‘The boats that would bring us to freedom’
By Michael Browning
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 17, 2005
They were emerging from boats in bright sunshine, in one of the most extraordinary mass immigrations in U.S. history. In a few months, 125,000 Cubans bobbed up unexpectedly and set foot on American soil. They left deep footprints, still visible today.
“I had left my job at FIU to serve as a volunteer and was helping translate applications,” said Aragon, who works today at Miami-Dade Community College and who fled Cuba herself in 1959. “I remember one old man very vividly.
“He had made himself a little home under a staircase at the Orange Bowl. He was sitting there with his little bag of possessions. He thought the little space under the staircase in the Orange Bowl was going to be his new house in America. He couldn’t believe he had to move out of his new ‘home’ so soon after arriving.”
One refugee, Marcos Nelson Suarez, was so overcome with gratitude that he wrote a letter “to the Authorities in Florida” on May 8, 1980, thanking them for helping him to escape “the most ferocious tyranny that mankind has known.”
“Terrorized, nervous, anxious, we boarded, on the Cuban coastline, our beloved homeland, the boats that would bring us to freedom. . . . We want you to know that we have come to this land with the intention of working, of being useful to the Great Homeland of Lincoln, and also, to try and let the world know the truth about communism.”
Across a quarter-century, across the sea-divide that sunders Cuba and Florida, the extraordinary Mariel boatlift of April 1980 changed two countries, reshaped a state and helped unseat a U.S. president, Jimmy Carter. President-to-be Bill Clinton took a hit, too. He lost his job as governor of Arkansas, after agreeing to allow some refugees to be relocated temporarily to Fort Chaffee. Arkansans didn’t cotton to Cubans in their midst.
Mariel altered the demographics of South Florida, shifting the balance of politics in Florida — already a slippery “swing state” — farther to the right. Florida had 9.7 million people in 1980 and was about 9 percent Hispanic. Palm Beach County had only about 28,000 Hispanics, about 5 percent of the population. Today, Florida has nearly 16 million people and is nearly 17 percent Hispanic. Palm Beach County has about 1.14 million people and is 12 percent Hispanic: One in every eight people here is Hispanic.
Mariel sent frightened Anglo-Americans scurrying northward, to Broward, Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties, to get away from what was perceived as an engulfing tide of coked-up criminals and tattooed lunatics, of the type immortalized by Brian de Palma in his 1983 movie, Scarface.
Today, it is clear that fewer than one in 100 of the Mariel refugees had a criminal background. Even so, nearly 2,000 were jailed after it was found they had criminal backgrounds in Cuba. Other refugees ran afoul of the law, and by 1987 some 2,700 men from the Mariel boatlift were behind bars in the former U.S. penitentiary in Atlanta.
Last Jan. 12, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that no immigrant could be held longer than 90 days in prison, except for a short extension period required to enable his return to his native country. Since then, about 150 Mariel felons have been released for deportation, and the rest are due to be processed out soon.
‘Cuba was like a boiling teapot on a stove’
It all began on April 1, 1980. Six Cuban dissidents commandeered a bus and rammed it into the gate of the Peruvian embassy in Havana. Cuban guards fired at them, and a ricocheted bullet bounced back and killed a guard. The Cubans in the bus made it through, asked for asylum and later stood on the roof of the embassy, threatening to jump and commit suicide if they were arrested.
The affair aroused a flicker of interest in the United States, nothing more. Something similar had been tried in June 1979 at the Venezuelan embassy, and again in January 1980, and two more times at the Peruvian embassy in the same month. The would-be defectors had been led away to jail. It was assumed this incident would play out the same way.
It didn’t. From six people in a bus, the event swelled until it involved hundreds of thousands on both sides of the Florida Straits, set furiously in motion.
On April 4, the Cuban government removed its guards from the Peruvian embassy. Within two days, the embassy was flooded with more than 10,000 would-be émigrés.
On April 20, Fidel Castro abruptly announced that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba could do so from the port of Mariel, about 25 miles from Havana.
Perhaps Castro himself was dismayed at the magnitude of the event. What went through his mind is unknown, but Siro del Castillo can guess. Castillo was a refugee himself who came to Miami in 1973, one of the few who was allowed to leave Cuba legally in those days.
“Cuba was like a boiling teapot on a stove,” he said. “From 1970-78, practically nobody could leave the country. The Freedom Flights had been canceled for many years. The pressure was building up. With Mariel, it exploded.”
There is another thing to consider, something that hasn’t been reported yet in the mainstream American media. But it may be the pebble that triggered the avalanche, and it had nothing to do with Castro, politics, socialism, capitalism, freedom or tyranny.
