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date: 26 March 2019

Cuban Immigration to the United States

Summary and Keywords

After more than a century of sporadic immigration from the island of Cuba to the United States, the trajectory of the diaspora accelerated steeply, beginning with Fidel Castro coming to power in 1959. In the ensuing years, as bilateral relations between the Communist regime in Havana and the administrations of President Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy soured and the exodus of upper-class, then middle-class, Cubans increased until Castro clamped down on it. Thereafter, the pace of departures became episodic, involving mainly working-class people, and their nature turned increasingly desperate. Three major immigration events punctuated the next 30 years: in 1965 from the port of Camarioca, in 1980 from the bay city of Mariel, and, again in 1994, a more general wave of flight that also heavily involved the port of Mariel. These bursts of seaborne migration came against a backdrop of constant, low-level, individual efforts to flee adverse circumstances in Castro’s Cuba. These include manifold political pressures, with opponents of the regime and cultural nonconformists alike facing harassment and imprisonment; as well as other severe economic challenges, with food scarcity, fuel shortages, and unreliable electric power making daily life difficult for the vast majority of Cuban citizens.

U.S. opposition to Castro has taken many forms, beginning with economic sanctions. A complete break in relations followed in early 1961, an invasion attempt at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, and, later, a Central Intelligence Agency–sponsored campaign of terrorist attacks and assassination attempts code-named Operation Mongoose. Since the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, a nearly complete embargo has prevented any sort of trade or tourism. In response to the influx of new Cuban arrivals, U.S. policy toward the immigrants themselves altered radically, facilitating their arrival and assimilation as political refugees until August 1994, then actively preventing their entry as economic refugees, until this writing.

Keywords: Cuba, foreign relations, immigration, Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, Camarioca, Mariel, balseros, refugees

One Boat Out of Thousands: The Voyage of Analuisa

The following story of a single Mariel vessel and its passengers illustrates many common elements of Cuban immigration by sea.

The rising August sun revealed a speck on the vast, furrowed surface of the sea. It was a skiff, just 20 feet long, packed with 19 people—half of them members of the Cuadras family—along with one small dog. They had been through an ordeal in the previous 24 hours. They had finished repairs on their old fishing boat, named Analuisa for the matriarch of the family. They said goodbye to their friends and their bachelor uncle Luciano, who had built the vessel and who now would be left alone. They had fended off several desperate individuals who tried to climb into the overcrowded boat as they set out from the port of Mariel near midnight.

As the sun came up, their situation was beginning to look bleak. Many in the party were seasick from the confused seas of the Florida Straits. The Analuisa’s engine, which dated to the 1950s, was proving to be underpowered for the purpose of bucking the Gulf Stream, a river of water the size of a thousand Mississippis, which flows at speeds approaching 5 miles per hour. Their small supply of water grew smaller as the hours passed and the heat intensified. And agonizingly, the ships they spotted in that busy seaway seemed to ignore them, as they frantically waved the orange clothing they had brought for that purpose, following the advisory lore of Mariel, a town that had seen a sporadic diaspora of its citizens for three decades. The people on board—a brother and sister with their spouses and children, accompanied by 10 family friends—began to bicker. They were making no headway north, toward Florida. Rather, the current was carrying them eastward. At the rate they were going, it was only a matter of torturous time before they suffered the fate of untold numbers of Cubans at sea before them—a slow, delirious death from thirst.

Instead, deliverance came in the form of a cruise ship. Fifteen hours after Analuisa cleared Mariel, a sailor standing bow-watch on the bridge of the Carnival Ecstasy spotted the glint of a mirror that Miralys Cuadras de Milián had thought to use to signal the ship, and he realized it was coming from a boat. The cruise ship was rapidly leaving it astern. Informed of the sighting, the captain ordered his floating hotel to come about and rescue the people in the Analuisa—and their dog.

The Cubans went along for the ride to Cozumel, Mexico, eating as much as they liked for the first time in their lives. But when they arrived in Miami, their first destination was Krome Detention Center, where the men were separated from the women and children. As chance would dictate, the family of Luis Cuadras Fernández—his spouse, nine-year-old daughter, and six-year-old son—became the symbols of Krome’s grim realities when an evocative photograph of the four appeared in the Miami Herald several times, including in color in the Sunday news magazine, in an article on the detention center. The photographer caught them during a rare moment of being together, permitted only because Yadirys, the little girl, was feverish and had asked to see her father. The women gained their freedom after a month and reunited with family members who had fled Cuba previously and settled in Orlando and Miami. The men were released after six weeks in the prison-like Krome, joining their families to begin a new life as Cuban-Americans.

