The world has changed in many ways in the last 36 years. Much of it has not been an improvement.
The year was 1980. Jimmy Carter was President and Fidel Castro was still the dictator of Cuba. Carter, much like the future President Barak Obama, had sought to improve relations between the two countries by relaxing some of the travel restrictions and establishing “Interest Sections” in each other’s capitals.
The crisis began slowly in early 1980 when Cuban dissidents began seeking asylum at various South American embassies in Havana. It reached critical mass in April when nearly 10,000 people sought refuge at the Peruvian Embassy. After that, the Castro regime announced that anyone who wished could leave the country from the port of Mariel.
It should be noted that the Peruvian government worked tirelessly to establish an international relief program, eventually gaining commitments from several South American countries and Spain to accept refugees.
On April 14th, President Carter announced that the United States would admit 3,500 refugees who would be screened in Costa Rica before admittance. Sound familiar? What he did not anticipate or provide for were the thousands of Cuban-Americans living in Florida who engaged all types of watercraft to rescue their families and compatriots.
In April alone, beginning on the 21st, 7,665 Cuban refugees reached American soil, where they were granted political asylum status. That number increased to a staggering 86,488 people in the month of May alone.
This is where this story becomes personal for me. My brother-in-law was stationed with the Coast Guard in Morgan City, Louisiana on the ship Point Lookout. They were sent to aid in the rescue of the Marielitos. I recently asked him about his experiences during the Boatlift.
While time has dimmed some of his memories, there were certain things he recalled quite clearly. “We worked seven days a week, every week for about a month,” he said “There were young people, old people, all kinds of people. But they were all very respectful.” His ship towed in 11 disabled boats and, at times, his 82-foot craft held over 200 people jammed in from stem to stern.
Of the twenty-seven people known to have perished (and we may never know the full extent) he encountered only one tragic incident. A boat carrying a family from Cuba became caught between a tugboat and a barge during the night. The grandfather of the family was killed when a cable from one of the boats struck him on the head.
One night on patrol they received a report that a Cuban gunboat was harassing the refugees. Although knowing they would be hopelessly outgunned, they set off to check out the situation. Thankfully the reported gunboats turned out to be just a rumor.
Relations between the U.S. and Cuba became strained when it became known that Castro had released criminals and mental patients along with the rest of the refugees. However, only 2.2% or 2,746 were eventually classified as serious or violent criminals.
By the time the Cuban regime closed the port of Mariel in October 1980, nearly 125,000 immigrants had found a new home in America. Ordinary, hard-working people who welcomed the chance for a new start in life. Others included a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, an opera singer, baseball player, poets, novelists, singers, and soap opera stars. Sadly, there were also criminals including the man who murdered singer Mia Zapata.
In 1980 America was a country that welcomed 125,000 people seeking freedom and safety. There were problems, but we dealt with them. There were criminals, but we punished them.
In 2016 have we become so fearful, so bereft of the strength that made our country great, that we would deny even 1% of that number the opportunity for hope and freedom? Are we going to listen to the demagogues who would prey on our anxiety for their own political ends? Are we going to turn our backs on the Marielitos of today?
In 2016 have we, as a nation, forgotten the words on the Statue of Liberty:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
History has provided the answer to the question in the headline and it is a resounding YES.
[Source: Wikipedia “The Mariel Boatlift]
[Source: James Kuebler, USCG (ret)]