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A Flood of Cuban Migrants — The Mariel Boatlift, April-October 1980

One of the most contentious events in mass migration started on April 1, 1980 when several Cubans took control of a bus and drove it through a fence of the Peruvian embassy in Havana; they requested – and were granted — political asylum. After Fidel Castro retaliated by having the Cuban guards protecting the embassy removed, over 10,000 people crammed into the tiny Peruvian embassy grounds. Castro ultimately stated that the port of Mariel, just outside of Havana, would be opened to anyone wishing to leave Cuba, as long as they had someone to pick them up. Cuban exiles in the United States rushed to Key West and to docks in Miami to hire boats to transport people to the United States.

That set in motion a six-month drama in which more than 125,000 Cubans fled their country and overwhelmed the shores of the U.S. Castro, whose façade of popularity and support was badly shaken, then upped the ante by allowing thousands of criminals and mental patients to leave as well. The Mariel boatlift was ended in October by mutual agreement between the U.S. and Cuba. However, South Florida had to contend with the repercussions for years to come, including a marked increase in crime (which, among other things, influenced the plot for the 1983 remake of the hyper-violent movie classic Scarface.)

The Mariel boatlift, coming so soon after the re-establishment of ties in 1977, was a major milestone in bilateral relations and greatly influenced American opinion on Cuba as large numbers of anti-Castro Cubans relocated to the U.S. In December 2014, the U.S. and Cuban governments reestablished diplomatic relations after fifty-plus years of tensions.

In an interview with John Harter beginning in 1997, John A. Bushnell, who was then Deputy Secretary of State, recalls the mass emigration after the announcement of the Mariel boatlift, the difficulties trying to reduce immigration, the “undesirables” sent by Castro, and the problems and impacts that the mass influx created for the U.S.

You can also read about the mass migration of  Vietnamese boat people and other Moments on refugees. Go here to read Bushnell’s account of the U.S. invasion of Panama and here to read about the case of one Cuban refugee, Elian Gonzalez.


An End to the Castro Regime?

BUSHNELL:  In April 1980 a rumor spread in Havana that the Peru Embassy was granting safe passage to Peru to people that came to that Embassy. A crowd of a thousand or so Cubans entered the Peruvian Embassy property in Havana before Castro’s police acted to stop entry. Of course, many Cubans were desperate to get away from the Castro police state.

Peru had not decided to take a significant number of Cubans, but these Cubans stayed in the Peruvian Embassy property, most living in the grounds with no cover and inadequate sanitary conditions for some time. Others clamored to get into the grounds; a Cuban police officer was killed in one successful attempt by a large group to enter. Eventually there were more than 10,000 Cubans crowded in the Embassy grounds and buildings.

It was an embarrassing high-profile situation for Castro, who, of course, blamed the U.S. for starting the rumor and claimed few Cubans wanted to leave Cuba. Peru refused to take the people. Several South American and European countries tried to work out programs to take some. Many were allowed to go home. Some went to Costa Rica as a staging area, but Castro then stopped issuing exit visas. In Miami the Cuban community began saying this situation marked the end for Castro.

Then about the end of April a few family members arrived in Florida on small boats sent by their families to the port of Mariel. Castro then announced that Cuban exiles could come by small boat to Mariel, a port on the North coast of Cuba, and pick up their relatives to whom he would give exit permits. The prosperous Cuban community in Florida launched every boat they owned or could charter at any price and headed to Mariel. They were allowed to pick up relatives who managed to make their way to Mariel.

The Cubans began arriving in Florida by the thousands. At first President Carter welcomed them. In early May he said they would be received with “an open heart and open arms.” However, the sheer numbers began to overwhelm southern Florida. The Miami authorities pointed out that housing vacancies were only one percent and there was no place for all these people to live.

Various domestic agencies began setting up refugee camps at military bases including Elgin in northern Florida. Tourists abandoned Key West which was a mob scene. INS announced that boats bringing people without visas would be fined $100 per person, but little or no attempt was made to collect the fines. Republican candidates began pointing out that the U.S. had lost control of its borders.

