After the United States severed diplomatic relations with the communist island-nation of Cuba in 1961, travel and migration between the two countries essentially stopped. When U.S. President Jimmy Carter assumed office in January 1977, he sought to improve relations with Latin America, and Cuban leader Fidel Castro responded to the overture.
In 1979, Castro permitted Cuban Americans to return to Cuba. After witnessing the abject poverty in which many Cubans lived, however, many of these visitors returned to the United States with a determination to do something about it. Meanwhile, Castro faced growing dissent sparked by housing and job shortages as well as a stagnant economy.
On 4 April 1980, presumably to get rid of troublemakers, Castro ordered guards removed from the Peruvian embassy in Havana, and within hours throngs of Cubans requested political asylum. This move should have served as a warning to Washington, but the signal went largely unnoticed.
Soon afterward, the United States found itself in the midst of a major refugee crisis when Castro allowed any person wishing to leave Cuba free access to depart from the port of Mariel, located about 28 miles west of Havana. On 19 April 1980, the Cuban government announced that Cuban Americans could travel to Cuba to pick up refugees, going so far as to contact Cuban Americans directly to encourage them to make the journey. Cuban Americans immediately set sail for their relatives in virtually any vessel that appeared even marginally seaworthy. Thousands of fishing boats, yachts, and other small craft departed from Key West and Miami, Florida, for Mariel.
The vessels were typically loaded up with more refugees than they were designed to carry safely. The first refugees arrived on 21 April. By the time the boatlift came to an end, more than 125,000 Cubans had made the journey to the United States. Miraculously, only 27 people perished at sea, due chiefly to search and rescue efforts of the U.S. Coast Guard.
The vast majority of the Cuban immigrants entered the United States in violation of American law, as they were undocumented. But President Jimmy Carter's administration refused to return the refugees for humanitarian as well as legal and political reasons. The decision not to interdict boats meant that the United States had little choice but to accept the Mariel Cubans. Castro also required boats to accept additional passengers, some of whom had been recently released from prison or mental asylums. More than 23,000 of the arriving Marielitos admitted previous criminal convictions, although many of those convictions were for offenses that would not have warranted detention under U.S. law. Only 2 percent, or 2,746 Cubans, were classified as criminals under U.S. law and were not granted citizenship. Still, reports that criminals and the mentally ill were among those thousands arriving daily fueled a major public backlash. By the time Castro stopped the Mariel Boatlift, the Carter administration, already under great duress because of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, appeared to have botched the situation. It had failed to capitalize on the propaganda value of Cuba's internal problems and seemed entirely unable to control immigration. The Mariel Boatlift certainly added to the American public's frustration with Carter's administration and indirectly led to his November 1980 electoral defeat by Ronald Reagan.
Caryn E. Neumann
Larzelere, Alex. The 1980 Cuban Boatlift. Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 1988.; Rivera, Mario Antonio. Decision and Structure: U.S. Refugee Policy in the Mariel Crisis. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1991.