Keys Life features the stories of three of the Mariel immigrants who built their lives in the Keys: Page 1C.
Photos from the boatlift: Pages 8-9A.
BY BECKY IANNOTTA
KEY WEST ó A hand-painted sign at Truman Annex greeted the thousands of Cuban families and prison inmates who left Cuba with the permission of President Fidel Castro during what became known as the 1980 Mariel Boatlift.
Translated from Spanish the sign read: “The last person to leave Cuba remember to turn out the lights.” But that’s not what Arturo Cobo, the Bay of Pigs survivor who volunteered to help the newly arrived immigrants, told the non-Spanish-speaking U.S. officials. “I told immigration officials it said, ‘Welcome to the United States,” Cobo recalls.
The influx of 125,000 immigrants on private American fishing boats and yachts brought artists, students and professionals to the island city historically connected to its neighbor 90 miles away.
Key West rush
Thousands of boats and trailers filled Key West streets and marinas in April 1980 as Cubans in America learned that Castro had opened Mariel Harbor as an exodus point for Cubans who wanted to leave.
Key West’s proximity to Cuba made it the center of activity during the Mariel Boatlift as the launching and returning point for boats.
Cars with boats in tow started heading to Key West in late April, after an April 21 announcement on Radio Havana that two boats from the United States had picked up refugees who had been housed at the Peruvian embassy in Havana. Earlier that month, a busload of Cubans had busted through the gates of the embassy seeking asylum, killing one of the Cuban guards assigned to protect the embassy, and prompting Castro to remove guards from the gates. Almost 11,000 Cubans sought asylum at the embassy.
In the U.S., Cubans from all over the country, especially Miami, New York and New Jersey, hired Key West boat captains bored with a slow fishing season or looking to make extra money to take them across the Florida Straits to pick up family members. By many accounts, Cuban Americans were paying boat captains $1,000 per person.
“Anybody who had an acceptable boat was more than likely going to go,” said Key West attorney Diane Covan, who later helped 19 commercial fishermen recover boats seized by the U.S. government for their role in the boatlift. “Some people made money and some did it just because it was the right thing to do.”
The Dos Hermanos and Blanch III pulled into Key West on April 21 with more than 40 refugees. The next day, Castro formally declared the Port of Mariel open, according to the Coast Guard. The numbers grew daily through the rest of April and May, and on June 3 the total topped 100,000.
“Key West was inundated,” said Shirlee Ezmirly, who worked in the Coast Guard office in Key West registering boats larger than 26 feet that planned to make the trip to Cuba. “People were sleeping in cars, sleeping everywhere they could because it gave them a chance to get their relatives.”
Gail Miller was working on the 40-foot fishing boat Three Sons when she and the captain decided to make the trip from Key West to Cuba on April 24, 1980.
“The town was full of people looking for boats,” she said. “We brought two Cubans. One showed up in a silk suit and [with] a bag full of money.”
Boat captains, their crews and passengers were unprepared for rough seas that consumed more gas and oil than expected on the trip. Many of them ran out of gas on the way to Cuba.
The Coast Guard was towing boats around the clock, and on April 25, the Coast Guard conducted 12 search and rescues that required medical evacuation or helping people off sinking boats, according to Coast Guard reports.
Larger commercial vessels also helped.
“You’d see shrimp boats with six or eight disabled boats in tow,” said retired Key West optician Jim Picking.
Picking made the trip on a local ophthalmologist’s 28-foot boat with a tuna tower. The ophthalmologist, Dr. Lee Stewart, was commissioned by two Cuban women from New York whose parents were in the Peruvian embassy.
“There were boats that didn’t have enough gas to go one way, no tow lines, no food, no preparation,” Picking said.
Those who made the trip recall guards surrounding Mariel Harbor, patrol boats circling and spotlights lighting up the harbor at night.
Guards ordered boats to anchor off Mariel. Lines of six to 10 boats each were tied together offshore.
A storm ripped through Key West on April 27, accompanied by winds of at least 70 miles per hour that shut down the Naval Air Station. The line of storms headed for Cuba.
The Coast Guard struggled to respond to calls for help, and it is unclear how many people died during the storm.
“The volume of cases became so heavy that accurate records could not be kept,” according to Coast Guard reports. “By the 29th, two bodies were found in a capsized vessel 18 miles east of Trumph Reef. Numerous abandoned and capsized craft were observed.”
Many of the vessels at Mariel crashed against each other, damaging boats and further rattling boaters there, Picking said.
Miller and the others on her boat spent 11 days waiting for passengers who ultimately didn’t return to the United States with them because the entire family was not allowed to leave together, she said.
Others waited even longer.
