Mariel Boatlift Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A massive influx of Cuban refugees, estimated to have reached as high as 125,000, provoked an agonizing reappraisal of U.S. refugee policy and stirred xenophobia among non-Cuban as well as Cuban Americans.

Summary of Event

After Fidel Castro became dictator of Cuba in January, 1959, relations between the United States and Cuba deteriorated steadily as Castro turned his country into a communist state allied with the Soviet Union, the United States’ rival in the Cold War (1947-1991). The United States broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba and imposed an economic embargo on the country. Mariel boatlift Refugees;Cubans Cuba, Mariel boatlift [kw]Mariel Boatlift (Apr. 1-Sept. 25, 1980) [kw]Boatlift, Mariel (Apr. 1-Sept. 25, 1980) Mariel boatlift Refugees;Cubans Cuba, Mariel boatlift [g]West Indies;Apr. 1-Sept. 25, 1980: Mariel Boatlift[04140] [g]North America;Apr. 1-Sept. 25, 1980: Mariel Boatlift[04140] [g]Cuba;Apr. 1-Sept. 25, 1980: Mariel Boatlift[04140] [g]United States;Apr. 1-Sept. 25, 1980: Mariel Boatlift[04140] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Apr. 1-Sept. 25, 1980: Mariel Boatlift[04140] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Apr. 1-Sept. 25, 1980: Mariel Boatlift[04140] Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;Mariel boatlift Castro, Fidel Graham, Bob Smith, Wayne S. Tarnoff, Peter

The communization of Cuba alienated Cubans as well. From 1959 to 1962 (when Castro halted all further airplane flights from the island), about 200,000 Cubans fled their homeland, most of them settling in Miami, Florida. In late 1965, special freedom flights of refugees were organized with the cooperation of the Castro government; although registration for these flights was closed off in 1966, the flights themselves continued until 1973. The early refugees were disproportionately from Cuba’s professional and white-collar classes; with extensive financial assistance from the U.S. government, and their own hard work, they achieved a remarkable level of prosperity in the United States in a short time.

Hopes for rapprochement with Castro rose in 1977, when Jimmy Carter became president of the United States. A U.S. Interests section of the Swiss embassy was established in Havana, under a State Department official, Wayne S. Smith, to handle relations between Cuba and the United States. When Castro persisted in his military intervention in Angola, however, plans for lifting the U.S. embargo were shelved indefinitely. In October, 1979, relations with Castro deteriorated when Washington, D.C., welcomed the hijacker of a Cuban boat as a freedom fighter.

Between January and March, 1979, Castro, to polish his image abroad and to gain badly needed foreign currency, allowed more than 115,000 Cuban Americans to visit their relatives in Cuba. The apparent prosperity of the Cuban Americans caused discontent among Cubans on the island because of the austerity and lack of consumer choices in the island’s socialist economy.

On April 1, 1980, six Cubans commandeered a city bus and drove it through the gate of the Peruvian embassy in Havana, demanding asylum; in the ensuing melee, one Cuban guard was killed. Castro responded by removing the police guards from the embassy. By April 9, 1980, about ten thousand more Cubans had crowded into the embassy, demanding the right of political asylum. On April 16, with Castro’s permission, airplane flights began to take asylum-seekers to Costa Rica; on April 18, however, Castro, embarrassed by the blow to his image abroad, suddenly canceled these flights. On April 20, he opened the port of Mariel to all those who wished to leave the island and to anyone who wished to ferry discontented Cubans to Florida.

Cuban refugees prepare to dock at the processing station in Key West, Florida, during the Mariel boatlift crisis.

(U.S. Coast Guard)

Persons sympathetic to the plight of the would-be emigrants chartered boats to sail to Mariel, pick up those who wanted to leave, and bring them to Key West, Florida. Once in Mariel, the boats’ skippers were forced to accept everyone whom Cuban authorities wanted to be rid of, including criminals, the mentally ill, and homosexuals. Because some of the boats were not seaworthy, a tragic accident was always a possibility, and the U.S. Coast Guard sometimes had to rescue refugees from boats in danger of sinking.

President Carter, distracted by the Iranian hostage crisis and the worsening of relations with the Soviet Union after the latter’s occupation of Afghanistan, vacillated over the boatlift. In a speech given on May 5, Carter urged the people of the United States to welcome the refugees with open arms. On May 14, however, he threatened criminal penalties for those who used boats to pick up Cubans, and he ordered the Coast Guard to stop the boatlift by arresting and fining the skippers and seizing the boats. Without cooperation from Castro, this order was largely ineffective. It was not until September 25, after hard bargaining between Castro and State Department negotiators Wayne Smith and Peter Tarnoff, that Castro ended the boatlift; several hundred would-be refugees who had missed the boatlift were allowed to take air flights out of Cuba in November.


Between April and September, 1980, South Florida bore the brunt of the tidal wave of refugees, which is estimated to have reached as high as 125,000. In the Miami area, social services, health services, schools, and law-enforcement authorities found their resources strained to the breaking point by the sudden influx. Housing was suddenly in short supply; a number of Mariel refugees in Florida had to sleep in the Orange Bowl, underneath a highway overpass, or in tent cities. On May 6, Carter, in response to pleas from Florida governor Bob Graham, declared Florida a disaster area, and authorized ten million dollars in relief for that state to help defray the cost of the refugee influx; U.S. Marines were sent to Florida to help process the refugees.

In June, 1980, President Carter ordered all those refugees who had not found relatives or others willing to sponsor them to be placed in detention camps in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Arkansas. In Pennsylvania and Arkansas, the refugees, bored and fearful about their future, rioted. By October, the majority of the Marielitos had been released into various communities, and the detention camps were closed.

