CubaBrief: The Mariel Exodus 40 years later

Forty years ago, on April 15, 1980, the Mariel boatlift began and would continue over the next seven and a half months ending on October 31, 1980. Over 125,000 Cubans and over 25,000 Haitians arrived in South Florida during the same period were given the same legal status through an administrative decision of the Carter Administration that created the Cuban-Haitian Entrant Program for the duration of the Mariel exodus.  Mariel marked a before and after in the history of South Florida, and contributed to President Jimmy Carter not being re-elected in 1980.

Mariel boatlift 1980

Mariel boatlift 1980

However, the immediate crisis that resulted in this exodus began on April 1, 1980 when a bus driven by Héctor Sanyustiz and a half dozen Cubans desperate to flee the island breached the Peruvian Embassy. Cuban guards at the Embassy fired, wounding the driver, and accidentally killing one of the police by “friendly fire.” The Cubans requested asylum.

Peruvian embassy in Cuba in April 1980

Peruvian embassy in Cuba in April 1980

Fidel Castro demanded that they be handed over, but when the Peruvian embassy refused the Cuban dictator’s order, the “Maximum Leader” sought to teach the Peruvians a lesson and retired the Cuban guards from the Embassy. During the next three days 10,856 Cubans entered the Peruvian embassy. It was a cross section of Cuban society.  Peruvian diplomats held their ground, and refused to turn over the asylees, and held Fidel Castro responsible for the crisis, citing that the Cuban dictator had removed the guards from around the embassy, in violation of international law.

Castro and Carter in Cuba in 2002.

Castro and Carter in Cuba in 2002.

Castro wanted to obtain Peru’s permission for Cuban military units to invade the embassy, but the request was rejected. Carlos Alberto Montaner has written an excellent account titled “40 Years have Passed since That Infamy”. President Jimmy Carter was in the White House and had been engaged in an effort to normalize relations with the Castro regime since 1977, and the Cuban despot was able to exploit that relationship to solve the self-created crisis.

Fidel Castro began by insulting those seeking refuge as “scum” and “worms”, and he took children and youth out of school to take part in acts of repudiation. According to Carlos Alberto Montaner, the students killed a teacher that they had discovered running away.

Act of repudiation in Cuba in 1980

Act of repudiation in Cuba in 1980

This was the first time that acts of repudiation were seen, when Cubans who simply wanted to leave the country were brutally assaulted and forty lost their lives in lynchings. A refugee at the time of Mariel Mirta Ojito, now a journalist, Pulitzer prize winner and author, described what she had seen and experienced in an opinion piece for The New York Times titled “You are going to El Norte”:

Mariel marked the first-time socialist Cuba turned against itself. The government staged riots called actos de repudio — street rallies in which neighbors turned against neighbors, harassing and tormenting those who wanted to leave the country. The victims were often pelted with rocks, tomatoes and eggs. Windows were shattered. Doors were knocked down. Some people were killed, dragged through the streets as trophies to intolerance and hate. Sometimes people trapped inside their homes chose to kill themselves rather than face their tormentors.

Granma, the Communist Party’s daily paper, compiled a list of 100 insults to scream at those who wanted to leave. Meanwhile Fidel Castro prepared to associate these refugees with the worse of the worse.

Juan Reinaldo Sanchez, Fidel Castro’s former bodyguard, wrote a tell all book published in May 2014 of his time with the dictator titled, The Double Life of Fidel Castro: My 17 Years as Personal Bodyguard to El Lider Maximo that included a remarkable passage on the events of Mariel.

Brian Latell, a former U.S. intelligence analyst and academic at the University of Miami, in a June 8, 2015 op-ed in The Miami Herald reviewing the above book touched on how Castro dealt with the Mariel boatlift during the Carter presidency:

For me, Sánchez’s most appalling indictment of Fidel concerns the chaotic exodus of more than 125,000 Cubans in 1980 from the port of Mariel. Most who fled were members of Cuban exile families living in the United States. They were allowed to board boats brought by relatives and to make the crossing to South Florida.

