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Mariel boatlift

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Mariel boatlift

The Mariel boatlift was a mass emigration of Cubans, who traveled from Cuba's Mariel Harbor to the United States between 15 April and 31 October 1980. The term "Marielito" (plural "Marielitos") is used to refer to these refugees in both Spanish and English. The boatlift was precipitated by a sharp downturn in the Cuban economy.


After approximately 10,000 Cubans tried to gain asylum by taking refuge on the grounds of the Peruvian embassy, the Cuban government announced that anyone who wanted to leave could do so. The ensuing mass migration was organized by Cuban-Americans with the agreement of Cuban president Fidel Castro. The arrival of the refugees in the U.S. created political problems for U.S. president Jimmy Carter, first when his administration struggled to develop a consistent response to the immigrants and then when it was discovered that a number of the refugees had been released from Cuban jails and mental health facilities. The Mariel boatlift was ended by mutual agreement between the two governments in late October 1980, after as many as 125,000 Cubans had reached Florida.


In the late 1970s, the administration of U.S. President Jimmy Carter sought to improve relations between the U.S. and Cuba. He lifted all restrictions on US travel to Cuba, and in September 1977, Cuba and the U.S. each established an Interest Section in the other's capital. However, relations were still strained because Cuba contributed troops to support the Soviet Union's military interventions in Africa and the Middle East. The two countries struggled to reach agreement on a relaxation of the U.S. embargo on trade to permit the importation of a select list of medicines to Cuba without provoking Carter's political opponents in the U.S. Congress. Ten members of Congress visited Cuba in December 1978, after which the Cuban government released the American manager of a business in Cuba who been prevented from leaving in 1963, accused of being a CIA agent and sentenced to fifty years in prison. A group of 55 people who had been brought from Cuba to the U.S. by their parents returned for three weeks in December 1978, a rare instance of Cuba allowing the return of Cuban-born émigrés. In December 1978 the two countries agreed upon their maritime border and the next month were working on an agreement to improve their communications in the Straits of Florida. The U.S. responded to Cuban relaxation of restrictions on emigration by allowing Cuban-Americans to send up to $500 to an emigrating relative.

In November 1978, the government of Fidel Castro met in Havana with a group of Cubans living in exile and agreed to grant an amnesty to 3,600 political prisoners and announced that they would be freed in the course of the next year and allowed to leave Cuba.

Caribbean Holidays began offering one-week trips to Cuba in January 1978 in cooperation with Cubatur, the official Cuban travel agency. By May 1979, tours were being organized for Americans to participate in the Cuban Festival of Art (Carifesta) in July, with flights departing from Tampa, Mexico City and Montreal.

Seeking asylum in embassies

Several attempts by Cubans to seek asylum at the embassies of South American countries set the stage for the events of the spring of 1980. On 21 March 1978, two young Cuban writers who had been punished for dissent and denied permission to emigrate, Reynaldo Colas Pineda and Esteban Luis Cardenas Junquera, sought asylum in the Argentine embassy in Havana without success. They were sentenced to years in prison. On 13 May 1979, twelve Cubans sought to take asylum in the Venezuelan embassy in Havana, crashing their bus through a fence to gain entry to the grounds and the building. In January 1980, groups of asylum-seekers took refuge in the Peruvian and Venezuelan embassies, and Venezuela called its ambassador home for consultations to protest the fact the Cuban police had fired on them. Peru recalled its ambassador in March after he denied entry to a dozen Cubans seeking asylum in his embassy.

The embassy invasions then became a confrontation between the Cuban government and the Havana embassies. A group of Cubans attempted to enter the Peruvian embassy in the last week of March and on 1 April a group of six driving a city bus was successful in doing so and a Cuban guard was killed by a ricocheting bullet. The Peruvians announced they would not hand those seeking asylum over to Cuban police. The embassy grounds contained two two-story buildings and gardens covering an area the size of a U.S. football field or 6400 sq. yds. The Cuban government announced on 4 April that it was withdrawing its security forces, normally officers from the Interior Ministry armed with automatic weapons, from that embassy: "We cannot protect embassies that do not cooperate in their own protection." Following that announcement, about fifty Cubans entered the embassy grounds. By nightfall on 5 April, that number had grown to 2,000, including many children and a few former political prisoners. Cuban officials announced through loudspeakers that anyone who had not entered the embassy grounds by force was free to emigrate provided another country would grant them entry. President Francisco Morales of Peru had announced a willingness to accept asylum-seekers. Diplomats from several countries met with the Peruvians to discuss the situation, including the crowd's food and shelter requirements. An official of the U.S. State Department stated on 5 April that the U.S. would grant asylum to bona fide political prisoners and handle other requests to immigrate following standard procedures, which provided for the issuance of 400 immigrant visa per month to Cubans, with preference given to those with family members already in the U.S.