Cuba’s solution becomes the U.S.’s problem

Moreover, Castro wanted to create problems for the U.S. while solving problems in Cuba. He had many of the street crime and even murder prisoners in jails as well as some political prisoners and the patients in mental hospitals and asylums transported to Mariel. He forced the Cuban-Americans to take several of his problem cases for each relative he allowed them to take.

As we realized Cubans were being landed up and down the Florida Keys as well as in Miami by the thousands, most were not relatives, and worse many were common criminals or insane, we began to see we were facing an invasion of a type never envisioned in our worst nightmare. Of course none of these Cubans newly arriving in the U.S. had visas; most had no documents, and there was no way to figure out who most really were. Mixed in were the mothers, fathers, aunts, and children of the Cuban exiles, but many of them also had no documents.

There was a great effort to set up refugee processing centers and to try to catch the criminals and put them in jail. I was mainly involved in the issue of how to stop the invasion.

We arranged for the Coast Guard to intercept some boats when they reached territorial waters. But the best the Coast Guard could do was to escort some of the boats to a more orderly disembarkation in Miami instead of some bay in the Keys. The Coast Guard certainly could not sink boats full of people, and the volume was such that the Coast Guard could only escort a small fraction.

I remember sitting in that windowless conference room of the NSC [National Security Council] with Secretary of State [Edmund] Muskie, the Chief of Naval Operations, the director of CIA, the head of the Coast Guard, and the head of INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] and several other senior officials, debating how to stop this flow of Cubans. [National Security Advisor Zbigniew] Brzezinski chaired until President Carter came in toward the end of the meeting.

There was a long discussion on how Coast Guard and Navy ships might physically stop the Cuban boats either from leaving the U.S. or returning. The Navy and the Coast Guard, represented at this meeting by Admirals, asked: “How can we do this?”

It was suggested that these boats could be rammed or shot at. The Navy and Coast Guard said that it would be very difficult to stop these boats physically from leaving the U.S. or from returning without major loss of life among the boat crews and passengers.

I guess Secretary Muskie was something of a sailor. He certainly knew a lot more about boats than I did. He was suggesting ways of maneuvering boats to block passage, which struck me as sort of wild. It sounded to me as if he had in mind a picket line of Coast Guard and Navy boats going across the Straits of Florida to stop the movement of these small boats with refugees. This naval discussion went on for a long time but was inconclusive.

I asked if we could not fine and detain any boat bringing Cubans into port so it at least could not make another trip. At that moment the Coast Guard was giving notice of intent to fine, but the fines were so small they were not much of a deterrent. Moreover, most boats avoided the Coast Guard and landed the Cubans somewhere in the Florida Keys, where the wanted immigrants were picked up by family members and the others made their way north or turned themselves in to INS.

There seemed to be legal authority for detention as the boats by definition had been used to gain illegal entry into the United States. The Chief of Naval Operations had some interesting thoughts about how to disable the motors so the boats would not have to be under intensive guard.

However, some 4000 boats were at that moment waiting in Mariel. Perhaps some would be deterred by fines and seizure from coming back loaded, but the volume presented tremendous problems for law enforcement. Already storms had destroyed several boats with substantial loss of life. Fines would have to be much larger to have any hope of success. Staffing was assigned on detaining and fining boats and/or crews and increasing fines, but the easy answer for most participants in the meeting was that we should get Castro to stop the operation.

Returning the undesirables

Our assessment was that he might stop it soon because the large crowd gathering in Mariel were becoming almost as much an embarrassment as that in the Peru Embassy.

I was assigned to work on options of how to send many of these people back.

Q: Presumably, these were people from…

BUSHNELL: Insane asylums or prisons. Since I saw that only a gigantic concession, such as weakening our trade ban, would induce Castro to take back these people he was just sending out, I tried to find some way to present Castro with a done deed, i.e., the worse criminals were back. But the only thing we could think of was that the undesirables might be loaded on a couple large old boats which would be sailed back to Cuba and sunk close to shore.

Q: Was this idea realistic?

BUSHNELL: Probably not. It is not the sort of thing a country like the U.S. does. Moreover, it is not clear who would sail old boats loaded with Cuban criminals into Cuban territorial waters, let alone who would sink them. The idea got the consideration it deserved — little to none.

