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
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
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.
In June, 1980, President Jimmy Carter
In 1985, President
Despite the difficult reception that many of the Marielitos experienced, many of them went on to achieve economic success in the United States.
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.
Haitian boat people
Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965