Camarioca Boat Lift

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Camarioca Boat Lift


By: Lee Lockwood

Date: October 1, 1965

Source: Lee Lockwood//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

About the Photographer: Lee Lockwood is an American photojournalist and author best known for his book Castro's Cuba, Cuba's Fidel (1967), which features a historic seven-day interview between Lockwood and the Cuban leader. The photograph is part of the collection at Getty Images, a worldwide provider of visual content materials to such communications groups as advertisers, broadcasters, designers, magazines, new media organizations, newspapers, and producers.


On September 25, 1965, President Fidel Castro of Cuba made a surprise announcement that Cubans with relatives in the United States would be permitted to leave the island if their relatives asked for them. Men of military age—fourteen to twenty-seven—were not permitted to leave. Castro's announcement forced the United States to define its immigration policy toward Cuba and resulted in a doubling of the number of Cuban refugees in the United States from 211,000 to 411,000.

Castro came to power in January 1959. The Cuban Revolution that he led challenged long-standing American political and economic control of the island nation with a radical nationalist ideology. Castro sought to remedy the underdevelopment of Cuba by concentrating on a radical land reform policy, which took the large landed estates that belonged to the traditional elite who were also allies of American political and economic interests. In the environment of the Cold War, this policy appeared to be a step toward communism, a fear further heightened by the subsequent nationalization of the economy in 1960. Increasingly close ties between Cuba and the Soviet Union prompted the United States to end diplomatic relations with its neighbor in January 1961. Later that year, the United States attempted to remove Castro from power through the Bay of Pigs invasion. The failure of the operation moved Cuba closer to the Soviet Union, which then placed nuclear missiles on the island. This led to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when a full-scale invasion of the island was contemplated but rejected in favor of a U.S. Navy "quarantine" that isolated Cuba from the rest of the world. The crisis was resolved peacefully, but left U.S.-Cuban relations at a very hostile level.

Castro stated that he was allowing immigration because the United States used emigration from Cuba as a political weapon to make his government look bad. The United States had cut off normal avenues of exit following the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and would-be emigrants had resorted to using small, often-leaky boats to flee the communist dictatorship of Castro. U.S. commentators argued that Castro was permitting immigration to open talks with the United States to ultimately lead to normalized diplomatic relations, to ease internal problems by eliminating nonproductive Cubans, and to provide a safety valve by letting dissidents go to the United States. In October, hundreds of vessels of all sizes arrived at the Port of Camarioca in Cuba and, as promised, were allowed to pick up relatives and friends. Only normal delays and complications occurred.



See primary source image.


The boat lift ended prematurely because of threatening weather. Only 5,000 of the estimated 200,000 emigrants had arrived in Florida. As the boat lift grew more dangerous, negotiations to end it and to establish a safer and more orderly passage intensified. On November 6, 1965, the United States and Cuba signed a "Memorandum of Understanding" that Cuba would permit immigration and the United States would accept emigrants, with relatives of those already living in the United States given first priority in processing and movement. The United States further agreed to provide air transportation to Miami for 3,000 to 4,000 Cuban emigrants per month.

The memorandum created a firestorm of protest in Florida. State officials publicly predicted economic chaos unless there was massive relocation of refugees outside of Florida and considerable federal help to the local areas. African-American leaders in Miami feared that Cubans would take jobs from their community. They also complained that African Americans, full-fledged American citizens, were not getting governmental assistance comparable to the quantity and quality of that given to the refugees. Tensions between African Americans and Cuban-Americans remained high in subsequent decades, partly contributing to race riots in the early 1980s.

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union left Cuba increasingly isolated in the 1990s. In 1994, Castro, who had periodically created immigration problems for the United States by permitting floods of immigrants to leave Cuba, signed an immigration agreement that attempted to stop the rafters (emigrants who took anything that could float from Cuba in hopes of catching the Gulf Stream to Florida and who often drowned in the attempt). Castro allowed a legal immigration of 20,000 Cubans per year. Many of those who left were prompted to leave by the consumer goods and prosperity available to their relatives in Florida. As of 2006, an elderly Castro remains firmly in power and Cuba remains poverty-stricken. Observers expect that his death will trigger a flood of emigrants with the vast majority heading for American soil.



Masud-Piloto, Felix Roberto. From Welcomed Exiles to Illegal Immigrants: Cuban Migration to the U.S., 1959–1995. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996.

Pedraza-Bailey, Silvia. Political and Economic Migrants in America: Cubans and Mexicans. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1985.

Perez, Louis A., Jr. Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.