“I shuffled around and crammed what I thought I would need for a four-day cruise in a small bag. It turned out to be 17 days,” said shrimp boat captain C.J. Singleton. Singleton left Key West April 25 in a 73-foot shrimp boat carrying 24 Cubans who wanted to bring their families back to the United States.
Miller kept a diary of her 11 days in Mariel Harbor. She describes swapping food with other boaters and carefully monitoring their supplies.
“... I worked out a trade: fish salad recipe and 1/2 can American coffee for 5 lbs. of sugar,” she wrote. “We’re watching our [drinking] water pretty closely by now, and cigarettes, too.”
She also wrote about the cost of purchasing food, gas and other services.
“Fuel is said to be available at $2 a gallon, garbage pickup cost us $1 for two bags, and one man said he purchased two cases of Coke, a cake and a bottle of whiskey from the natives for $300,” she wrote.
The Cuban government sent a rusty old ship to the harbor to sell food, toiletries and entertainment to the boaters, Picking said. Boaters also took turns going to shore, where they could take a bus or pay a driver cash ó or trade American items like blue jeans ó to go to a pay phone, buy supplies or try to meet with immigration officials in Havana. Someone always stayed behind with the boat, Picking said.
Days of trying to figure out how to collect their passengers and leave were passed with games of poker and socializing with other boaters.
“Fishermen, especially from the Keys, make a party out of anything,” Picking said. “We ran out of water and we drank beer. I brushed my teeth with beer, and I gained 8 pounds because I didn’t exercise and all I drank was beer.”
Back at the docks
Key West was preparing for an onslaught of boats and refugees and contending with boat trailers left behind by boaters who had driven to the city and launched their boats to Cuba.
“There were trailers everywhere,” said County Commissioner Charles “Sonny” McCoy, who was mayor of Key West from 1971 to 1981. “You couldn’t move around.”
Twelve employees of the city’s public works department started moving the trailers to the seaplane hangar on Trumbo Point, where officials also put together a shelter with mats and cots for arriving refugees.
Cobo, a Cuban exile who moved to Key West in the 1960s following imprisonment in Cuba for his role in the Bay of Pigs invasion, had put together a team of volunteers to make sure refugees arriving in Key West were given food and transportation to Miami.
“We went to hotels and restaurants asking for donations, clothing and toys,” he said. “We advertised on radio stations in Miami.”
Cobo estimates 1,000 volunteers worked in Key West. His wife, Aleida, and Josephine Messina recorded the name of every boat, the number of refugees and crew members that arrived in Key West during the boatlift. His daughters, Elsa and Becky, also joined volunteer efforts.
“I would go to see [Cobo] and next thing I know I was taking names,” said Elsa Cobo Degraffenreid, who was 16 at the time. “Everyone helped out because it was such a big thing.”
The Navy contracted with the old Fourth of July restaurant on White Street for black beans, rice and picadillo, said Claude Valdez, then a civilian supply officer for Naval Air Station Key West.
State and federal agencies started sending more people to Key West to help as the number of refugees arriving soared. The commanding officer of Naval Air Station Key West asked the Spanish-speaking Valdez to help him. Valdez would be on call to make sure there was enough food, diapers and other supplies.
“One night at midnight, the CO called and said, ‘Claude, we’ve got 5,000 Cubans coming in. I need you to go get every jar of baby food you can find,’” Valdez said. The manager of the Winn-Dixie at Flagler and First streets opened the store and filled a Navy truck, Valdez said.
Refugees arriving at Truman Annex were checked by the health department, then questioned to determine where their families were. Those with family in Miami would board a Greyhound bus, while others would board a plane bound for other military bases like Fort McCoy in Wisconsin and Fort Chaffee in Fort Smith, Ark. Key West residents took their family members to their homes.
“I’d say 98 percent of the people in Key West never saw one refugee except on a bus,” said McCoy. “We contained it, we controlled it, and when it got overwhelming to us the state came in and helped us big time. Then the federal government came in.”
Cobo said he sent a boat from Stock Island to Mariel equipped with a radio. The boat would transmit information to him twice a day telling him how many boats had left and how many people were aboard. He passed along the information to the federal and state agencies but couldn’t tell them how he received the information.
“They called me the Cuban CIA,” he said.
He also believes he was the first to detect prisoners from Cuban jails arriving in Key West, and a letter from the top federal official working on the island for the boatlift praises Cobo’s assistance in recognizing criminals.
“I saw all men on a boat,” Cobo said. “I’ve been in prison there, I know how they look, how they dress.”
He interviewed three men who confirmed that Castro was releasing prisoners and sending them on the boats to Key West.