But many of the boats were forcibly loaded by Cuban authorities with criminals and mentally ill people plucked from institutions on the island. Few of us who have studied Fidel Castro have doubted that it was he who ordered those dangerous Cubans to be exported to the United States. He has persuaded few with his denials of any role in the incident. Yet Sánchez adds an appalling new twist to the saga. We learn that prison wards and mental institutions were not hurriedly emptied, as was previously believed. Sánchez reveals that Castro insisted on scouring lists of prisoners so that he could decide who would stay and who would be sent to the United States. He ordered interior minister Jose Abrahantes to bring him prisoner records.

Sánchez was seated in an anteroom just outside of Fidel’s office when the minister arrived. The bodyguard listened as Fidel discussed individual convicts with Abrahantes.

“I was present when they brought him the lists of prisoners,” Sánchez writes, “with the name, the reason for the sentence, and the date of release. Fidel read them, and with the stroke of a pen designated which ones could go and which ones would stay. ‘Yes’ was for murderers and dangerous criminals; ‘no’ was for those who had attacked the revolution.” Dissidents remained incarcerated.

A number of the criminal and psychopathic marielitos put on the boats to Florida went on to commit heinous crimes — including mass murder, rape, and arson.

The author and former bodyguard of Fidel Castro, Juan Reinaldo Sanchez, passed away at age 66 on May 25, 2015.  Within a year of the Spanish edition of the book being published. Be that as it may his testimony remains for historians to examine. There are also documentaries, books, and other works that examine the Mariel Exodus, and one of the best is the 1980 documentary “In their own words” by Jorge Ulla for the US Information Agency that interviewed Cubans as they arrived in the United States.

The International Herald Tribune, April 3, 2020

40 Years have Passed since That Infamy

By Carlos Alberto Montaner

The “Mariel exodus” occurred 40 years ago. One hundred and twenty-five thousand Cubans arrived in the United States between April 15 and October 31, 1980. Jimmy Carter was not re-elected as president in the elections of November of that year as a consequence, at least in part, of his handling of the crisis. He refused to follow the advice of a ruthless admiral. “I have not been elected President of the United States to kill refugees,” he said.

Nor was Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton elected to a second term in Arkansas. He was accused of being “soft” for hosting hundreds of Cubans in Fort Chaffee. Less than 10% were crazy or criminal, but the stigma affected all the “Marielitos,” and even Cubans in general. Forty years later, the “Marielitos” have an economic and social performance similar to the American white population’s average, but they have also revitalized the Hispanic artistic world in the United States.

It all started before April, when a young Peruvian diplomat named Ernesto Pinto-Bazurco Rittler arrived in Cuba. He was the new Chargé d’Affaires of his country’s legation in Havana. Fortunately for Cubans, the incumbent ambassador was off the Island. Otherwise, everything would have probably been different.

On April 1, half a dozen Cubans, desperate to leave the country, were traveling in a bus driven by Héctor Sanyustiz. They crashed the vehicle into the embassy’s entrance and managed to cross the gates. The guards opened fire, injuring Sanyustiz, but one of the policemen lost his life. He was a victim of “friendly fire.”

As a consequence of the incident, Fidel Castro asked Peruvian diplomats to hand over the new asylees. Pinto-Bazurco refused, and the “Maximum Leader” of the revolution decided to teach them a lesson –– he would lift the custody of the Embassy so that the Peruvians suffered the uncomfortable presence of a few dozen legitimate dissidents among whom he would camouflage a few of his security agents.

Gross mistake. In three days, 10,856 people entered the Embassy, 5 people per square meter in the gardens. It was a unique case in the history of relations among countries. They were an absolute sample of society –– there were doctors, engineers, farmers, lawyers, highly educated, less educated and uneducated people. There were people linked to the revolution, including members of the Communist Party, and disaffected individuals. There were children carried by their parents, teenagers excited by the adventure and elderly people. They weren’t just Havanans. Word spread throughout the island.