By 6 April the crowd had reached 10,000 and as sanitary conditions on the embassy grounds deteriorated Cuban authorities prevented further access. The Cuban government called those seeking asylum "bums, antisocial elements, delinquents and trash". By April 8, 3,700 of the asylum-seekers had accepted safe conduct passes to return to their homes and the government began providing shipments of food and water. Peru tried to organize an international relief program, and won commitments first from Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela to help with resettlement, and then from Spain, which agreed to accept 500. By April 11, the Cuban government began furnishing the asylum-seekers with documents that guaranteed their right to emigrate, including permanent safe-conduct passes and passports, and in the first two days about 3,000 received those papers and left the grounds. On April 14, U.S. President Jimmy Carter announced the U.S. would accept 3,500 refugees and that Costa Rica had agreed to provide a staging area for screening potential immigrants.


Castro ultimately on April 20 stated that the port of Mariel would be opened to anyone wishing to leave Cuba, as long as they had someone to pick them up. While news of the situation was not broadcast in Cuba, Cuban exiles in the United States rushed to Key West and to docks in Miami to hire boats to transport people to the United States.

Initially, the Carter administration had an open-door policy in regard to Cuban immigrants. Cubans who reached the United States were immediately granted refugee status. Public opinion towards Cuban political refugees was also favorable.

Dozens of watercraft arrived daily. Some 706 refugees were counted on the Red Diamond alone. One craft lost power 60 miles from Key West and had to be towed to the U.S. mainland. Not all vessels that arrived at Truman Annex were carrying Cubans. Canadians were held for weeks in Mariel Harbor before being allowed to leave.

Refugees were processed at camps set up in the greater Miami area, generally at decommissioned missile defense sites. Other sites were established at the Orange Bowl and various churches throughout the area. Some sites were established to segregate the refugees until they could be provided with initial processing at places like the Nike-Hercules sites at Key Largo and Krome Avenue. Once initially processed and documented, the refugees were quickly transferred to larger compounds in the metropolitan area so they could be reunited with relatives already living in the US as well as to allow interaction with various social action agencies like Catholic Charities, the American Red Cross, and others. At these initial processing sites the undesirable elements were identified and segregated from the general population.

As the Haitian refugees started arriving, interpreters were found to be in short supply for Haitian Creole and interpreters from the local Haitian community were put under contract through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). As the end of the initial crisis period wound down and after the vetting of those refugees who could be sponsored had run its course, the decision was made to transfer the "hard to sponsor" refugees, which included those with criminal records, to longer-term processing sites at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, and Fort McCoy in Wisconsin.


This situation changed when it was discovered that the refugees included criminals and people from Cuba's mental hospitals. However, according to the Brookings Institution Study in 1980, the vast majority of Mariel refugees (technically Cuban-Haitian entrants-status pending) had blue collar skills which matched perfectly with the labor force in Miami at that time.

The Cuban government eventually closed the Mariel harbor to would-be emigrants. Approximately 125,000 Cubans arrived at the United States' shores in about 1,700 boats, creating large waves of people that overwhelmed the U.S. Coast Guard. Twenty-seven migrants died, including fourteen on an overloaded boat that capsized on 17 May 1980. Upon their arrival, many Cubans were placed in refugee camps. Others were held in federal prisons pending deportation hearings.

Crowded conditions in South Florida immigration processing centers forced U.S. federal agencies to move many of the Marielitos to other centers in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, Camp Santiago, Puerto Rico, and Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Federal civilian police agencies such as the General Services Administration's Federal Protective Service provided officers to maintain order inside the gates of the relocation centers. Riots occurred at the Fort Chaffee center and some detainees escaped which became a campaign issue in the re-election defeat of Governor Bill Clinton.

The majority of refugees were ordinary Cubans. Many had been allowed to leave Cuba for reasons which, in the United States, were either loyalty-neutral or protected: tens of thousands were Seventh-Day Adventists or Jehovah's Witnesses, for example. Some had been declared "anti-socialist" by their CDRs back in Cuba. In the end, only 2.2% (or 2,746) of the refugees were classified as serious or violent criminals under U.S. law and denied citizenship on that basis. By June, 2016, 478 remained to be deported; according to the Department of Homeland Security, some are elderly or sick, and the Department has no desire to send these back to Cuba. Under a 2016 agreement with the Cuban government, the U.S. will deport the final remaining migrants deemed as serious criminals.

Military involvement

As the scale of the boatlift grew, the Coast Guard asked for help. In May 1980 the U.S. Navy dispatched the USS Saipan (LHA-2) and the USS Boulder (LST-1190) to support the Coast Guard by assisting, but not directly transporting, refugees en route to the U.S. Saipan and Boulder temporarily took on board hundreds of refugees in need of humanitarian assistance, medical attention, food, and fresh water. They also refueled private watercraft. The ships' officers and crew were awarded the Humanitarian Service Medal for their work.

Elements of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines and 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, 2nd Marine Division of Camp Lejeune, N.C., supported the Immigration and Naturalization Service by providing security at Trumbo Point and Truman Annex in May 1980. The Marines supplied interpreters and assisted with processing refugees in Key West. They were awarded the Humanitarian Service Medal and a Certificate of Appreciation for exemplary service. F-4 "Phantom" fighter aircraft from VMFA-312 and later VMFA-251 based at MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina, provided air cover, and those Marines also received the Humanitarian Service Medal.

In May 1980, the U.S. Army dispatched the 503rd Military Police Battalion of the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to relieve the Florida National Guard units who had been mobilized to handle security and operations at the refugee compounds established in the Miami metropolitan area. The 503rd was augmented by Spanish-speaking soldiers of the 96th Civil Affairs and Psychological Warfare elements of the JFK Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg. The US Army Military Police Corps worked alongside FEMA and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and other federal agencies to transfer refugees for long-term detention. U.S. Army personnel who participated in this operation were awarded the Humanitarian Service Medal.

Effect on the Miami labor market

About half of the Mariel immigrants decided to reside in Miami permanently, which resulted in a seven percent increase in workers in the Miami labor market and a 20 percent increase in the Cuban working population. Aside from the unemployment rate rising from 5.0% in April 1980 to 7.1% in July, the actual damage to the economy was marginal and followed trends across the United States at the time. When observing data from 1979 to 1985 on the Miami labor market and comparing it to similar data from several other major cities across the United States, focusing on wages, the effects of the boatlift were marginal.

The wages for white Americans remained steady in both Miami and comparable cities. The wage rates for African Americans were relatively steady from 1979 to 1985 when in comparable cities it dropped. Aside from a dip in 1983, wage rates for non-Cuban Hispanics were stable, while in comparable cities it fell approximately six percent. There is no evidence of a negative effect on wage rates for other groups of Hispanics in Miami. Wages for Cubans demonstrated a steady decline especially compared to other groups in Miami at the time. This can be attributed exclusively to the "dilution" of the group with the new, less-experienced and lower-earning Mariel immigrants, meaning that there is also no evidence of a negative effect on wage rates for Cubans residing in Miami prior to 1980.

The Refugee Education Assistance Act of 1980 provided $100 million in cash, medical and social services (Senator Stone and Congressman Fascell) and authorized approximately $5 million per year to facilitate the Mariel refugees' transition to American life. The 1980 Census was also adjusted to include Mariel children to ensure that additional assistance would be available to them through the Miami-Dade County Public Schools via Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Assistance Act (ESEA).

2016 reappraisal of CPS data

In 2016 Harvard economist George Borjas decided to revisit David Card's analysis in light of new insights into immigration effects since 1990. He used the same CPS data. However, he focused only on workers that were

  • non-Hispanic (as the best approximation to the native-born)
  • aged 25–59 (prime working age)
  • male
  • high-school dropouts
  • The last characteristic is important, because 60 percent of Marielitos did not complete high school. And even many of the remaining 40 percent, who did, were looking for unskilled jobs due to their lack of linguistic and other skills. So Marielitos competed directly with high school dropouts. Borjas next compared the inflation-adjusted wages of Miami residents who had these characteristics to wages of the same segment of the American population in all other American metropolitan areas but Miami. His analysis shows that the Miami wages for native-born men without high school diplomas were much lower than for similar workers in other US metropolitan areas during the 1980s and then again in the late 1990s, following the two spikes of Cubans migrating to Miami. During the 1980s Miami wages were 20 percent lower than elsewhere, a very substantial effect.

    The boatlift has been the subject of a number of works of art, media, and entertainment. Examples include:

  • Against Wind and Tide: A Cuban Odyssey (1981), a PBS documentary film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature
  • Scarface (1983), a dramatic film about a Marielito who becomes a drug lord
  • The Perez Family, a novel by Christine Bell; a group of Marielitos who share the same last name pretend to be a family
  • The Perez Family (1995), a film based on the novel
  • Before Night Falls (1992; English translation 1993), the autobiography of Marielito Reinaldo Arenas
  • Before Night Falls (2000), a film based on the book.
  • 90 Miles (2001), an American documentary film and memoir, written and directed by Marielito Juan Carlos Zaldívar
  • Finding Mañana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus (2005), a memoir by Mirta Ojito
  • Voices from Mariel (2011), a documentary film that tells the story of ten families
  • The events at the Peruvian Embassy are depicted in:

  • Todos se van (Everyone's Leaving) (2006 in Spanish; 2013 in English), a novel by Wendy Guerra
  • Notable Marielitos

    Notable Mariel boatlift refugees include:


    Mariel boatlift Wikipedia

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