By mid-May over 50,000 refugees had already landed in the United States. About half were in camps where riots were breaking out, including one in Arkansas which had a big effect on the political career of its then Governor [Bill] Clinton.

Finally, the Administration announced large fines and the seizure of boats caught bringing in undocumented people. The Coast Guard redeployed its ships from all over to the Florida area to intensify efforts to arrest boats.

President Carter called on Castro to take back the criminals and other undesirables. Castro called for all Cubans to march in front of the U.S. Interest Section to protest U.S. policies denying Cuba the right to trade and development and attacking the Castro government.

I spent a nervous Saturday in the office with an open telephone line to our Interest Section as more than a million Cubans marched past attacking the U.S. with posters and yells. We had evacuated non-essential personnel in the previous few days. But Castro provided adequate security, and little damage was done.

I had been nervous because I thought Castro, although crazy like a fox, might try just about anything and the Cubans on both sides were prone to violence. During the first half of 1980 Cuba’s Mission to the UN had been bombed twice; one Cuban diplomat had been killed and bombs had been found in other Cuban diplomats’ cars. We assumed this terrible violation of laws was the work of Cuban exiles, but only a couple were caught.

An end in sight

For a few days the inflow of Cubans continued, and hundreds of boats were detained. Some boats then came back from Mariel empty. Most priority family members had been collected or could not get to Mariel, which was a mob scene, and Castro agents were collecting large bribes from people without relatives in the U.S. for forcing boat operators to take them. Many boats were forced to take only those Castro’s agents gave them and strangers who more or less forced themselves on board. Boats stopped going, and by early June the flow of refugees virtually stopped.

In mid-June a Florida judge ordered that some boats be released because they were needed for the fishermen to make a living. Shortly, most boats were released, and few fines were paid.

The Coast Guard returned most of its boats to their normal duties. As I recall, the number of people who came to the U.S. in this Mariel boat lift, as it was called, totaled well over 100,000, and probably quite a few just melted into the Cuban community and were not counted.

Toward the end of June the Congress appropriated $484 million to assist holding and settling the refugees and to compensate the communities that were impacted by the invasion. I used this appropriation as a key example of why foreign aid through the Caribbean Group was a good investment. It was much better to help our neighbors build a good economic future for themselves at home than to have a flood of desperate refugees, which would cost more money to settle.

In mid-June after the invasion had basically stopped, I and other State and INS officers were called to testify before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration. The members reflected the very mixed views in the country. Conservatives were concerned with loss of control of our borders but welcomed anti-Castro refugees.

No one wanted the criminals, homosexuals, and insane, and everyone insisted we make Castro take them back. I invited ideas on how we could make Castro do this. No one suggested either use of force or relaxing the restrictions on trade. As the invasion was basically over, the Committee seemed to shift to safe ground, and various members of the Black Caucus attacked us for not giving Haitian boat people the same treatment as the Cubans.

I pointed out that the Haitians got the same treatment as any Latin Americans except the Cubans and there was not a communist dictator in Haiti. INS seemed to argue the Haitians got the same treatment as the Cubans. I kept quiet and let them take the heat.


Over the next few years there was an effect of the Mariel exodus that neither Castro nor anyone else had expected. The hardened criminals among the boat people did not change their ways, and their criminal activities generate a crime wave in Florida.

Although the Cuban-American community suffered the most from these criminals, this criminal activity turned non-Cuban public opinion in Florida strongly against Castro.

Of course, many of these Cuban criminals were caught and sent to jail. Even when the jail term was short, these persons were then subject to deportation because they had been in the country illegally.

INS would then detain them, pending their being sent back to Cuba or elsewhere. Castro would not take them, and no one else wanted them. Over the years, Castro did agree to take some back. But a significant number of these people are still in jail here at considerable expense to the taxpayer over a long period of time.

Also among the Mariel boat people were quite a few Cuban intelligence agents; only a few have been caught, although many have probably returned to Cuba. However, the overwhelming majority of the Mariel immigrants were successfully absorbed, as had the much larger number of earlier immigrants.