Pressure continued being exerted on the diplomat Pinto-Bazurco. One night he was picked up in the embassy. The Commander wanted to see him. He intended to intimidate him personally. Fidel was kind at the beginning. Pinto-Bazurco stuck to his guns. He was a lawyer and a diplomat. He clung to the defense of law and Human Rights. He dared to tell Fidel that the person responsible for the asylum of almost eleven thousand people in three frenetic days was the one who eliminated the guard in the diplomatic compound, violating international law. But when, in order to save lives, the Peruvian rejected the proposal to request the army to enter the embassy, Fidel was outraged. “I am the one who decides in this country who will live and who will die,” he said.

Finally, Fidel accepted, in fact, that he had been wrong. He organized a command post near the Embassy. He asked Víctor Bordón, one of his commanders, how many people were against the revolution. Bordón told him that he had heard it was half the country. Fidel insulted him and kicked him out. It was amazing that the more he shone, the greater the rejection. He had triumphed in Angola, in the Ogaden and in Nicaragua, he had become the head of the Non-Aligned countries, despite being an accomplished pro-Soviet, and in Cuba the protest was growing. Fidel did not understand that the cost of his leadership and the island’s presence in international affairs was immense. Cubans wanted to be reasonably happy, not heroes forced to sacrifice their lives for a thirsty-for-glory individual.

Fidel immediately thought of transferring the problem to the hated Gringos. He had done so in 1965. He provoked a crisis, he allowed Cuban exiles to pick up their relatives, which became a headache for Lyndon Johnson administration, and he released them through the port of Camarioca. Washington reluctantly gave in. It established a legal exhaust valve and called it “Freedom Flights.” Between 1965 and 1973, 300,000 Cubans left in an orderly fashion. Another two million remained dressed up and ready to go.

In 1980 he insisted on the same scheme. First, he created the conflict. Once again, he authorized the flotilla of exiles to pick up their relatives, but to avoid hesitation he used Napoleón Vilaboa to start the trips. Vilaboa was an intelligence lieutenant colonel infiltrated among the exiles who was very useful to Havana. Fidel just changed the port of departure. This time it would not be Camarioca but Mariel.

He took the opportunity to insult all the alleged emigrants. He called them “scum,” “worms,” and he took children and youth from schools to participate in “rallies or acts of repudiation.” The students killed a teacher they caught “running away.”

Granma, the newspaper of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, compiled a list of one hundred insults to shout at the “bastards” who had decided to emigrate. It was a terrible time. From the rostrum, Fidel spoke of a revolutionary “gene.” He was a kind of unleashed Nazi. A cameraman told me in Madrid, crying, that when he said he was leaving the country, he was forced to walk on his knees among coworkers who spat on him and insulted him.

Everyone must smear their hands with blood. Singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez participated in an act of repudiation that lasted several days against Mike Porcel, his partner in the Nueva Trova. Rodríguez never asked for forgiveness for his miserable behavior. Porcel could not even leave Cuba. He had to remain on the Island, as a “non-person”, for nine years. The academic Armando Álvarez Bravo was not allowed to leave with his wife and daughters. His wife was sent to Peru. A few years later, Armando was allowed to emigrate to Spain. The Cuban regime, under Fidel’s lead, was dedicated to dividing and breaking up families.

Castroism hated homosexuals, to the point of locking them in concentration camps in the sixties to “cure” their perversity through intense agricultural work. The regime had to postpone that monstrosity and close the camps due to international pressure, which in this case came from the left. But Fidel Castro saw in the Mariel exodus the opportunity to get rid of thousands of homosexuals accused of being “counterrevolutionaries by nature.” Were there not, according to Aristotle, “slaves by nature”? Well, there were also people genetically incompatible with a political process inspired by Marxism-Leninism.

It is worth noting that there was no real purpose of amendment when he closed the UMAP concentration camps where gays and religious believers were crowded together. The homophobia of the 1960s was still intact in the 1980s. Homosexuals were mistreated during and after the Mariel exodus. Labor and student meetings, in which they were publicly accused of this “improper conduct,” were frequent in the 1980s.

