Point of No Return
Point of No Return
By: Mirta Ojito
Date: April 2005
Source: Hispanic Magazine.com. "Point of No Return: A Mariel Immigrant Remembers the Cuban Exodus That Shook Two Nations 25 Years Ago." April 2005. 〈http://www.hispaniconline.com/magazine/2005/april/Features/immigration.html〉 (accessed July 20, 2006).
About the Author: Mirta Ojito (b. 1964) is a professor of journalism and a Pulitzer Prize Winner. Institutions where she has taught include Columbia University, University of Miami, and New York University. She is the author of Finding Manana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus (2005).
Mirta Ojito came to America during a time when immigration to the United States was welcome and President Carter was sympathetic to the plight of refugees. As an unoffending young teen, Ojito is keenly aware of the significance of the times. The times changed the future of not only her life, but also the lives of many compatriots and the demographic landscape of south Florida.
The Mariel Boatlift that occurred some twenty-five years ago involved more than 125,000 Cubans immigrating to the Florida Coast of the United States. They traveled by way of the Mariel harbor on the west side of Cuba. The controversy surrounded the character of some of the immigrants who were released by Cuban President Fidel Castro (b. 1926). Castro used this opportunity to exile, along with professionals and families wishing to leave Cuba, many convicts and mentally disabled individuals to the United States. This behavior resulted after steps toward civil communications had supposedly been established between President Carter and Cuban government officials from Havana.
In 1977, President Carter desired open dialogue between the two countries and instituted formal lines of communication. There was a U.S. foreign sector established in Havana as well as in Washington, D.C. Though there were open communications, the relationship was far from conciliatory. Initially, Cuban government disallowed family visitations from former Cuban citizens, which contributed to the unstable relationship between the two countries. At this time however, Castro began to seek better relationships with the Cuban community living in America and permitted Cuban Americans to visit friends and relatives in Cuba. These contacts caused Cubans to be more aware of the differences between Cuba and the United States.
Twenty-five years later you'd think it doesn't matter when people innocently ask me, "So, when did you come from Cuba?" and I tell them slowly and deliberately, "1980," which, of course, reveals a date but says nothing at all. I watch the faces of my inquisitors closely as they do their mental math and, invariably, the easy look of friendly curiosity turns into one of surprise, and, in some cases, horror. "Then," they say, "you must have come from Cuba in the boatlift." "Yes," I say calmly. "The Mariel boatlift." And then I have to explain myself because what follows is never pretty. Or polite. "But that's when all the criminals came from Cuba," they say and I sigh because it gets old to constantly have to justify myself as that which I'm not: not a criminal, not a mentally troubled refugee, and definitely not Tony Montana, Al Pacino's character in Scarface.
What I am, quite simply, is this: a Cuban woman who 25 years ago, at the age of 16, crossed the Florida Straits aboard a boat named MaNana to escape a soul-crushing regime that, among other baffling indignities, had forced me to swear every day, for most of my life, that I would grow up to be like Che Guevara. And I was not alone.
From April to September 1980, more than 125,000 Cubans, mostly hard working, and many talented artists and intellectuals, left the island through the port of Mariel and reached the shores of Key West in what quickly came to be known as the Mariel boatlift—a chaotic event that managed to destabilize the Cuban government as no other event has in the 46 years Fidel Castro has been in power. The boatlift also contributed to Jimmy Carter's failure to regain the presidency for four more years and, eventually, changed U.S. immigration policy toward Cubans when, in 1994 and no doubt remembering the lessons learned in Mariel, President Bill Clinton announced that Cubans caught at sea would be returned to their country.
In the end, though, the story of the boatlift is a story like any other worth retelling: one in which regular people—not presidents or tyrants; diplomats or dissidents—take their lives in their own hands and, in the process, change history.
The boatlift started in 1977 with a thaw in the always-tense relations between Cuba and the U.S. Fresh in office and full of the optimism that only faith and good intentions can concede, President Carter announced that it was time for Washington and Havana to get along. The U.S. opened an Interests Section in Havana and Cuba did the same in Washington, which allowed the two countries to establish formal routes of communication despite their lack of formal relations. At the same time, the Cuban government reached out to the Cuban-American community as a way to gain favor with the White House, and a bridge was established, one that contributed to the release of thousands of political prisoners and that allowed Cubans to return to the island to visit relatives—a privilege that had long been denied to exiles.
