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bad apples and the rest of the bunch
twenty-three years after the mariel boatlift
by jeffrey d. walker

On May 9th, 1980, Afelino Fuentes Roca was asleep in his Cuban cell, 14 years into a 71-year sentence for theft, when suddenly the doors opened and a guard told him he was getting out. He would be leaving the country. He, and more than 125,000 other Cubans, were to embark on a mass Exodus that would come to be known as The Mariel Boatlift.

Mariel is a town in Cuba situated on a narrow stretch of water known as the Florida Strait, just across from Miami. To this day, it has been alleged that people have successfully windsurfed from Mariel to Miami. The trip is said to take 18 hours if you head in the right direction. But for a five-to-six-month period back in 1980, residents of Cuba were permitted to leave in a more traditional sailing vessel.

The date was April 1, 1980; but it's hard to tell who was the fool in retrospect. The incident started when a Cuban man rammed his van through the gates of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana. He and six others were seeking asylum from Fidel Castro's communist government. A fight ensued, and a guard was shot. Outraged, Castro pulled his Cuban security forces away from the embassy, indicating that any Cuban who wanted to leave the country was free to do so. Neither the impulsive Castro, nor the Peruvians, expected what happened next: within minutes, 10,000 Cubans rushed the embassy grounds. They came from all walks of life, including those who Castro's communist revolution was intended to favor: the young, blacks, workers, and even government officials and guards. People who had spent their lives defending Cuba's Communist Revolution now fled when the opportunity was presented to them.

Packed like sardines within the embassy, the refugees were being airlifted to Puerto Rico when Castro announced that the port at Mariel would be opened for Cubans to leave. Boats poured in; some chartered by Cubans wanting to leave, some driven by former Cubans back over to their homeland in the hopes of getting friends and relatives out.

It was then that Castro decided to include a few surprise guests. Along with the citizens electing to leave the country, Castro emptied out his prisons, emptied out his mental institutions, rounded up confessed homosexuals, forcibly removed political and personal enemies from their homes, and sent them all to the ports at Mariel to be removed from Castro's country (and his hair) forever. It was this inclusion of undesirables included with the Boatlifts that gives the whole episode its unsavory reputation. It's impossible to now calculate who amongst the over 125,000 Cubans were decent individuals simply seeking a better existence, but one Mariel pharmacy worker described the entire lot of those who left as "the riffraff, the prostitutes, the crazy ones." Another Cuban described the Mariel Boatlift as the time when Cuba "flushed the toilet."

Despite having indicated that those opting to leave would encounter no resistance, the transients making their way to the boats were subject to vicious assaults at the hands of Castro's forces positioned in and around the ports at Mariel; this on top of citizens throwing stones and insults at the "traitors" leaving Cuba.

The refugees were not out of the woods once they reached America, either. Some 21,000 of the refugees found themselves confined in the barracks at the U.S. Army base Ft. Chaffee, located in Arkansas. Then-Governor Bill Clinton had agreed to house them there while they were processed; however, the revelation about the undesirables mixed in with the refugees complicated matters. Those housed in Ft. Chaffee were told that they could not leave unless American citizens sponsored them. Given the likelihood that a refugee was a convict or mentally ill, coupled with racial and ethnic prejudices in the small rural towns surrounding the base, the chances for getting a sponsor were not good.

Then came the riots. Several buildings at Ft. Chaffee were set ablaze, and 300 of the refugees escaped into the neighboring towns of Barling, Ft. Smith, and beyond. Clinton had to call out the National Guard in an attempt to control the situation. Citizens living around the base were divided; some sympathizing with the plight of the Cuban immigrants, others angrily protesting and openly carrying handguns in fear of the Cubans. This series of events was said to have cost Clinton his first reelection bid to the governorship.

In 1984, Cuba agreed to take back 2,700 of the Mariel's refugees whom the United States Government had classified as ineligible to stay due to criminal histories or psychiatric disqualifications. (These were the only such individuals whose pasts could be verified; the number of people alleged to have come over straight from Cuba's prisons is estimated to have been much greater.) The deal was backed out of the flowing year; Castro cited Radio Marti, which began broadcasting non-communist viewpoints across the water to Cuban listeners in May of 1985, as one of the factors in reneging on the deal.

