News Column

Mariel Memories: The Boatlift That Changed Everything

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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 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 Party.

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 arrive.

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 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.