages were 20 percent lower than elsewhere, a very substantial effect.
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.
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:
Notable Mariel boatlift refugees include: