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 America.
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 expected.
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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