125,000 migrants filled the Straits bound for Keys
By ADRIAN SAINZ Associated Press
Posted-Friday, April 8, 2005 7:22 PM EDT
She was a short and skinny 15-year-old, sitting down on a sunny afternoon for lunch of brown sugar sandwiches at her grandmother’s house, when Lourdes Hernandez was forced to decide her future.
Her grandmother called out, “You have to go home. Officials just came over to your house. You’re leaving the country.”
About a week later, Hernandez walked through the mosquito-filled night in Mariel, Cuba, toward a shrimp boat, the Lorraine, and its American captain. Clutching her father’s hand, she stepped onto the vessel with about 200 others refugees joining the freedom flotilla toward Key West.
“My dad said, ‘Let’s risk it. If not, we might never get a chance to leave,’” she recalled.
More than 125,000 Cubans arrived in Key West by boat in the spring and summer of 1980, affecting a cross-section of America, from retirees on Miami Beach to residents of Jenny Lind, Ark., to then-President Carter in the White House. From one day to the next, Cubans left their homes, braved treacherous seas and arrived in their new world.
About 85,000 of them ended up in Miami, where the Cuban influence already had been felt through previous migrations. The boatlift also unleashed a relatively small but ruthless cadre of criminals into refugee camps and Miami streets, tainting America’s image of the “Marielito” for years.
“It was a demographic bomb,” said sociologist Juan Clark.
It starts April 1
The exodus from the small Cuban port began when Cuban President Fidel Castro sought to remove about 10,000 people who were seeking to leave the island after crashing through the gates of the Peruvian embassy April 1, 1980.
Castro allowed those who wanted to leave the island to depart by boat. He also sent about 2,000 of communist Cuba’s most violent criminals across the Florida Straits, along with mental patients and about 23,000 others identified by the U.S. as “non-felonious criminals and political prisoners,” according Clark’s 1980s research on Mariel’s impact.
“Those who have no revolutionary genes, those who have no revolutionary blood ... we do not want them, we do not need them,” Castro said in a May 1, 1980 speech.
But experts say the roots of the boatlift were planted in the late 1970s, when Castro agreed to release more than 2,000 political prisoners and allowed exiles to visit family members in Cuba.
Hearing of a possible exodus, people flocked to Key West. There, many paid American boat captains cash to pick up their family members from Cuba and bring them back to the United States.
President Carter accepted the new arrivals in a May 5, 1980 speech. He lost his re-election bid later that year.
Keys staging area
Cuban exile activist Arturo Cobo got the call April 17, 1980. A friend told him that Cubans were starting to arrive in Key West by the boatload.
“I told [Key West officials] to be ready for thousands more,” Cobo said. “They told me I was crazy. But if you’re crazy, you have to be ready for something crazy to happen.”
Cobo quickly set up a table with food and water and started registering the early arrivals. He assembled a group of volunteers, set up cots and a bathing facility, and provided fresh clothing and even toys for children.
By early May, the U.S. government had established a large processing center, at the Navy’s facilities at Truman Annex.
Cobo said contacts near Mariel would radio the names of boats and the number of passengers. He would then check the boats off his list when - or if - they arrived. Some sank in rough seas, and at least 27 people were known to have died.
Cobo would greet the exhausted arrivals with a pleasant “Welcome to the United States.” He also posted a Spanish sign: “The last person to leave Cuba, please turn off the lights.”
Key West ‘surreal’
The scene in Key West was surreal. Tourists were water-skiing among the throng of boats. Arrivals saw hundreds lining a fence on the dock, screaming last names of relatives. At least one refugee had a heart attack on the wharf; one lady had a baby.
Even the food awaiting them on shore was a new experience.
“I had never seen an apple before,” recalled Hernandez, now married with the name Lourdes Campbell.
Many of the new arrivals were quickly claimed by relatives and went to live in Miami to begin their resettlement.
However, thousands were forced to stay in cramped Key West or in Miami’s Orange Bowl, waiting for family to eventually claim them. Others who were not immediately claimed by sponsors, admitted being jailed in Cuba or were identified as potential dangers were sent to processing camps in Indiantown Gap, Pa., Fort Chaffee, Ark., Fort McCoy, Wis. and Pensacola, and the federal penitentiary in Atlanta.
The Arkansas camp became a public embarrassment for then-Gov. Bill Clinton when Cubans rioted at Fort Chaffee in June 1980.
Violent scenes also overtook Miami, and the city was depicted in the national media and films such as “Scarface” as crime-infested.
By the end of 1980, only those Mariel Cubans deemed too dangerous to be released remained in custody. The Orange Bowl holding area had closed, as did camps in Fort Chaffee and elsewhere.
Time passed, and most Mariel refugees found jobs, finished school and blended into society. And while the 85,000 spike in Miami’s population strained the city’s social services, schools and housing, the refugees eventually became a part of South Florida’s diverse mix.