The visits and the release of the prisoners put regular Cubans in touch with aspects of the Cuban Revolution and of the U.S. society that were unknown to us. First of all, many of us understood for the first time that we indeed lived in a country that regularly imprisoned, tortured and abused its opposition. That may seem commonplace now, but in 1980 it was a profound revelation for people like me: young people who had been told, from birth, that the revolution was good and just and right. The second thing we understood, suddenly and with great force, was that just about everything we had been told about the United States was a lie. Our returning relatives, loaded with gifts, told us stories of sacrifice and hardship, but they also told us about their vacations to Cancun and the Buicks parked in their garages and their bountiful Thanksgiving celebrations. They worked full time and, often, overtime, but their skin was smooth and moisturized and the women had manicured long nails and white, shiny teeth.
Desperation and despair set in. Nothing was going to stand in the way of people whose mind was set on leaving the country, not even the gate of an embassy. On April 1, 1980, a man named Héctor Sanyustiz, accompanied by five others, drove a bus through the fence that surrounded the Peruvian Embassy in Havana and asked for political asylum. The Peruvian diplomat in charge of the embassy, a lawyer named Ernesto Pinto-Bazurco, offered it. Outraged that he couldn't get the gate-crashers back, Castro removed the Cuban guards from the embassy and proclaimed it open for anyone who wanted to leave the country. In less than 36 hours, there were more than 10,000 Cubans standing in what once were the grand and lovely gardens of the ambassador.
As the Peruvian Embassy crisis wore on, several countries offered help by taking a small number of refugees from the embassy. Among them, Spain, Costa Rica and Peru. But it was clear that Castro had another destination in mind. In April 1980, the Cuban government opened the port of Mariel and announced that all who wanted to leave the country could do so as long as a boat went to the port, west of Havana, to pick them up. Thousands of Cuban exiles, with little or no experience at sea, rushed to Key West and to the docks of the Miami River to hire boats to rescue their relatives.
Without doubt, Castro used the chaos of Mariel to unload on U.S. shores criminals and mentally unstable people, which gave the boatlift its unfortunate and still lingering reputation. But the most shocking element of Mariel has to be the sheer number of people who overwhelmed South Florida in only five months. In the first 20 days of the boatlift, the population of Miami had already increased by 10 percent. In one day alone, May 11, more than 5,000 people arrived in 18 hours, breaking all records of daily arrivals of immigrants in South Florida.
I was one of them. But when I think of May 11, I remember not so much how I arrived, though I remember that too, but how I left, the day before, at dusk.
I see myself surrounded by people and yet profoundly alone in this boat aptly named Mañana, and I remember trying to take it all in—the color of the water, the rough and yellowish shore, the white building atop a hill, the flag fluttering on the docks—and thinking that I was never going to see that island again. And I haven't, because even though I went back to Cuba in 1998, it was no longer the country I had left, and I didn't see it from the sea; I returned by airplane, which changes anyone's perspective.
Farewells from the sea are both definite and impossible to replicate in their romanticism. When the boat pulls away from shore, from the land you thought you'd never leave, you feel a detachment like no other, like the severing of a limb. Alone in that boat, though surrounded by people, you become your own small island, a chunk of land that floats away from the mainland. And though you may come back, as I did, the shore has reshaped in your absence, and the piece that was torn, the one that took you away, can never quite fit again.
The tidal wave of new Cuban immigrants strained both the educational system and the provision of social services in South Florida, particularly in Miami. However, a study conducted several years later revealed that as a group, the Mariel refugees had made remarkable progress in assimilating into the South Florida economy and society. This success was due in large part to the willingness of the pre-existing Cuban community to assist the new arrivals, and the entrepreneur-ship and work ethic of most of the refugees themselves.
Despite their progress, many of the Mariel refugees continued to consider themselves victims of discrimination with the U.S. Cuban community, a unique minority-within-a-similar-minority situation. At the time of the study in 1985–1986, there remained a notable gap in employment and income between the refugees and the pre-existing community. Nevertheless, the majority of the refugees declared themselves satisfied with their current situation and said that if they had to make the choice again, they would make the same decision to come to the United States.
Ultimately, this episode led to the Clinton-Castro migration accord in the early 1990s, which established the "wet foot, dry foot" policy: Would-be immigrants intercepted at sea in boats ("wet foot") could be turned back, but anyone reaching the shores of the United States ("dry foot") would be accepted into the country. In 1999, this policy was used as an argument by the U.S.-based relatives of five-year-old Elian Gonzales, who was rescued by a fisherman off the coast of Flordia after the motorboat in which he was a passenger sank, killing his mother and seven other adults. They argued that under the "dry foot" policy, Elian was entitled to remain in the United States. The eventual decision, however, was that Elian's father's right to custody in Cuba took precedence over the "dry foot" rule.
Ojito, Mirta A. Finding Manana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus. New York: Penguin Press, 2005.
Zucker, Norman L. Desperate Crossings: Seeking Refuge in America. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe Inc., 1996.
Portes, Alejandro, and Juan M. Clark. "Mariel Refugees: Six Years After." Migration World 15 (Fall 1987): 14-18.