News of the riots fueled a growing backlash in U.S. public opinion against the Mariel refugees. The much-publicized presence of criminals among the refugees also helped generate a feeling of revulsion against the entire group: Marielitos were blamed for the upsurge in violent crime in Miami in 1981. In 1980, a year of economic downturn, many people in the United States feared that more Cuban refugees would mean higher unemployment.

Once released from custody, Marielitos faced a difficult adjustment. Unlike earlier Cuban refugees, the Marielitos did not arrive in the midst of general prosperity; they came when the twin plagues of inflation and recession were besetting a U.S. economy still struggling to absorb refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Hence, Marielitos did not receive as much financial assistance from the federal government as earlier Cuban refugees. In addition, more of the Marielitos were poorly educated people from blue-collar backgrounds; more of them were single men without family ties; and a larger percentage of them were black or mulatto. Marielitos of all colors faced prejudice and discrimination, not merely from Euro-Americans but also from longer-settled Cuban Americans, who saw the Marielitos as insufficiently hard-working and feared that popular U.S. resentment of the Marielitos might rub off on them as well. In 1983, Marielitos in Miami had an unemployment rate of 27 percent; although the rate had been cut to 13 percent by 1986, they still lagged behind longer-settled Cuban Americans in employment and income.

Marielitos who ran afoul of the law quickly discovered that, however minor their offenses, they had fewer rights than native-born U.S. criminals. Marielitos who had criminal records in Cuba or who committed crimes in the United States faced incarceration for an indefinite term in federal prisons. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan secured a promise from Castro to take back Marielito criminals; only a few hundred had been deported when Castro, enraged by U.S. sponsorship of Radio Martí—an anti-Castro radio broadcast—canceled the agreement. In November, 1987, a new agreement provided for the deportation to Cuba of Marielito criminals in return for the acceptance by the United States of Cuban political prisoners; upon hearing of the agreement, Marielitos held in federal prisons in Oakdale, Louisiana, and Atlanta, Georgia, rioted, taking hostages. The riots ended only when the Reagan administration promised that no prisoner would be sent back to Cuba without individual consideration on his or her case, and that some of those whose offenses were relatively minor would be released into the community. Years later, however, hundreds of Marielitos were still incarcerated in federal prisons.

When the Mariel boatlift began, Islamic militants in Iran had already publicly humiliated the U.S. government by seizing and holding captive U.S. diplomatic personnel. The seemingly uncontrollable Cuban refugee influx came to be seen as a symbol, not of the bankruptcy of Communism, but of Carter’s alleged ineptitude in conducting U.S. foreign policy. U.S. voters’ anger over the refugee influx, together with widespread frustration over economic recession and the Iranian hostage crisis, helped doom Carter’s bid for reelection in November, 1980.

The Mariel boatlift of 1980 revived xenophobia among people in the United States. Until 1980, much of the American public had seen Cuban refugees as courageous freedom fighters, comparable to Czechs or Hungarians fleeing Soviet tanks rather than to Puerto Ricans or Mexicans fleeing poverty; the presence of criminals and misfits among the Marielitos shattered the stereotype of the benign Cuban. After 1980, sentiment would build steadily for reducing the number of immigrants and refugees admitted into the United States. Mariel boatlift Refugees;Cubans Cuba, Mariel boatlift

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">García, María Cristina. Havana USA: Cuban Exiles and Cuban Americans in South Florida, 1959-1994. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. A fair treatment of the history of Cuban immigrants in the United States, written for a general audience.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamm, Mark S. The Abandoned Ones: The Imprisonment and Uprising of the Mariel Boat People. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995. The best study to date of the Marielito prison riots of 1987; also contains much information on the 1980 boatlift itself. Argues that federal policy denied the prisoners basic human rights. Chronology, endnotes, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Larzelere, Alex. Castro’s Ploy, America’s Dilemma: The 1980 Cuban Boat Lift. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1988. A detailed study on the boatlift, especially valuable for its look at the decision-making process within the Carter administration. Relies heavily on interviews conducted in 1986 with Carter-era officials. Chronology, maps, figures, photographs, endnotes, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loescher, Gil, and John A. Scanlan. Calculated Kindness: Refugees and America’s Half-Open Door, 1945-Present. New York: Free Press, 1986. Chapter 9 examines the effect of the Mariel boatlift on the shaping of U.S. refugee policy in general. Criticizes Carter’s response to the boatlift as indecisive. Endnotes, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pedraza-Bailey, Silvia. Political and Economic Migrants in America: Cubans and Mexicans. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985. Chapter 2 compares the demographic portrait of the Marielitos with that of earlier Cuban refugees. Explains why the proportion of Afro-Cubans among the Marielitos was greater than in previous refugee flows. Endnotes, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Portes, Alejandro, and Alex Stepick. City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. Chapter two shows that Miami’s English-speaking whites and better-established Cuban Americans were both guilty of prejudice and discrimination against Marielitos. One of the few deep studies of the Marielitos’ adjustment problems; regional focus, however, limits the book’s usefulness for those interested in the Marielito experience throughout the United States. Map, tables, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Wayne S. The Closest of Enemies: A Personal and Diplomatic History of the Castro Years. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987. Chapter 8 provides a firsthand account of the intergovernmental talks that ended the boatlift. One must be skeptical, however, of the author’s tendency to blame U.S. policy failures on his superiors’ refusal to follow his advice. Photographs, endnotes, index.

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Categories: History