Fortunately, the crime and the cruelties that they did to the “Marielitos” were documented in the press, books and movies. One of the books that caused the most impact was Mañana, by the journalist Mirta Ojito. She was 15 years old when she boarded the ship that gave its name to the book. There is a detailed description of what happened in that terrible episode in the history of Castroism.

Another valuable book was Al borde de la cerca (On the Edge of the Fence) by Nicolás Abreu, a writer of the so-called “Mariel’s Generation”, to which, among others, belong his brothers Juan and José, the poet and narrator Vicente Echerri and Luis de la Paz, although they did not necessarily go through the trauma of “Cayo Mosquito” (the inhospitable and desolate place where they waited for the boat that would take them to freedom.)

Among the films on those events, I choose En sus propias palabras (In Their Own Words) by filmmaker Jorge Ulla and let him put an end to this painful account:

“The movie In Their Own Words was an assignment from the Carter administration. The idea was to document how different government agencies provided their services in the midst of the crisis. When what the newcomers’ stories were heard, another film was revealed to all, that of a choral testimony that dismantled a series of ambiguous myths about Cuba –– many social cracks became visible, and through them many lovers of the “Cuban project” could suddenly question or reassess that project in a critical way. In the 29-minute documentary many people spoke with dismay, from a worker and an ordinary citizen to a novelist of the stature of Reinaldo Arenas. It would be the first time that Arenas spoke on camera. It was an unusual phenomenon that would find its best repercussion between the intelligentsia and the most enthusiastic left. Suddenly paradise was a source of disillusionment.

President Carter grew fond of that film and was showing it to different guests at the White House. USIA showed it in more than 50 countries. Jack Anderson wrote in The Washington Post a sentence somewhat exaggerated, “29 minutes were enough to reveal what is happening in Cuba.” As it was USIA material, it could not be exhibited in the United States. A Congress resolution allowed it to be shown here and, furthermore, to file it in the Library of Congress. After that, it was seen in hundreds of universities and public libraries.”

There, in less than half an hour, Ulla recounts Mariel’s infamy. Forty years later the documentary retains all its vitality.

Cubanet, April 1, 2015

The Mariel Exodus: State Terrorism

By Roberto Jesus Quinones Haces

Against the “scum,” acts of repudiation, beatings and humiliations. Against Florida, an invasion of the unemployed

Posters from acts of repudiation during the Mariel Boatlift (1980)

Posters from acts of repudiation during the Mariel Boatlift (1980)

Guantanamo, 1 April 2015 – On the first of April 1980 a bus was driven through the entrance to the Peruvian embassy in Havana; its occupants entered and sought political asylum. Unfortunately, the non-commissioned officer of the PNR (National Revolutionary Police), Pedro Ortiz Cabrera, lost his life in the event. The event was followed by others extremely traumatic for many Cubans due to their violence. All would be indelibly recorded in the nation’s collective memory and would reveal the terrorist nature of the Cuban regime.

Fidel Castro demanded that the Peruvian government immediately hand over the people who had forcibly entered the diplomatic headquarters. To have pleased him, long jail sentences and execution by firing squad undoubtedly would have been the sanctions applied. But the government of Peru did not agree, and the Cuban regime adopted a measure that, like the others taken in those days, made it seem to their proxies that the ball had been placed in the opponent’s court.

The Measures Taken by Fidel
Fidel Castro ordered the withdrawal of protection and monitoring from around the diplomatic headquarters, inciting all Cubans who wanted to emigrate to enter it. Very soon, thousands of people from all the cities and towns of the country crammed into the place turning it into a tangible reservoir of the discontent that now was sapping society.

