The Mariel Boatlift officially began April 15, 1980 and ended October 31, 1980, with the arrival of over 125,000 Cubans to Southern Florida from Port of Mariel, Cuba.
The Coast Guard's role in migrant interdiction has been important since the service's inception. In 1959, Fidel Castro took power in Cuba and within two years, the Coast Guard established patrols to aid refugees and to enforce neutrality, interdicting the transportation of men and arms. This responsibility peaked in 1965 due to increased restrictions on immigration from Cuba and then abated until the Mariel Boatlift of 1980.
Amidst growing dissent, housing and job shortages as well as a plummeting economy, Cuban Premier Fidel Castro withdrew his guards from the Peruvian embassy in Havana on 04 April 1980. This move should have served as an early warning to the United States of trouble brewing in Cuba, but the signal went unnoticed. Less than 48 hours after the guards were removed, throngs of Cubans crowded into the lushly landscaped gardens at the embassy, requesting asylum.
The migrant interdiction mission first gained high visibility during the first mass migration emergency the United States faced between April 21 and September 28, 1980. Fidel Castro permitted any person who wanted to leave Cuba free access to depart from the port of Mariel, Cuba. Boats with Cuban migrants began departing Mariel, Cuba, in April, 1980 after Castro declared the port of Mariel "open." Hundreds of small craft departed Miami and sailed to Mariel, where they loaded up with refugees, in most cases more than the craft was designed to carry safely, and then attempted to return to Miami.
Known as the Mariel Boatlift, approximately 124,000 undocumented Cuban migrants entered the United States by a flotilla of mostly US vessels in violation of US law. The Coast Guard interdicted vessels en route to Mariel Harbor, as well as provided search and rescue assistance to vessels bound for the United States. What followed became the largest Coast Guard operation ever undertaken in peacetime to that date and is a remarkable example of the Coast Guard's ability to respond to a developing crisis quickly.
Coast Guard resources were sent from all over the Atlantic seaboard to reinforce the taxed Seventh District, and President Jimmy Carter called up 900 reservists to active duty in that District. Coast Guard Auxiliarists also contributed to Coast Guard operations by filling in at various bases, sailing their own vessels and flying their own aircraft to augment the active duty personnel. The President also ordered Navy assets to assist as well. By the time the boatlift came to an end, over 125,000 Cubans had made the journey to the United States and of those only 27 perished at sea, a remarkable example of the effectiveness of the men and women in uniform who responded to the crisis with little to no warning beforehand. Coast Guard cutters responded to the Mariel Boatlift and saved thousands of lives.
The Coast Guard also provided assistance to other federal agencies in the processing, investigation and prosecution of boat owners suspected of violating US law. More than 23,000 of the arriving Mariel Cubans revealed to Immigration Officials previous criminal convictions. However, many of those convictions were for offenses that would not warrant detention under United States law. Contrary to the media attention given to these alleged criminals and that the Mariel Boatlift was a disaster, only 2% or 2,746 Cubans were actual criminals under United States law and were not granted citizenship. South Florida absorbed these refugees with some adjustment but without long-term affects. Research done by economist David Card of Princeton suggests that the influx of refugees did not drive down wages or raise unemployment among existing Miami residents, but actually increased the area's overall wealth.
In 1980, the Attorney General directed the Bureau of Prisons to provide detention space for criminal and mentally ill Mariel Cubans who could not be safely detained in INS temporary detention centers or at any of the resettlement camps established to process the Mariel Cubans. The majority of the Mariel Cubans in Bureau custody today are not eligible for repatriation under the agreement and will most likely remain in detention or be released under INS parole authority to the community or to a pre-release treatment facility.
In 1984, the United States and Cuba negotiated an agreement to resume normal immigration, interrupted in the wake of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, and to return to Cuba those persons who had arrived during the boatlift who were "excludable" under US law. Cuba suspended this agreement in May 1985 following the US initiation of Radio Marti broadcasts to the island, but it was reinstated in November 1987. In March 1990, TV Marti transmissions began to Cuba.
Some 800-900 Cuban criminals were pushed into the United States by Fidel Castro in 1980 (as part of the Mariel Boatlift), and have been in detention ever since. Following their initial detention, these criminals were granted immigration parole into the United States by the INS. While on immigration parole, each of them was convicted of, and sentenced for, violations of state or federal law ranging from attempted murder to trafficking in cocaine to petty theft. After they were released from their imprisonment for these offenses, their immigration parole was revoked on the basis of their convictions. The problem has been that Castro has refused to take them, notwithstanding a formal immigration agreement between the Castro regime and the Clinton Administration.
Master drummer and singer Felipe García Villamil of Matanzas, Cuba, toured throughout Cuba as a ceremonial and stage performer for approximately thirty years before his arrival in the United States in 1980. Carlos Alfonzo, who came from Cuba in 1980 via the Mariel boatlift, achieved national prominence in the art world before he died of AIDS at age 41 in 1991.
Probing and thoughtful, Juan Carlos Zaldívar's movie "90 Miles" is a personal memoir that offers a rare glimpse into Cuba. The Cuban-born filmmaker recounts the strange fate that brought him as a teenage communist to exile in Miami in 1980 during the dramatic Mariel boatlift. Zaldívar uses news clips, family photos and home movies to depict the emotional journey of an immigrant father and son struggling to understand the historical and individual forces shaping their relationships and identities in a new country.
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