The situation for citizens remaining in Cuba rapidly deteriorated after the travel restriction was re-imposed by Castro's government. Those suspected of being "disloyal" to Castro were treated as outcasts. Many were ironically forced from their jobs, despite the overwhelming need for labor in the economic turmoil that followed the Mariel Boatlift. The fall of Communism throughout Eastern Europe later that decade added to Cuba's woes as trade from formerly socialist nations slumped. The following decade brought with it renewed U.S. embargos thanks to the 1996 Helms-Burton Act. Despite recent U.S. retreats from its hard-line stance regarding Cuba, one could hardly describe the current situation as cooperative.

To this day, history books in Cuba don't discuss the exodus. Not one book or academic report has ever been published on the subject. Still, the impact of the Mariel Boatlift on Cuba's government was significant. One former Cuban who now works as a social worker in Miami said, "We all had to ask ourselves, what kind of socialism were we building if at the first opportunity 125,000 people want to leave?"

When Cuban television scriptwriter Rafael Saumell wrote a fictionalized account of the boatlifts in 1981, he was tried and sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison for writing "enemy propaganda." The story was never published. The whole episode is considered to this day as a black eye for Castro.

Here in America, the Mariel Boatlift story is not complete. Over the recent July 4th weekend, one former refugee of the Mariel boatlifts, Carlos Leon Sanchez, murdered and dismembered his roommate in North Carolina just before he drove to the police station to confess. In Miami, a judge recently ordered Jesus C. Mezquia, another Mariel refugee, to undergo DNA testing in connection with the 1993 strangulation murder of 27-year-old Mia Zapata, the lead singer of a Seattle-based punk rock group known as The Gits. Rigoberto Sanchez-Velasco, another Mariel refugee, was executed in October of 2002 for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. While in prison, he saved Florida the trouble of executing two of his fellow death-row inmates by stabbing them to death. Gregorio Perez was convicted in Atlanta in 2002, along with his girlfriend, on four counts of child abuse. He, too, arrived in the U.S. during the Mariel boatlift.

Often not mentioned, though, are the success stories. Afelino Fuentes Roca says the 14 years in prison was worth the 20 years of freedom he has enjoyed since working as a roofer in Ft. Smith, near the same barracks where he and the other refugees rioted in Arkansas so long ago. He's gone from a convict to a productive member of our society. Moreover, when asked about the struggle he went through, Roca said that for the freedom he now has, "I would go through it all again."

Many of refugees have gone on to productive lives, although their stories rarely make headlines. Some of those who came over during the Mariel Boatlifts now say they lied about being criminals just to have the opportunity to leave Cuba. One former Cuban schoolteacher says that he signed papers admitting to criminal activity, but was never in fact a criminal.

Other Cubans wish they had taken the opportunity briefly offered to them back in 1980; said one Cuban citizen, "if they gave the word today, I would go."

Twenty-three years later, it's hard to tell if there's a lesson to be drawn from all this. The Mariel Boatlift is the worst example of immigrants entering our country as well as the best. It's an example of human sympathy, and at the same time human ruthlessness. Perhaps the dichotomy makes it impossible to draw any conclusions. But if the whole episode is simply forgotten because of all the unpleasantness that surrounded it, then nothing can ever be learned.


A practicing attorney and semi-professional musician, Walker writes for his own amusement, for the sake of opinion, to garner a couple of laughs, and to perhaps provoke a question or two, but otherwise, he doesn't think it'll amount to much.

more about jeffrey d. walker


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adam kraemer
7.22.03 @ 4:46p

How'd you come to know so much about this?

jeffrey walker
7.22.03 @ 5:17p

plain old curiosity. I heard about the N.C. murder while visiting family over the 4th of July. That story quickly mentioned the Mariel Boatlift in connection with the suspect. Then I heard about the Boatlift again 3 days later about the Zapada murder. Having never heard of the Boatlift before, I decided to find out more by doing research. This is the result.
I started the piece as (1) a learning experience and (2) in the hopes of making a statement on immigration policies, but this event was a bit of an anomaly in order to make any generalizations. Hence, no walker-esque statements on the subject.

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