3 min read

History Week of April 23-29, 2023

History Week of April 23-29, 2023
Mariel refugees clap and cheer after they were flown from Key West to the Eglin Air Force Base, in Pensacola, Fla., in May 1980. Palm Beach Post

On April 27, 1980, storms hit the Florida Keys relentlessly sinking between ten and fifteen boats full of Cuban refugees seeking a new start in the United States in what would become known as the Mariel Boatlift. The mass immigration event, which would see 113,969 Cubans flee to the United States—roughly one third of the population of Miami at the time—had started nearly a month earlier when six Cubans stole a city bus in Havana and crashed it into the Peruvian Embassy, immediately seeking asylum. At first, expecting the Cuban government forces to storm the embassy, people waited anxiously to see what would happen next. When nothing happened, thousands of Cubans descended upon the embassy, pleading for asylum, begging to leave Cuba.

Soon over 10,000 people were filling the Peruvian embassy and world leaders pondered what they could do to help. President Jimmy Carter signaled that the United States would accept 3,500 of the 10,800 asylum seekers in the embassy waited anxiously. In Miami, according to historian Ada Ferrer in her must read book Cuba: An American History, Cubans mobilized. “They collected food, clothes, and other supplies for people in the embassy. Some—a smaller group—cleaned out army supply stores imagining that the crisis spelled the end of Castro’s rule and that they might get to go back to fight against him.” Meanwhile, other Cubans in Miami chose a different path. A Cuban man named Napoleon Vilaboa, a veteran of the ill-fated 2506 Brigade of the Bay of Pigs invasion, suggested to the Cuban government that he’d sail to a designated Cuban port to pick up the relatives of Cubans living in America. On April 21, 1980, the first boats that had left Florida for Cuba had landed back in Florida, full to the point of sinking, of Cuban refugees.[1] However, the “Cuban government reserved the prerogative to load four people of its choosing on to the boats for everyone one family member picked up. Spitefully, Cuban authorities loaded drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, criminals and mental patients, as well as Jehovah Witnesses, homosexuals, and others they considered to be undesirable, on to the boats. Twenty-six thousand of the Cubans (in the Mariel Boatlift) had criminal records, although mainly for minor crimes. Approximately two thousand had committed serious felonies.”[2]And it is worth noting dissenting against the oppressive communist government was considered a crime, and the country was so poor many of the crimes were committed out of necessity to survive.

Here the story takes a dark turn, laden with overt racism and ableism and lands right back on the shores of the United States’ 2024 presidential election. Initially, the Cuban government labeled the asylum seekers “social misfits,” triggering a new mass of Cubans to turn themselves into the police calling themselves social misfits with the hope of being put on a boat for the United States. Soon the Cuban government began actively deporting people via the boatlift, taking prisoners out of jail and putting them on boats alongside psychiatric patients.[3]This new mass migration to the United States from Cuba was the third since Castro seized power in 1959. “While the previous waves had been overwhelmingly white (and middle or upper class), the Mariel exodus (and the subsequent fourth wave of Cuban migration, the 1994 Balsero crisis) would bring more black Cubans to the United States than ever before.”[4] This change in the demographics of who was coming from Cuba to the United States permanently shifted how Americans, including older Cuban Americans, from welcoming Cuban immigrants and refugees to a hard-line stance exemplified by Donald Trump, according to sociologist Monika Gosin.[5]

Which brings us to the 2024 election. According to a CNN Fact Check on Saturday, “On at least three occasions over the last two months, former President Donald Trump has claimed that the leaders of unnamed South American countries are deliberately emptying their “insane asylums” and “mental institutions” to send the patients to the United States as migrants.” Try as they may, the fact-checkers could find no evidence to support Trump’s claims. CNN even asked Trump allies and anti-immigration organizations if they knew what Trump was talking about. The only thing anyone could think of was the Mariel Boatlift of 1980. Though interestingly, CNN failed to note that one reason why Trump might be thinking of the Boatlift was that the event's anniversary was this week.

Eckstein, Susan. Cuban Privilege: The Making of Immigrant Inequality in America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022.

Ferrer, Ada. Cuba: An American History. First Scribner hardcover edition. New York: Scribner, 2021.

Gosin, Monika. The Racial Politics of Division: Interethnic Struggles for Legitimacy in Multicultural Miami. Ithaca, [New York]: Cornell University Press, 2019.

Link to photo

[1] Ferrer, Cuba, 411–13.

[2] Eckstein, Cuban Privilege, chpt 3.

[3] Ferrer, Cuba, 415.

[4] Gosin, The Racial Politics of Division, 7.

[5] Gosin, 37.