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Posted April 03, 2005 by mattlawrence in Cuban History

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The arrival of about 125,000 Cuban refugees in the 1980 Mariel boatlift caused chaos and changed Miami, but 25 years later, their story is mostly one of success.

Posted on Sun, Apr. 03, 2005



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Ivette Motola was a seasick little girl clad in the only shirt she owned when she stepped off a leaky boat onto Key West in 1980 and boarded a bus to the Orange Bowl.

A few days later, an overcrowded shrimp boat brought ex-convict Pedro Oliva from Cuba to Key West and set him loose on American society.

Today, Motola, 31, is a Harvard-trained doctor. Oliva, 51, has just been released from years of federal detention with a long criminal record, including child molestation.

Almost 25 years after they arrived, their sharply divergent paths mark the extremes that have come to define the Mariel boatlift, an extraordinary social upheaval that roiled Miami and forever altered the city’s makeup, politics and history.

In a brief but intense span of five months, an improvised and largely uncontrolled exile flotilla carried 125,266 dispossessed Cubans to U.S. shores from the port of Mariel—not just relatives and friends of exiles, but also thousands of criminals, mental health patients and others cast out of Fidel Castro’s communist society.

The influx overwhelmed government, schools and public services. A menacing minority of refugees set off on a harrowing crime spree. The boatlift exacerbated racial and ethnic tensions, hastening white non-Hispanic flight out of Miami and serving as a propellant for the riots that would soon devastate stretches of Liberty City.

The wounds are not forgotten, least of all by Mariel refugees, who bore some of the deepest.

Yet the story of the boatlift for most is one of once unimaginable success.

Just one generation later, the Mariel refugees have woven themselves into the everyday fabric of the city, gradually shedding the scornful label marielito to become office workers and professionals, laborers and students, productive citizens indistinguishable from the ordinary run of Miamians.


‘‘It took years for people, including older Cuban exiles, to accept them as part of American society,’’ said Guarione Daz, director of the Cuban American Planning Council, a nonprofit agency that helped resettle the refugees. ``It was a time of great turmoil. But now they are working. Their children are going to school. They are becoming American citizens. They have assimilated.’‘

Mariel nudged Hispanics close to a numerical majority in Miami. It also laid the foundation for today’s local Cuban-American political dominance. Some contend that the boatlift can also claim some credit for Miami’s current economic and cultural resurgence.

‘‘The sudden infusion of so many people with drive and with dreams catapulted the city forward,’’ Motola said.

Finally, Mariel stamped Miami as the ultimate immigrant haven—a place where, in spite of huge obstacles, newcomers can reinvent themselves and build new lives in economic and political freedom.

‘‘Mariel was ultimately a story of triumph,’’ said local filmmaker Li Perez, who made a documentary on the boatlift.

But consequences linger.

Resentment over the outpouring of government and volunteer aid for the refugees, especially when compared to the harsh detention of about 25,000 Haitian boat people whose arrival roughly coincided with the boatlift, played a role in the Liberty City riots.

Today it tinges memories of what many of Miami’s black citizens recall as official favoritism toward Cuban refugees.

‘‘They were given housing; they were given food and healthcare,’’ said the Rev. Alfred Jones, a job developer for The Alternative Programs, a nonprofit agency that finds work for released inmates. ``People who had been here all their lives didn’t receive that help. I felt it was unfair to blacks in the community. They just pushed the blacks aside, and things really haven’t changed.’‘

And although the crime wave associated with Mariel waned long ago, the long detention by immigration authorities of Mariel refugees who committed serious crimes on U.S. soil ended in February of this year, with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that they could not be locked up indefinitely.

Nearly 750 people, many with serious criminal records, are being released. (Studies have shown that about 10 percent of Mariel refugees were criminals released from Cuban prisons.)

Among them is Oliva, who found a job as a roofer upon his arrival in Miami but went to prison in 1994 for domestic violence and lewd and lascivious assault on a child. Oliva is trying to get a work visa, and in the meantime he helps a friend haul trash.

‘‘Now I’m worse off than when I came in Mariel,’’ he said.


The saga of Mariel began when a Cuban bus driver crashed his bus through the fence of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana with a group of would-be refugees. Castro pulled guards off the compound, and thousands of Cubans seeking to leave poured into the embassy grounds.