In the meantime, in a twist of fortune that strains credulity, a group of four neighbors in a fishing boat from Mariel had found their deliverance in the form of the Analuisa. Abandoned when the Carnival Ecstasy sailed away, the wooden skiff’s engine was still warm and ready to work when they happened upon it, unlike their own larger and newer engine, which had broken down. They had been trying desperately for hours to revive it and continue their progress to Key West, where the owner of the craft, Juan Alfaro (which means “to the lighthouse”), had siblings in the commercial fishing industry. Transferring from the disabled boat to the Analuisa, Alfaro and his three friends reached the beach near the Southernmost Point of the island in it, in the middle of the night, undetected. They left the boat there and hastened to the home of Alfaro’s sister, next door to the Transit Home for Cuban Refugees. The next morning, Carnival Ecstasy reached Key West, its final port call on a week-long cruise. As the ship steamed past the beach, Leonardo Milián of the Analuisa group spotted their boat, with its distinctive, freshly painted orange trim, and its name and registration numbers in bright black, and he cried out.

The travels of the Analuisa continued. It was hauled to the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Station impound lot in Key West and was slated to be burned in a bonfire of Cuban small craft and rafts, which had accumulated there during the late summer of 1994, as the most recent surge of departures from Mariel had flooded the Straits of Florida with vessels of questionable seaworthiness. But instead of being burned, the Analuisa, because it was the best-looking boat in the crowded USCG facility, was chosen to represent immigration by sea in the collections of Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, where some 550 watercraft are preserved. Analuisa went on exhibit in 2000, where it stayed for the next 16 years. Many of its former passengers came for the opening, at which time they recorded oral history interviews of their experiences. The boat-builder himself, uncle Luciano Cuadras, made the trip from Cuba to see his handiwork on display in 2001, not long before he died. He also left his memories on tape for the museum’s Oral History Collection.

Cuban Immigration to the United StatesClick to view larger

Figure 1. The fishing boat Analuisa.

Photo courtesy of the author.

The epilogue of this tale is bittersweet. The 23 people who came (at least part of the way) to the United States in the museum artifact named Analuisa found in this country the material circumstances they had sought when they risked their lives to come here by sea—adequate food, reliable electricity, car ownership, and steady employment. But their lives were also marked by common American experiences—military service in the Middle East, litigation after an automobile crash, adult-onset diabetes, and a rift in the family over money—that are rare in their native Cuba.1

Cuban Immigration to the United States before 1959

Among the shortest but most perilous immigrant voyages to the United States is the one from the island of Cuba. No one knows when the first Cuban immigrants came to the British North American colonies. Perhaps they were the mulatto Cuban soldiers taken prisoner during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, formerly free men who participated in the New York Conspiracy of 1741. Or the first Cuban immigrants may have been “Creole” slaves born on the island and transported unwillingly to new homes and more hardships on the mainland. Certainly many enslaved Cubans came later, smuggled into southern ports before and after the abolition of the slave trade to the United States in 1808, up until the Civil War.

Whatever the origin of Cuban immigration, the number of people who relocated freely to the United States increased in the 1800s, with the migration of cigar makers to Key West in the 1830s. In the next few decades, the population of the island increased from 2,800 to 18,000, and Tampa expanded from 2,000 to 23,000 inhabitants, largely as a result of the Cuban influx. The Ten Years War (1868–1878) displaced thousands more Cubans. Educated and professional members of the Cuban middle class tended to prefer the northeastern cities of the United States for their expatriate homes, especially the metropolis of New York, with its steamship connections to Cuba. The Corona, Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights neighborhoods of Queens attracted a significant population of Cuban immigrants.2

Working-class Cubans made their way to settle in Key West and Tampa, and later in Jacksonville and Ocala, when the cigar industry expanded to northern Florida. Vicente Martínez Ybor, a Spanish immigrant to Cuba, moved his cigar manufacturing operations from Havana to Key West when the Ten Years War intensified in 1869, and in 1886 he opened another factory in Tampa. The community called Ybor City sprang up there, where cigar workers and their families re-created the same kind of social clubs, restaurants, churches, and other urban amenities they had known in Cuba. The clubs included the Spanish Club, the Asturias Club (named for the north coast of province Spain where many immigrants to Cuba originated), the Cuban Club, and the Patriotic Union of [José] Martí and [Antonio] Maceo, named for the heroes of the Independence War of 1895. Many of these social clubs have been restored as part of a revitalization of the Ybor City district in the 1990s, converting the area around the old cigar factories into a center for Tampa nightlife.3 More Cuban immigrants came to the United States in the early 1900s, after the War of 1898 forged new links between Cuba and its northern neighbor. The new city of Miami became a destination for many Cuban immigrant families in the 1920s and 1930s.