In 1979, a blue mold, known scientifically as Peronospora tabacina Adam, attacked the Cuban tobacco crop, one of the major props of the island’s agricultural economy. The disease caused tobacco leaves to develop ugly yellow spots, rendering them useless for cigars. Cuba had been making and exporting 100 million cigars a year before 1979. Today, it makes and exports only 55 million cigars annually. Cuba has never recovered from the blue-mold tobacco outbreak of 25 years ago.
In 1980, the year of Mariel, the blue mold wiped out 90 percent of Cuba’s tobacco crop, “dealing Cuba’s already ailing economy a major blow. The government had to lay off 26,000 workers and temporarily close the country’s cigar factories. These losses place the blue-mold outbreaks of 1979 and 1980 in the category of a catastrophic plant disease causing a major economic dislocation,” plant pathologist G.B. Lucas wrote in Science magazine.
Just as the Irish potato famine of 1845 forced a huge emigration from Ireland to America, Cuba’s blue-mold tobacco blight may have helped spark the Mariel exodus.
The most extraordinary seaborne immigration flotilla in U.S. history, 125,000 sudden arrivals on Florida’s shores, a wave cascading into massive political and economic changes in state affairs and government, rippling into national immigration policy: All these things may have been set in motion by a tiny malignant plant spore that swept through the Pinar del Rios province of Cuba.
Carter: ‘Ours is a country of refugees’
What followed was extraordinary. While the U.S. government dithered, thousands of Cuban-Americans acted. They bought boats, they manned boats, to go to the port of Mariel to evacuate their fellow citizens. Anarchy followed for more than five months.
The first two boats arrived in Key West on April 21 with 48 Cubans. The next day, three more vessels brought 348 refugees. Lacking clear orders from Washington, the U.S. Coast Guard could only attempt to make sure none of the boats foundered. By April 24, 11 boats had made the trip and brought a total of 700 refugees.
“Trailered boats were lined up 50 to 100 deep at Key West, waiting their turn to be launched. This went on for 36 to 48 hours; local residents could hear the activity around the clock. Hundreds of trailers were scattered throughout Key West. One thousand craft were observed southbound on the afternoon of the 24th,” wrote Coast Guard Vice Admiral Benedict Stabile and Dr. Robert L. Scheina in an official after-action report.
Things were spinning out of control. One tugboat, the Dr. Daniels, made the trip back from Cuba with 600 people aboard, more than three times the number who could be transported safely, practically none of whom had life vests.
On May 5, President Jimmy Carter finally issued a statement about Mariel:
“Ours is a country of refugees. We’ll continue to provide an open heart and open arms to refugees seeking freedom from communist domination and from the economic deprivation brought about by Fidel Castro and his government,” Carter said. His words appeared to give a green light to the exodus.
The wave northward to Palm Beach County
The impact rippled northward. By May 2, refugees were spilling over from Miami to Palm Beach County.
Vince Bonvento was assistant county administrator in those days, and Mariel remains one of his most vivid life memories.
“I was on my way home from work,” Bonvento, who remains in the county job, recalled last week. “I got a call from the communications center of the county emergency management office. The local armory had been requested to house about 100 refugees, but about 300 of them showed up.
“The National Guard complement was sent to Key West to assist in the Mariel boatlift, and they left about four individuals. They were just completely overwhelmed. There was no food, there were no toilet facilities. … Some of the people were just wandering around on the street.”
After about a day and a half, Bonvento met with the colonel in charge of the local National Guard, and together they visited the South Florida Fairgrounds.
“The colonel made a decision about 3:30 in the morning that they needed to use the fairgrounds. So here we were on a Sunday morning, 4 o’clock in the morning, scrambling to get triage facilities, calling Southern Bell for portable communications. We basically went from nothing at about 3 o’clock in the morning and we had a facility by 5 a.m.”
Even in the midst of the mayhem, Bonvento recalls some touching moments:
“The first 1,000 or so refugees that came were basically families. … They were just so thankful to be in the United States. They wanted to kiss your hand.”
But after a few days, Bonvento said, there was a noticeable shift in the refugees arriving.
“Early one morning, we had 10 Greyhound buses show up. We were again anticipating having family members. Much to our dismay, the first bus unloaded, and there were no women, no children getting off the buses. They were all men, and they looked very angry. Then the next bus came, and the same kind of group of refugees got off. Again, no women, no children.
“And we immediately knew that something was wrong,” Bonvento said. “It was pretty obvious that they were very bitter. Some of them were very aggressive. It was pretty scary for a while.
“We bedded them down immediately and increased our security, and we contacted the coordinator down in the Keys to find out what happened to the families. It turned out a lot of the refugees were political refugees, from criticizing Castro. But there were some hard-core prisoners that were identified by some of the refugees. Some of them were informers.
“We contacted the sheriff immediately. … The National Guard sent armed National Guardsmen up to increase security. By morning, we had 150 sheriff’s deputies in riot gear on hand to prevent trouble.”
