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 Ferre.
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
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