Mariel boatlift Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The sudden arrival in South Florida of approximately 125,000 Cuban refugees in the Mariel boatlift may have been the largest single migratory influx in one region in American history. It elicited a reappraisal of U.S. refugee policy and provoked a negative public reaction to Cuban refugees.

During the first decades after Fidel Castro’s communist government took power in 1959, emigration from Cuba brought more than 300,000 refugees to the United States. Most of them settled in South Florida. However, while the largest Cuban exodus, between 1965 and 1973, was due mostly to the [a]Cuban Adjustment Act of 1965federal government’s Cuban Adjustment Act of 1965, which gave Cuban immigrants special consideration, it was not the most dramatic. The most divisive and disruptive Cuban immigration wave occurred in the Mariel boatlift of 1980.Mariel boatliftCuban immigrants;Mariel boatliftBoat people;CubansFlorida;Cuban immigrantsMariel boatliftCuban immigrants;Mariel boatliftBoat people;CubansFlorida;Cuban immigrants[cat]WEST INDIAN IMMIGRANTS;Marielboatlift[03390][cat]LATIN AMERICAN IMMIGRANTS;Mariel boatlift[03390][cat]EVENTS AND MOVEMENTS;Mariel boatlift[03390][cat]REFUGEES AND DISPLACED PERSONS;Mariel boatlift[03390]

By the late 1970’s, pressures on Cuban opponents to leave their homeland were reaching new levels. In April of 1980, about 10,000 Cubans sought political asylum in the Peruvian embassy in Havana. The Cuban government responded by opening the port of Mariel to allow all who wanted to emigrate to do so. From then until September, approximately 125,000 Cubans sailed for Florida on more than two thousand mostly small boats owned or chartered by Cuban Americans.

The bulk of the people who left Cuba on boats were young male members of the working class. A small number were political prisoners, petty criminals, substance abusers, and people known to have mental disorders. Initially, the refugees were affectionately dubbed “Marielitos.” However, the term eventually became a pejorative term associated with depravity, violent behavior, and laziness, and the American media and some politicians characterized the Mariel boatlift refugees as having been made up of “lower-class” deviants and Cuban immigrants;criminalscriminals. However, fewer than 2 percent of the refugees were found to have been convicted of felony crimes.

When the Mariel refugees began arriving, South Florida’s large Cuban American community rushed to their aid with the full backing of their highly organized private charitable institutions. In Dade County alone, the Cuban Americans raised more than $2 million to assist their compatriots. However, growing concern that this new wave of Cubans would tarnish the image of the established, family-oriented Cuban American community prompted some business and political leaders to withdraw the support.

Florida shrimpboat returning from Mariel, Cuba, loaded with Cuban refugees as it lands at the U.S. Navy’s Key West naval base in April, 1980.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In June, 1980, President Jimmy CarterCarter, Jimmy[p]Carter, Jimmy;and Cuban refugees[Cuban refugees] ordered all Mariel refugees who had not found relatives or others to sponsor them to be placed in federal 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. Meanwhile, the riots created a public backlash 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.

In 1985, President Reagan, Ronald[p]Reagan, Ronald;and Cuba[Cuba]Ronald Reagan secured a promise from Castro to take back Marielito criminals. However, after a few hundred had been returned to Cuba, Castro’s government became enraged at U.S. sponsorship of the anti-Castro Radio Martí and canceled the agreement. In November, 1987, the United States reached a new agreement with Cuba that provided for deporting to Cuba known Marielito criminals in return for U.S. acceptance of Cuban political prisoners. Some Marielitos held in federal prisons in Louisiana and Georgia rioted and took hostages. The riots ended after the Reagan administration promised that no prisoners would be returned to Cuba without individual reviews of their cases and that those whose offenses were minor would be released into the community. However, hundreds of Marielitos remained in federal prisons several years later.

Despite the difficult reception that many of the Marielitos experienced, many of them went on to achieve economic success in the United States.Mariel boatliftCuban immigrants;Mariel boatliftBoat people;CubansFlorida;Cuban immigrants

Further Reading
  • Diaz, Guarione M. The Cuban American Experience: Issues, Perceptions, and Realities. St. Louis, Mo.: Reedy Press, 2007.
  • Engstrom, David W. Presidential Decision Making Adrift: The Carter Administration and the Mariel Boatlift. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.
  • Larzelere, Alex. The 1980 Cuban Boatlift: Castro’s Ploy, America’s Dilemma. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1988.

Criminal immigrants

Cuban immigrants



Freedom Airlift

Haitian boat people

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965


Push-pull factors


Categories: History