Marielitos and the changing of Miami

Ann Louise Bardach is the author of "Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana" and directs The Media Project at UC Santa Barbara's Center for Film, TV and New Media.

On April 1, 1980, an unemployed bus driver and lifelong misfit named Hector Sanyustiz, along with five friends, rammed a stolen bus through the gates of the Peruvian Embassy at 5th Avenue in Miramar, one of the poshest addresses in Havana. Cuban security guards at the embassy opened fire on the bus, wounding Sanyustiz and one of his friends and killing one of their own.

Three days later, 10,856 desperate Cubans jammed themselves into the embassy’s grounds. Five months later, more than 125,000 Cubans fled their homeland in a flotilla of boats -- an exodus known as the Mariel boatlift.

Such is the significance of this mass flight of refugees through the sleepy port town of Mariel, 20 miles west of Havana, that Cuban exile history is typically divided into two epochs: pre-Mariel and post-Mariel. Although the majority of the Marielitos were ordinary, decent citizens, a small segment were criminals or the mentally ill whom Fidel Castro decided to unload on his favorite nemesis. And unlike previous waves of exiles, a considerable number were black or mulatto, and many lacked the fierce anti-Castroism that was the hallmark of previous exiles. Consequently, Marielitos have been regarded as undesirables -- or less desirable than those who arrived in the U.S. earlier. They’ve been blamed for all kinds of misfortune, including a rise in crime and narcotics in South Florida.


In “Finding Manana,” Mirta Ojito -- who made the crossing with her parents at the age of 16 -- goes a long way in righting the Mariel story and bestowing some belated dignity on this ragged stepchild of exile history. Ojito has wisely merged her family’s story -- an abbreviated version appeared in 2000 in the New York Times Magazine -- with the larger political story.

Thwarted by Peru’s independent-minded ambassador, Ernesto Pinto, who refused to turn over the intruders, an enraged Castro hatched a plan in consultation with a Miami exile leader named Napoleon Vilaboa. Certainly, the timing couldn’t have been better. During his four years, President Carter enacted some of the most significant and durable modifications of the U.S.’ embargo on all relations with Cuba: re-establishing quasi-diplomatic contact, signing various accords and lifting some prohibitions on travel to the island.

Vilaboa had been in Havana with another exile named Bernardo Benes who, with the help of the Carter administration, initiated a series of dialogues between Cuban exiles and the Castro government. In December of 1978, “el dialogo” produced three notable agreements: the release of 3,600 political prisoners, the granting of exit visas to reunite separated families and permit Cuban exiles to visit relatives. In time, more than a dozen American prisoners were also released from Cuban prisons .

Vilaboa said he advised Castro that the best way to bail out of his civilian mutiny would be to throw open the door to anyone who wanted to leave. Realizing that he could rid himself of nettlesome dissenters and other so-called undesirables, Castro assented.

So, on April 19, 1980, Vilaboa set sail for Mariel with 41 boats behind him and many more to come. Among the refugees were Ojito’s family -- simple, working-class people who hailed from Las Villas, halfway across the island. Ojito tells their story movingly, describing her family’s expectations of the Cuban revolution and then the shattered hopes when nothing, not even Christmas trees and the Beatles, was safe from Castro’s loony edicts.

“Fiercely independent and completely apolitical,” Ojito writes, “my father decided he couldn’t live in a place where government edicts ... determined the kind of job he would perform for the rest of his life. In April 1961, around the time Castro announced the socialist nature of his regime, my father began making plans to join his older sister in the United States. Mariel was simply a way out, one that my parents had been awaiting a long time.”


Ojito folds into her memoir a portrait of Mike Howell, the disabled Vietnam War veteran who captained the Manana, the 70-foot fishing boat that escorted about 200 Cubans -- including the author’s family -- safely to Key West.

But, strangely, I did not come across one of the most compelling anecdotes recounted in her magazine story. According to Filiberto Castineira, a colonel in the Ministry of the Interior who handled the Mariel operation and who today wears a sandwich board selling lunch in Miami, “Castro would call every night on a special line to ask ... how many boats had left and with how many people. He then gave orders saying which groups of people should leave the next day. If too many homosexuals left, then their percentage was lowered and the percentage of families increased. If too many criminals left, which could provoke a response from American authorities in Key West, then that figure was lowered and the percentage of, say, political prisoners was increased. There were seven categories in all.”

Ojito does fill in some of the gaps of the historical record with chapters on Vilaboa and Benes. In a searing dramatization of the adage that “no good deed goes unpunished,” the two exiles’ reward for freeing almost 130,000 desperate Cubans was vilification. In one of the more shameful episodes in Miami history, the city’s hard-line exile leadership instituted its own brand of “acts of repudiation” against the two men, denouncing them as “traitors” and “spies” for having had “dialogue” with the Cuban government. Following radio attacks upon him, Benes had his bank bombed, then picketed for three weeks. For a year, he wore a bulletproof vest. Friends, even relatives, were frightened to be seen with him, and his children were ostracized by other children, whose parents were fearful of reprisals. Within the year, two dialogo participants had been killed -- one in Puerto Rico in 1979 and another in New Jersey.

Ojito is rightfully scathing about Castro’s government and its cynical motivations behind the boatlift, but she pulls her punches when writing about Miami exile politics. Although she notes that Benes lost his considerable status and fortune, and Vilaboa was accused of being a “Castro agent,” she dodges the larger issue of exile intolerance and lays blame only at the feet of a handful of “right-wing fanatics.” Benes’ own story (written by Robert M. Levine), “Secret Missions to Cuba,” offers more conscientious reporting on the subject.

Although it has become an article of faith that many Marielitos came from Cuban prisons or mental asylums, in fact, less than 10% had criminal backgrounds. Nevertheless, it soon became clear that Miami was coping badly with even that number. Complicating matters, Miami was awash in narcotics. “By the beginning of 1981, federal officials estimated that 70% of all cocaine and marijuana smuggled into the United States passed through the Miami area,” journalist T.D. Allman wrote in “Miami: City of the Future.” Soon, the TV series “Miami Vice” had linked the city with crime and corruption. Although Miami’s misfortunes had almost nothing to do with the Marielitos’ arrival, many thought otherwise.

Mariel has come to represent the perils involved with any foray into Cuban politics. Many of its key players met a grim fate. Two Cuban officials who played crucial roles in jump-starting the dialogues were later executed for their alleged part in the infamous drug trials of 1989 in Havana; Benes and Vilaboa became pariahs; an Arkansas moderate Democrat named Bill Clinton, who believed he had lost his governorship because of a surfeit of unwanted refugees into his home state, became a hard-liner on Cuba; and Carter lost the White House in 1980, in part because of his inept handling of the crisis.


Not for nothing are Cuban-U.S. politics known as the third rail. But as Ojito reminds us, the Marielitos, like so many Cuban exiles, proved to be industrious and dedicated entrepreneurs, generously contributing to Miami’s remarkable renaissance. And this rectification alone is well worth a book. *