Within a week, the 82nd Airborne Division was activated and took control of the fairgrounds, Bonvento said, “and within 24 hours, they had transported all the refugees to the airport, and they flew them to some camp in Arkansas.”
In all, Palm Beach County handled and housed 1,254 Mariel refugees over eight days. The cost to the county, which the federal government reimbursed, was $200,000.
Tiny, unforgettable pictures from that rush of events remain imprinted in Bonvento’s mind’s eye:
“There was one lady who had very, very severe burns on her buttocks because the only place she could sit on the boat was on top of the outboard engine. And I asked her through a translator, ‘Why did you sit on top of the engine?’ And she said, ‘If I didn’t sit there, they were going to throw me overboard.’ She said the pain was bearable because of the thought of coming to America,” Bonvento said.
“This was a more moving experience because you were actually dealing hands-on with the individuals. … Some of them were bringing their children up to us and introducing their children to us. They were just so thankful.
“It really kind of energized you and made you thankful that you were in America.”
‘Mariel was like a hurricane’ â€“ of people
“I was in the wrong place, in the wrong time, with the wrong people,” said a laughing Siro del Castillo, who took a five-year furlough from his job as an art director in Miami to work with the refugees. “Mariel was like a hurricane, only it wasn’t wind, it was people coming.
“When I heard what was happening, I immediately quit my job and became a volunteer. I was the first ‘camp commander’ at Krome Avenue. It was an old missile site, way out in the Everglades. They turned it into two camps. Krome North was for Cubans. Krome South was for Haitians. People forget that there were Haitians coming to Florida, too, in those days. They were separated by about three-quarters of a mile.”
Why did he do it?
“I felt it was my duty,” Castillo said. “I came to America as a refugee, too. America opened its arms to me. I felt this was my chance to repay the debt.”
Castillo worked in Miami, at Fort Chaffee, Ark., and finally in New Orleans, resettling the newcomers. The refugees were sent to Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola, to Indiantown Gap, Pa., to Fort McCoy, Wis., and to Fort Chaffee.
Escoria â€” “trash” â€” is what Castro called the Mariel refugees. Very soon it became clear he had taken advantage of the exodus to empty out his prisons and asylums.
But Castillo said the stigma attached to the masses who came via Mariel was greatly exaggerated.
“Some people who were in jail came. That was a fact. Some of the people he sent had bad mental problems.
“I asked one ‘criminal’ what he had done to go to jail in Cuba. He told me had stolen three chickens to feed his family. Overall, the Mariel boat people represented the best cross-section of the Cuban people in history, the whole society, from top to bottom.
“I will say this to anybody: ‘You take 125,000 people who don’t speak English and dump them anyplace in the United States, you will have chaos.’ That we did not have more chaos is a tribute to the Marielitos. They did survive. They did integrate into the society,” Castillo said.
But even as they integrated, they reshaped South Florida.
“Mariel changed Miami,” said Uva de Aragon. “You see flower vendors, lemonade vendors on the streets there today, that you didn’t see before. There is a more Latin flavor.
“For me, Mariel was the first time the Cuban people in such a massive way said to the world: ‘We don’t like living in Cuba. We don’t like communism.’ Mariel was a big political statement. I think Mariel was very costly for Cuba. It was a big embarrassment.”
At the same time, Mariel became a symbol of uncontrolled mass immigration that struck a xenophobic nerve in many Americans, a wariness that has only been reinforced since the Sept. 11 attacks.
In the mid-1990s, when a third wave of immigrants from Cuba tried to make it to the United States â€” the so-called “balseros” or raft people â€” President Clinton finally slammed the door to the unlimited entry of Cuban refugees. Today, Cuban immigrants must run a gantlet of Coast Guard vessels and actually set foot on dry land to be considered for U.S. refugee status.
Mariel lingers in memory as a near-miracle. Those who saw it were changed forever.
Vince Bonvento keeps a framed translation of the letter crafted by Suarez, the grateful refugee, as a memento.
“We hoped to be received well. Nevertheless, reality went beyond any expectations we had. More than friendly, the authorities of this state have been marvelous in their understanding, in their kindness, in their knowledge of our great tragedy.
“Wherever our eyes were directed and we saw a uniform, we saw smiles. We, who are accustomed to the police uniform being synonymous with terror, repression and anguish. …
“It is for all this, that on behalf of all the Cuban Refugees that have risen to these coastlines of freedom, on behalf of all that tried to escape from Cuba . . . that we want to deliver to you our most sincere thanks, our most humble expressions of respect and consideration.”
What he saw and heard from the Cubans of the Mariel boatlift “gave me an opportunity to understand the tyranny that they were living in,” Bonvento said. “It made me really recognize and appreciate what we have. I think everybody who worked here all felt the same way.
“If we had another Mariel boatlift, I think our community would respond the same way. Americans are a very caring and compassionate people. I don’t think it would be any different. I think people would respond the same way. I know I would.”