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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 April, 2005, 08:42 GMT 09:42 UK
Mariel refugees' long voyage to success
By Elinor Shields
BBC News website

Ana Maria Rabel can still recall the ordeal she faced to reach the US.

In 1980, the 17-year-old daughter of a dissident who had died in jail set sail in a shrimp boat from the Cuban port of Mariel, with a handful of family and neighbours.

Cuban refugees in Key West, Florida, in May 1980
Mariel refugees altered the image of Cuban Americans

"I was cuddled up and crying, people were yelling and throwing up," says the 42-year-old restaurant manager in Miami.

Twenty-five years ago on Thursday, the first of about 125,000 Cubans reached Florida in a five-month flotilla that changed the face of Miami, the image of Cuban-Americans and US policy on the island.

The boats brought not just friends and relatives of exiles.

A smaller but more notorious group of newcomers included criminals, mental health patients and others cast out of Fidel Castro's communist society.

The influx overwhelmed public services and heightened ethnic tensions.

A minority of refugees contributed to a crime wave that tarnished Miami and all Mariel arrivals.

But observers say the majority have since chipped away at the stereotype, while infusing the city with leaders and artists.

"I am very proud of what we accomplished," Ana Maria says.


The exodus began after a driver crashed his bus through the fence of the Peruvian embassy in Havana and thousands of Cubans seeking to leave took refuge in the compound.

Mr Castro responded by opening the port of Mariel, before shutting it in September.

Map showing Cuba and Florida

Havana university student Abel Mendez jumped at the chance.

He says he gained permission to leave by confessing to a faked history of what the Cuban authorities deemed to be sexual deviance and criminality.

"I told them I was a homosexual, growing marijuana and corrupting minors," says the 49-year-old toy shop owner in New York.

From the start, the Cuban leader and press branded the refugees "escoria", or scum.

Within weeks, much of the US news media started to shift from sympathetic coverage of the exodus to focusing on the criminality of some new arrivals.

"It was rough," Ana Maria remembers.

"We were judged in Cuba - and by the time we arrived, the consensus on 'Marielitos' was already formed."


The news stories filtered into popular culture with the TV series Miami Vice and the film, Scarface, in which the cocaine-crazed Mariel refugee, Tony Montana, enters Miami's underworld with a lust for wealth and power.

Forty-one-year-old Mariel arrival and author on the exodus, Mirta Ojito, recalls the jibes.

"A play in a Cuban area of Miami featured an actor whose shoelaces were tied together, because he said he was sure there were a lot of Marielitos in the audience."

Cuban President Fidel Castro (file photo - 1999)
Fidel Castro called the Mariel refugees 'scum'

She says US immigration statistics released at the time show only 1,200 people suspected of committing serious crimes in Cuba were among the 125,000 who arrived in the boatlift.

In February, the US Supreme Court ruled that the open-ended detention of Mariel convicts was illegal.

The decision was a "hugely important and emotional event," Mirta writes.

It "validated the status of all Cubans who in 1980 set sail for the United States".

Art and power

For Miami's Cuban-American community, Mariel was a watershed.

The new immigrants were poorer, younger and darker-skinned than their predecessors, and had lived for decades under Mr Castro's communist regime.

Observers say the stigma brought on by the boatlift prompted the exile leadership to seek greater local political and economic influence.

Friends and relatives of Cuban refugees at Key West, Florida, in April 1980
The boatlift was a watershed for Miami's Cuban-American community

They launched the Cuban American National Foundation (Canf), which led the drive to found US-funded television and radio broadcasts into Cuba.

The exile group "contributed to a greater sense of solidarity and unity within the Cuban-American community", says Juan Clark, a Miami Dade College professor of sociology who has studied Cuban immigration for years.

"It had a tremendous impact on US foreign policy."

The boatlift also filled Miami with scores of artists, writers and musicians now eager to practice their craft in the US.

A generation on, Mariel refugees still embrace their native language and cultural traditions, but have gained acceptance as productive members of the middle class in South Florida, according to a recent poll by the Miami Herald newspaper.

"I know a lot of success stories," Ana Maria says.

Bush approves new squeeze on Cuba
07 May 04 |  Americas
Country profile: Cuba
04 Feb 05 |  Country profiles
Timeline: US-Cuba relations
10 Oct 03 |  Americas

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