The harsh conditions imposed by the Fulgencio Batista regime in the 1950s produced a steady flow of exiles to the United States. Approximately 80,000 Cubans arrived between October 1952, when a coup brought Batista to power, and the fall of his dictatorship on the first day of 1959.

Cuban Immigration after Castro

The triumph of the Cuban Revolution brought manifold changes to the nation, precipitating an exodus of its citizens to the United States that began immediately afterward and continues to the present day. In the first months after Fidel Castro seized power from Batista, Raul Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara directed summary trials that condemned many hundreds of government officials, powerful businessmen, military officers, and even police functionaries (al pared) to the wall—to be executed by firing squad. In the two years after the takeover, the regime placed increasing pressure on the surviving upper-class Cubans to leave the country, nationalizing their businesses and taking over their social clubs. From Castro’s entry into Havana in January 1959 until October 1962, when direct flights between Cuba and the United States ended, about 200,000 Cubans, known as “golden exiles” because they were the wealthiest people in the country, made their exit from the increasingly difficult situation. Although most of these well-heeled immigrants left by airplane or took the car ferry to Key West, a few in desperate circumstances made the crossing to Florida in small boats or rafts. They became the first balseros, or rafters, of the many who would attempt the trip, trusting their lives to overburdened skiffs, tire inner tubes, or empty steel drums.

The rafters of the 1960s set the precedent for the untold numbers to follow. A single article in The Key West Citizen, “Southernmost Newspaper in the U.S.A.,” captured the dreadful uncertainty pervading the 40-year history of Cuban raft voyages across the Gulf Stream. In September 1969, the USCG found a “handmade raft, lashed together with string, wire and wood” floating 10 miles out in the ocean, empty but for three sets of identification cards of Cuban men. The raft showed fine workmanship that would have required months of effort, according to the Coast Guardsman who inspected it after it came ashore in Key West. “Working cleverly with the thin but flexible lengths of wood, the Cubans formed a hollow hull for the raft inside of which they placed three tractor inner tubes, and lashed them in place.” A small outboard motor was wired onto the stern. On this occasion, the USCG surmised that a Soviet freighter had picked up the three men, because the boat was floating well, the weather was fine, and there was no sign of a problem on board. Just the week before, a raft with 12 men in an 18-foot boat had been picked up by a USCG cutter near Key West. But no one knew anything about the three men who had left their official papers on a primitive-looking bundle of sticks floating in the open sea. Although not beyond the realm of possibility, thinking they had been rescued by a Soviet vessel and taken back to Cuba was wishful thinking. None of the likeliest scenarios of what happened to the three missing men were as optimistic, because the facts show that seriously dehydrated and sun-burned individuals often lose their senses and go overboard to escape their thirst and the blazing sky and drown.4

Most of those who try to cross the Straits of Florida in marginally seaworthy small craft and buoyant contrivances perish in the attempt. Marine scientists at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science ran computer projections of oceanographic factors to predict the path of 500 imaginary rafts set adrift from the Cuban coast around Havana. Even under optimum wind and current conditions, which are uncommon in that turbulent region, only two of the hypothetical voyages made it to Key West after four days. After six days, 6 percent were predicted to make it to land, and up to a quarter of them would come ashore within eight days, according to their calculations. But most people are capable of surviving only five days of privations at sea, as they run out of water and succumb to the relentless exposure to the elements.5

