Mariel Boatlift

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Mariel Boatlift

The Mariel boatlift was a massive exodus from April to September 1980 of over 125,000 Cubans to the United States and other countries. Beginning in Havana as a dispute between Cuba and other Latin American countries, especially Peru, over the granting of political asylum, a crisis developed when thousands of Cubans seeking asylum took refuge on the grounds of the Peruvian embassy in Havana. U.S. president Jimmy Carter denounced the Cuban government's refusal to allow asylum seekers to leave the country and pointed to the crowd on the grounds of the Peruvian embassy as an illustration of the unpopularity and bankruptcy of the Cuban regime.

Cuban president Fidel Castro responded by allowing all who wished to leave Cuba to do so via the port of Mariel on the northern coast of the island. To this end Castro allowed small boats from Florida to enter the Cuban port to carry asylum seekers back to the United States. This move clearly caught the Carter administration off guard and at first it declared that all Cubans illegally entering U.S. waters would either be returned to Cuba or jailed in the United States. The Cuban government seized on this policy and charged the Carter administration with hypocrisy. Caught by what many believed was a brilliant move by Castro, President Carter was forced to change policy and announce that the U.S. would accept all Cuban refugees.

The Carter administration's reversal, however, only exacerbated the problem since it encouraged even greater numbers of Cubans to make the difficult crossing to Florida. In addition, Cuba further embarrassed the U.S. by allegedly releasing thousands of prison inmates and mentally handicapped Cubans from jails and hospitals and allowing them, too, to immigrate to the United States. This created an atmosphere of panic in those areas of the United States that received Mariel refugees. Coupled with outbreaks of violence in refugee camps in the United States, U.S. response to the Mariel boatlift was a major foreign policy blunder for the Carter administration and a clear victory for Castro and the Cuban government. Since so many of the refugees were young, Castro was able to convey to the youth at home the pitfalls of leaving Cuba, which included not only a dangerous sea crossing, but also hostility and imprisonment once they entered the United States. Because of the size of the Mariel exodus, it was the Carter administration, not the Cuban government, that was finally forced to halt the influx of Cuban refugees to the United States.

See alsoAsylum .


Kenneth N. Skoug, The U.S.-Cuba Migration Agreement: Resolving Mariel (1988).

U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and International Law, Mariel Cuban Detainees (1988).

Additional Bibliography

Fernández, Gastón. The Mariel Exodus Twenty Years Later: A Study on the Politics of Stigma and a Research Bibliography. Miami: Ediciones Universal, 2002.

                                      Michael Powelson