The increase in the number of countrymen who wanted to emigrate was made evident, and the government, with the objective of discouraging the exits that it had sponsored, made terror its deterrent method par excellence. It was the first time that acts of repudiation were applied on the Cuban public stage. The beatings and humiliations abounded everywhere. The masses, encouraged by powerful groups and directed by individuals of doubtful social behavior, violated the most basic norms of respect for human dignity, and the country lived through several weeks of fascist practices that kept it on edge until the international community strongly protested.

The government demanded the refugees in the embassy and all those who desired to emigrate to present themselves at their places of employment or study in order to be given leave. The unemployed had to seek the document from the CDRs (Committees in Defense of the Revolution). That was the indispensable requisite in order to obtain the exit permit, and it would allow the mobs to intercept the petitioners in order to attack them.

Another Shameless Political Action

Some years had to pass to have access to other reports and above all to read and listen to the irrefutable testimonies on Radio Marti and right here, in order to understand the magnitude of the events and the perversity of the government in those demeaning days of our history.

With the single purpose of getting the advantage in a confrontation where he would always be seen as the victim due to the political, military, economic and moral grandeur of the opponent, Fidel Castro took dangerous offenders from the jails and put them in the embassy in order to create chaos, and then he demanded that the boats that came in search of relatives take these people as well. Together with them travelled not a few mentally ill, it was later learned.

It was a clever move, but of ephemeral value and revealing of the unethical essence of the regime whose immediate objective was to discredit the new emigrants, whom the government elite called “scum.” But also it tried to clean out the Cuban jails and export to the US potential disruptive social elements that Hollywood would portray in popular films like Scarface.

Time Relentlessly Passed

Thirty-five years after these events — which came to be known in the United States as the Mariel Boatlift — many of the Cubans who were catalogued as “scum,” thanks to their honest work and a society that is not perfect but that does guarantee all human liberties, enjoy a life in the US where maybe nostalgia for the home country occupies an important place, but one in which they live according to their way of thinking, with dignity.

The Mariel Boatlift was not a success of the Castro regime; to the contrary. One highly placed leader from that time, Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, admitted to a Mexican magazine that the Revolution had nothing to be proud of with respect to what happened. It is rumored that it was the catalyst for the suicide of Haydee Santamaria and the object of analysis in the farewell letter that Osvaldo Dorticos wrote to Fidel Catro before dying from another gunshot. It was a Pyrrhic victory that very soon lost the artificial shine of the trappings that the Castro regime figureheads dished out in order to praise the supposed genius of the leader. His abuses, still unpunished crimes and inequities were unmasked to reveal the fascist essence of the methods used by the mobs encouraged and supported by the police and political leaders.

Since then the acts of repudiation against officially disfavored diplomatic headquarters and the peaceful opposition, especially the extraordinary Ladies in White and the brave members of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), are still practiced in the streets and before the homes of those harassed.

This, together with repression and constant vigilance by the state security forces as well as the government’s refusal to respect political and fundamental civil rights, shows that state terrorism is a practice entrenched in the Castro regime. The Americans should not forget it, especially now when, behind the abundant dividends, they try to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Roberto Jesus Quinones Haces was born in the city of Cienfuegos September 20, 1957. Law graduate. He was sentenced in 1999 in an unfair and illegal way to eight years incarceration and since then has been prohibited from practicing as a lawyer. He has published the books of poetry “The Flight of the Deer” (1995 Editorial Oriente), “Written from jail” (2001, Ediciones Vitral), “The Folds of Dawn” (2008, Editorial Oriente) and “The Water of Life” (2008 Editorial El Mar y La Montana). He got the Vitral Grand Prize for Poetry in 2001 for his book “Written from Jail” as well as Mention and Special Recognition by the Nosside Juried International Poetry Competition in 2006 and 2008, respectively. His poems appear in the UNEAC Anthology of 1994, in the Nosside Competition Anthology of 2006 and in the selected ten-line stanzas “This Jail of Pure Air” produced by Waldo Gonzalez in 2009. (He is currently a prisoner of conscience in Cuba serving a one year prison term for reporting on a trial of homeschoolers in April 2019.

Translated by MLK