The director of the Transit Home for Cuban Refugees in Key West, now closed, estimated from his own experience, not from computer models, that only 1 percent of rafts without propulsion made it to Florida, and perhaps 40 percent of all attempts succeeded. Worried relatives in Cuba used to telephone the Hogar de Tránsito with vague requests for information on relatives who had taken to the water. Hundreds of their messages were pinned up on what the staff of the Transit Home called “The Wall of Sorrows,” because they rarely had good news to report back. Many of them were captured by the Cuban coast guard before they made it far from shore, because the currents near the land are capricious and difficult to break away from. There were happy exceptions, of course. The Cuban Transit Home hosted more than 5,000 refugees, comprising an amazing variety of people fortunate enough to beat the odds and arrive in Key West. There was one man who pushed off by himself in a four-foot raft, then was taken on board by the royal yacht HMS Brittania. And a woman eight months pregnant made it, as did another woman, 66 years old, traveling with her paraplegic son and several infants. Most of the survivors of the harrowing passage were young men.6 A few of the refugees brought their dogs and cats, “afraid that if they leave them, the neighbors will eat them,” claimed one staff member. On the walls of the Hogar was the flipper that one man used to swim until rescued and a photograph of a paralyzed man who rowed with the oars lashed to his body, which he threw back and forth to move water.7

Camarioca, 1965

Flights from Cuba to the United States via third countries such as Spain and Mexico continued after direct connections ceased, allowing another 50,000 people to leave the island between late 1962 and 1965. But there were thousands of Cubans who did not have the means to buy airline tickets and who wanted to get to the United States any way they could, especially those with family members already living there. Their opportunity came in September 1965, when the first of three major periods of departure from Cuba took place. The others occurred in 1980 and 1994, with sporadic bursts of traffic in between. Between 1960 and 1995, nearly 10 percent of the population of Cuba, more than a million people, made the journey to America. Perhaps a quarter million of them came by sea.8

The first wave of departures by sea occurred after Castro announced that Cubans with relatives in the United States could leave the country, provided that an American vessel picked them up at the port of Camarioca, near Varadero Beach and the town of Cárdenas, about 20 miles east of Havana. The resulting exodus took place in the middle of the hurricane season, mainly aboard Floridian pleasure craft, ending after 5,000 people had endured the trip, which was usually a nauseating experience because the confused seas in the Florida Straits made for a rough ride. This arrangement, later termed a “boatlift,” gave way to an airlift between the two countries, to provide safe passage for several thousand people with relatives in the United States every month, resulting in 12,000 Cubans leaving by air during 1965. These “Freedom Flights” lasted until 1973, bringing more than a quarter million immigrants from Cuba and greatly reducing the number of boaters and rafters in the Straits of Florida.

The Mariel “Boatlift” of 1980

The exodus that took place between April and September 1980 brought the heaviest period of migration from Cuba of all time, about 125,000 people, and introduced a new word into the English language: “boatlift.” The event began on April 1, when a group of six asylum-seekers drove a borrowed bus through the fence of the Embassy of Peru in the elite Miramar district of western Havana. One of the Cuban soldiers guarding the embassy died in the crash, prompting Fidel Castro to remove all of the security forces from around the property. News that the Peruvian embassy was unguarded spread rapidly among Cubans looking for a chance to leave Cuba. In a short time, the embassy compound was full of people who had climbed over the fence onto the grounds to petition for asylum. A total of almost 11,000 crowded in before the Peruvians stopped them. Castro’s offer for dissidents to quit the country began with those at the Embassy of Peru. In addition, Cuban prisons held legions of purported criminals, including prisoners of conscience, victims of sexual discrimination, prostitutes, and individuals with mental illnesses, whom the government wanted to send out of the country. The invitation to depart extended to the many Cubans who had been jailed for various reasons in the past, had been released from incarceration, and had lost their jobs, homes, and ration cards. Eventually, exit permission included many individuals who had no previous record of criminal or political offenses—people who simply wanted to leave. The government barred many others from taking the option of expatriation. The authorities excluded skilled professionals, such as doctors and engineers, and unmarried men of military service age.

The suspension of direct airline flights to the United States seven years earlier had increased the pent-up demand for a way out of Cuba. The 1970s had also been hard times economically for the country. There were shortages in many basic commodities, and the government depended heavily on sugar and oil subsidies from the Soviet Union. Many Cubans hoped for a fresh start in the United States.