Castro responded by opening the port of Mariel to anyone who wanted to leave. Five months later, he abruptly shut it down.

Few who lived through Mariel can forget the tent cities set up at the Orange Bowl or beneath the Interstate I-95 span over the Miami River—part of an unimaginable effort to house, feed, process and resettle the refugees. Although some were shipped to military bases in Arkansas and Pennsylvania, most were brought to Miami. Tens of thousands were accepted warmly and settled into new lives.

Harvard-trained doctor

Americans as ideal immigrants—and many reacted by rejecting the Mariel Cubans as ‘‘different,’’ products of a communist system who were unprepared to duplicate their predecessors’ success. It didn’t help that many Mariel refugees were black or darker-skinned than the largely white Cubans who preceded them.

In South Beach, then a depressed neighborhood, Mariel criminals preyed on fearful Jewish retirees. Mentally ill refugees wandered the streets in Little Havana. Unemployed Mariel refugees hung out on corners in telltale inexpensive new jeans and sneakers handed out by resettlement groups, recalled Daz of the the Cuban American Planning Council.

Recriminations flowed from white non-Hispanics who blamed government for failing to curb the boatlift. Tens of thousands left the county, and those who stayed struck back politically, eventually winning voters’ approval of a measure—much later repealed—that prohibited local government from conducting business or issuing any documents in any language other than English.

Miami’s national reputation went into pitched decline from the combined blows of Mariel, the violent ‘‘cocaine cowboys’’ and the Liberty City riots. Amid a national recession, unemployment rose and tourism slumped, sending the local economy into a tailspin.

The cost to the county and the state of managing the crisis was about $100 million.

‘‘It was really a disaster,’’ said Maurice Ferre, who was Miami’s mayor at the time.


Perversely, though, all the bad publicity generated by Mariel may have planted the seeds for the revival of Miami now in full flower.

The boatlift infused Miami, a place then derided by many as a cultural wasteland, with scores of artists, writers and musicians oppressed under Castro and now eager to practice their craft in freedom.

‘‘After we got here, the art scene—and South Florida’s culture—was greatly enriched by the artists, musicians and actors who came on those boats,’’ said painter Andres Valerio, who came in the boatlift with his wife.

The film Scarface, and then the television series Miami Vice, glamorized the marielitos and the city’s dangerous streets—and helped lure visitors to nourish the revitalization of South Beach.

‘‘It’s a story about how something that was first viewed as negative by so many people ended up becoming something great for us. It made Miami a more cosmopolitan place,’’ said Bernardo Benes, a Cuban exile whose controversial negotiations with the Cuban regime helped set the stage for the Mariel boatlift.

The unaccustomed stigma brought on by the boatlift prompted the exile leadership, formerly focused on battling Castro, to seek greater local political and economic clout. The Cuban American National Foundation, whose fundraising prowess gave Cuban Americans unparalleled influence in Washington, was launched. Exiles began to run for—and win—local elected jobs.

‘‘The power structure of Miami, where Cuban Americans are so powerful, is a direct outgrowth of what happened that year,’’ said Princeton University sociologist Alejandro Portes, a Cuban American who has written about the boatlift’s impact on Miami.

Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, a Cuban American who was the director of the Spanish American League Against Discrimination during the boatlift, said Mariel forced exiles to confront—and proclaim—their ethnic identity.

‘‘Mariel had hurt the image that we worked so hard for 20 years to create,’’ Diaz said. Twenty-five years later, in Ferre’s view, Mariel’s benefits to Miami outweigh its costs, heavy as they were.

‘‘Time heals a lot of things,’’ Ferre said. ``The question is this: Are the Mariel Cubans net givers or net takers? Look around Miami today. They are by far net givers.’‘

  1. Follow up post #1 added on April 03, 2005 by jesusp with 246 total posts

    Cubans are hard-working intelligent people. Having said that, it is obvious that Cuban immigrants have received preferential treatment from the State and Federal government over the years. Obvious political motivations are behind this treatment, the U.S. wants to make sure that they can draw a favorable contrast between the Cubans that have settled here as opposed to the general Cuban population in Cuba, in terms of economic gains and personal freedoms.

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