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Posted April 16, 2005 by mattlawrence in Cuba Human Rights

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A Key West celebration takes stock of the Mariel exodus on the 25th anniversary of its start.

Posted on Sat, Apr. 16, 2005

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KEY WEST - For the scores of Cuban exiles expected to turn out today at the place where it all began a quarter century ago, it will be a homecoming of sorts.

In April 1980, thousands of boats bound for the Cuban port of Mariel departed from Key West, returning days and sometimes as much as a week later teeming with desperate refugees. Before the five-month exodus was over, at least 125,000 Cubans would find new lives in South Florida.

A celebration sponsored today by the fabled San Carlos Institute, in a building that before Castro’s 1959 revolution housed Cuba’s consulate, will offer those who experienced the frantic exodus—and those who know it only through history—an opportunity to reflect.

‘‘That was the place where the dream came true, right there at the dock in Key West,’’ said Rafael Pealver, president of the San Carlos Institute and organizer of Saturday’s day-long remembrance.

The event will include a series of talks with prominent Cuban Americans involved in the Mariel boatlift, including Bernardo Benes and Napoleon Vilaboa, both in Spanish and in English. Spanish-language events begin at 2 p.m. at the San Carlos, 516 Duval St.

Buses will depart areas in and around Miami on Saturday morning to ferry visitors to the celebration, which will include an art exhibit, a film screening, a photo presentation, a roundtable discussion and a wine-and-cheese reception.


All events are free and open to the general public.

The U.S. Coast Guard, which continues to play a major role in helping to save the lives of Cuban migrants at sea, will also be honored today with a Medal of Excellence.

A wreath will be tossed into waters off Key West in memory of the thousands of Cubans who have died trying to make the dangerous 90-mile crossing to the Keys.

Mirta Ojito, a New York Times reporter and former Herald reporter who came to the United States through Key West as a teenager during Mariel, will also talk about her new book, Finding Maana.

The day is likely to be emotional for many who remember the heady and chaotic time when hastily parked boat trailers lined the Keys—evidence of the scramble by many Cuban Americans to try to rescue family members when the floodgates opened.


‘‘I think it will be a very symbolic thing,’’ Pealver said.

If you go: Round-trip bus service from Miami to Key West will leave the Miami area at 7:30 a.m. For more information or to reserve a $40 round-trip bus ticket, call 305-579-9000 or 305-441-0626.


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