As he had done 15 years earlier in the Camarioca boatlift, Castro announced that anyone who wanted to leave and had the government’s permission to go could be picked up by anyone willing to come from Florida to pick them up, this time at the port of Mariel, 50 miles west of Havana. Boats arriving for that purpose had to come with a list of passengers they intended to transport. The hitch was that no more than 60 percent of the people on that list would actually be allowed to board; the other places would be taken by individuals placed there by the government. This policy caused a great deal of confusion and heartache. The opening of Mariel brought more than 2,000 cabin cruisers, pleasure yachts, and fishing boats, mainly from Florida, beginning with a flotilla of 42 assorted vessels that left Miami on April 19.9

The subsequent evacuation took place during the calmest months of the year, rather than during hurricane season, when the Camarioca boatlift had taken place. The “freedom flotilla” transformed Key West, Florida, into an immigration boom town. The relatives of Cubans eligible for departure rushed to the island to charter or purchase every available vessel, enticing game-fishing boats away from the hunt and offering such fantastic sums for the service that even drug-smuggling boats returned to port to take advantage of the lucrative trade in refugees. Prices for provisions and fuel skyrocketed, as more and more boats made runs to Mariel, returning with scores of immigrants crammed above and below deck. Greyhound buses waited to take some of them to the next stage of their travels, with the destination sign behind their windshields reading “America.” The immigrants from Mariel overwhelmed the facilities to process immigrants, so thousands of newcomers were herded into Miami’s Orange Bowl football stadium, which became their temporary home while the government sorted them out.

Back in Cuba, “repudiation committees” abused many of those Cubans who asked permission to leave, usually at the moment they had to resign from their places of employment, with their former co-workers harassing and sometimes assaulting the emigrants. Stories of the brutal treatment involved in these “acts of repudiation” motivated some of the boatlift voyages, such as that of God’s Mercy, a former World War II submarine chaser and Massachusetts whale-watcher, which Episcopal priests in New Orleans purchased to retrieve their parishioners’ loved ones.10

The immigrants of the Mariel boatlift have suffered from a negative image in both Cuba and the United States. Marielitos—“little ones from Mariel”— sounds like a fond diminutive, but it is a derisive reference for the Mariel immigrants. Part of this discriminatory attitude stems from racism. A much higher number of the Mariel immigrants were non-white—about 20 percent—than the previous newcomers had been.11 The fact that 1,000 of the Mariel refugees had been held in prisons and asylums gave them all a bad reputation in the United States. In Mariel, the boatlift of 1980 was embarrassing to many residents of the city. A quarter century later, they still denounced the emigrants as “the riffraff, the prostitutes, the crazy ones.”12

Other events taking place on television screens also stained the reputation of the Mariel immigrants. Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas lost his bid for re-election in 1980 partly because of a riot earlier that year by Mariel detainees housed at Fort Chaffee, which resulted in 1 immigrant killed, 40 wounded, and 15 Arkansas State Police officers injured. Clinton returned as governor in 1984, then went on to the White House in 1993, only to deal with another Cuban boatlift the very next year.

More than 2,500 boatlift participants with felony convictions in their Cuban past, or who had committed crimes in the United States since 1980, found themselves caught in a state of international legal limbo. Some of them had been forced to leave by the Cuban government, and others had chosen to leave and had been red-flagged by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) as individuals disqualified from entry into the United States, but most had committed a crime since Mariel. The INS would not release them except to deport them back to Cuba, but Cuba would not accept them back. Even after the end of the prison sentences imposed by American courts, they were stuck. They languished in maximum-security cellblocks all around the country for years after their arrival, wards of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. As time wore on and there was no resolution to their “temporary detention” in sight, some of these frustrated inmates took part in prison riots in several states across the union. These flare-ups had a variety of outcomes.

A group of Mariel immigrants behind bars at Oakdale federal prison in Louisiana, and another group housed at the Atlanta penitentiary in Georgia, both rioted and took more than 100 hostages in December 1987. The Cuban government had agreed to repatriate some of the felons, honoring a 1984 agreement and prompting the prisoners to seize hostages and demand that they not be sent back to Cuba. The 11-day stand-off with the authorities that ensued set the record for the longest in U.S. prison history, but it ended peacefully, with no harm to the hostages, and the prisoners received a hearing and a guarantee not to be deported. A similar hostage stand-off in Talladega, Alabama, in April 1991 lasted almost as long but did not end as quietly. Instead, the prison authorities launched an assault to break the impasse, causing injuries on both sides. Beginning in 1988, Cuba repatriated more than 1,400 convicted felons, or those judged to be criminally insane, who were deported during the chaotic course of the Mariel exodus. But 20 years later, there were still 1,750 individuals from the Mariel boatlift in the custody of the INS, incarcerated around the country for crimes carried out in the United States. This prison population continues to tarnish the reputation of all Mariels, even though statistical evidence shows that the rate of criminality among the Mariels is only a small fraction of the rate in the general American population.13

