A massive 1980 exodus from Cuba sparked a major crisis and inspired the “Scarface” gangster movie, but 25 years on, the story of the boat people who fled the communist state is largely one of success.
More than 125,000 Cubans landed on southern Florida’s shores during the five months of the Mariel boatlift, named after the Cuban city where they boarded overcrowded vessels and flimsy rafts.
Their arrival fueled a political crisis in Washington and caused panic in Miami, where many residents were convinced President Fidel Castro got rid of Cuba’s criminals and undesirables by sending them the the United States.
The communist leader happily fed the fears, saying those who fled were the dregs of Cuban society.
“Scarface,” the 1983 blockbuster featuring Al Pacino as a ruthless, cocaine-soaked Miami-based Cuban gangster, did little to improve the reputation of the “marielitos,” as the newcomers were called.
“Regardless of the percentage of the population that had mental problems or a criminal record, media, and particularly Hollywood, magnified this to an extreme,” said Luis Martinez Fernandez, a professor of Latin American studies at the University of Central Florida.
In all, about 10 percent of the 125,366 Cubans who made their way to US shores in the Mariel exodus had a criminal record or a history of mental illness that would have prevented them under normal circumstances from entering the country legally, according to a US Congress report.
Violent crime, including the illegal drug trade, did shoot up, and the refugees did strain city services.
“It was really a disaster,” then-city mayor Maurice Ferre told the Miami Herald.
But most of the refugees eventually got jobs and integrated into society. Today, Cuban-Americans, including those who arrived in 1980, have become a powerful group in south Florida, and particularly Miami.
A recent survey by the Miami Herald showed that most “marielitos” are now members of the middle class whose income is above the local average, though many of them still speak little English.
“Time heals a lot of things,” said Ferre. “The question is this: Are the Mariel Cubans net givers or net takers? Look around Miami today. They are by far net givers.”
But when they first set foot in the United States, the Cubans had little more than the clothes they wore.
The exodus has its roots in an April 1, 1980 incident in which six Cubans crashed their bus through the gates of the Peruvian embassy in Havana and requested political asylum.
Evidently angered by the fact the request was granted, Castro withdrew security from the embassy, which was promptly flooded with 10,000 asylum-seekers.
US president Jimmy Carter, for his part, accepted 3,000 Cuban refugees, as part of a multinational initiative to ease pressure on the embassy.
On April 10, a radio station in Miami, which was already home to a community of Cuban exiles, urged boat owners to head to Cuba to draw attention to the situation on the island, located only 160 kilometers (100 miles) from Florida.
But the crucial moment came 10 days later, when Castro announced he was opening up the port of Mariel, outside Havana.
Within days, thousands of refugees landed in Florida and hundreds of boats and rafts made the hazardous crossing.
But just as suddenly as it started, the crisis ended on September 25, 1980, when Castro shut down the port of Mariel. By then 125,266 people had fled Cuba aboard some 2,000 vessels.