Cobo said he urged federal officials, including an aide to President Jimmy Carter, to stop the boatlift.
“[The aide] said, ‘We don’t want to upset the Cuban community,’” Cobo said. “I told him, ‘I am the Cuban community.’ I told them to send people back, blockade Cuba and take action. This [was] a declaration of war.”
Federal officials disagreed, and the boatlift continued.
In all, more than 23,000 refugees told immigration officials they had previous criminal convictions in Cuba. The U.S. government later determined through interviews that 2,746 of the arriving refugees were criminals under U.S. law, according to information compiled by globalsecurity.org.
Many of the boaters who left Key West in late April and early May were still in Mariel Harbor on May 14, when the Coast Guard made an urgent marine broadcast advising all U.S. citizens in Cuban ports and en route to Cuba to return to the United States. Boaters were told they would be subject to heavy fines or seizure of their boats if they brought undocumented citizens to the United States.
The broadcast seemed to contradict earlier comments from President Jimmy Carter about welcoming Cubans to America with open arms.
“While we were there, over the radio they said don’t take any Cubans or you’ll be fined $1,000 per head,” Picking said. “Then Castro said, ‘You’re not leaving here without taking the ‘scum,’” which was Castro’s name for jail inmates.
Picking said his boat left without taking on any additional passengers at Mariel.
“At gunpoint they’d load up the boats with people you didn’t want to take,” he said. “When the patrol boat was way over on the other side of the harbor, we punched out of there, looking over our shoulder. First thing we knew we were at the 12-mile limit and the [U.S.] Coast Guard cutter Dallas was right there… It was like seeing Old Glory.”
Other boaters already had begun returning without Cubans they had hoped to bring back, due to long waits, exorbitant prices for food and water and uncertainty at Mariel. Of the 188 known northbound boats on April 28, 84 were not carrying refugees, according to Coast Guard reports.
Miller and Singleton also were on boats that did not bring back refugees. In both cases, the Cuban government barred them from taking all the people on their lists. The families stayed in Cuba rather than split up.
The U.S. government seized many boats as they returned to Key West and heavily fined others because they were carrying undocumented Cubans.
Key West attorneys Diane Covan and attorney Tom Sireci won a lawsuit against the government to get boats returned to 19 owners. Covan estimates the government confiscated about 2,000 boats.
Boats piled up at the Outer Mole Pier quickly turned the area into a graveyard of vessels. Some were confiscated by the government and others were left unclaimed by people who only needed them for their trip to Mariel.
“They were being piled on top of each other at the Outer Mole,” McCoy said. “They were rotting and deteriorating and were all gone.”
On June 25, 1980, U.S. District Judge Sidney M. Aronovitz ordered the government to return the commercial fishing boats.
Key West was the center of activity during the Mariel Boatlift, and officials found themselves battling impressions nationwide that the town was overrun with Cuban refugees in the streets.
“The rumor was out that there were Cuban refugees all over the place and people were afraid to come to the Keys,” said local attorney and musician Ben Harrison, who witnessed the boatlift from his boat anchored near Truman Annex. “There were nights you could shoot a cannon down Duval and not hit a soul.”
News that Castro was sending over jail inmates and patients of mental hospitals didn’t help tourism, which all but came to a halt that summer.
“I went on the radio and television constantly,” said McCoy. “I was the person to say, ‘There are no people on the beaches killing people.’”
But within months it was tourist season and people began returning to Key West, he said.
Cafe con leche and Cuban sandwich shops flavor the island and serve as a meeting place for native Cubans and Americans. Cuban artists sell their wares at galleries across town and everyday people can retell stories about harrowing experiences crossing the Florida Straits in 1980 to come to America.
The Cuban refugees, or Marielitos, as they often are called, took English classes, found jobs and many have become part of the fabric of Key West’s cultural and professional community.
Alfredo Aguero Jr., who moved to Key West from Cuba after the Mariel Boatlift at age 23, is one example.
“We are hard workers and we are integrated into society,” he said.
Aguero worked at the now-closed Pantry Pride grocery store for 12 1/2 years. He’s been active in the Cuban community helping Cuban refugees and helping to raise money to renovate the San Carlos Institute on Duval Street. For the past five years, he has worked as a security guard for Mel Fisher’s family business.
“From the moment we got to Key West we had to work very hard,” he said. “For the past 25 years, every morning when I wake up I say thank you to the United States and thank God for giving me the opportunity to live in this country,” Aguero said.
Many longtime residents chalk the Mariel Boatlift up to another passage in history, like the sinking of the USS Maine, that happened to touch the Keys.
“Looking back now, I don’t think it was much of an impact, although it was at first,” said Picking. “This is just another world event that Key West absorbed.”