During the Mariel boatlift, the INS did not maintain such occupational categories as “artist,” “cinematographer,” “dancer,” “musician,” “novelist,” “painter,” or “playwright” to classify the newcomers. Nevertheless, several hundred people who fit these descriptions came into the country at that time. Some of them had careers working with official bodies, such as the National Folkloric Culture Institute founded by the Castro government in 1964, while others were critical outsiders, deemed “insane” and “delinquent” by the authorities. Whatever their background, these creative souls made Mariel into “a cultural injection,” “a super-motor” for culture in the exile community. The “Mariel generation” includes writers (Andrés Reynaldo, Manuel Serpa, and Roberto Valero); visual artists (Carlos Alfonso and Juan Boza); choreographers (Juanita Baro); musicians (Amado Rafael); and film-makers (Carlos Arditti). Their work tends to reclaim the African roots of Cuba and to protest Castro. Mariel artists express their resentment of the dictatorship that betrayed them in all of their respective media, but writer and painter Juan Abreu did it perhaps most graphically and eloquently, with his design for a postcard called “Portrait of Fidel Castro.” The post card shows a man’s buttocks surrounded by “a sea of microphones.”14

The Refugee Crisis of 1994

The rate of Cuban crossings dwindled to only 44 in 1987 and 57 in 1988, then rose to more than 2,500 in 1992. The “Keys News” edition of the Miami Herald ran poignant notices asking for information on drowned people washing up among the islands, complete with descriptions of their likely age and the clothes they wore. So many unidentified bodies were washing up on Key West by then that a local detective compiled a book of photographs to show the many people who inquired about missing loved ones.15 Some deaths came slowly, such as those caused by dehydration and exposure, while others were over in an instant, such as being run over by a sea-going barge.16 Some new arrivals avoided the perils of rafting by paying high prices to be smuggled into Key West aboard large game-fishing motorboats, 30 feet long and equipped with powerful engines. The smugglers charged an amount equal to a year and a half’s wages per person for the service, delivering groups of about a dozen passengers in predawn runs into the Florida Keys, where they deposited their human cargo in shallow water to wade ashore, or in one case dropped them off on a jetty in front of the “Southernmost Hotel.”17 Others hijacked vessels, such as “the Cuban Bruce Lee,” who used his expertise in martial arts to take control of a fishing boat. The karate champion and nine others, including an infant, disembarked on one of the Florida Keys, leaving the fishing boat’s captain “a little bruised” and in the custody of the INS along with his mate, both of them accused of smuggling the immigrants. They asked to have their boat back and be allowed to return to Cuba, as the perpetrator admitted that he had forced the two to make the crossing.18 In another case, three men jumped off of a Cuban fishing boat into an inflatable life raft while the captain fired shots at them with a rifle, badly scaring a vacationing family on a charter fishing boat nearby. The charter boat captain kept his vessel out of gunshot range until the Cuban boat motored away, then radioed the USCG to pick up the men, who escaped the incident unhurt and soon were on their way to the Cuban Transit Home.19

Some Cubans who had already relocated to the United States decided they had made a mistake and became desperate to return. Two of them, who had just rafted over the year before, murdered a charter boat captain while stealing his vessel for a voyage back to Cuba. The captain had settled in Key West after serving there as an Army missile specialist during the Cuban Missile Crisis.20

Cuban police often apprehended people on the beach while launching their boat or raft, and Cuban Coast Guard patrols seized many others at sea. Their cutters sometimes pursued boats that initially eluded the shoreline blockade, often coming within 15 miles of Key West. In one case, two American fishing trawlers spotted a Cuban “gunboat” and called the USCG. A cutter arrived on the scene and followed its Cuban counterpart until it left the area, which was well within international waters. Even though the incident made the front page of the Key West newspaper, it was nothing new for the USCG personnel, who saw Cuban patrols “on a regular basis.” “They’re always out there,” one of them told a reporter, adding that it was the Cubans’ right to patrol offshore waters, but they did not usually come so close. Eighteen Cuban refugees in four small boats, none of them longer than 20 feet, showed up in the vicinity in the next few days, spurring speculation that the Cuban cutter had been searching for them.

Those who are apprehended in the attempt to float away from Cuba face a standard prison sentence of three years on a charge of “illegal exit,” but some have served more than six years for the conviction. They are often incarcerated as political prisoners at Havana’s Combinado del Este prison. A smuggled letter from a group being held there for the crime of attempted departure stated that “ten or twelve” more joined them every day, during the spike in raft crossings that began in 1989, when the rate of attempts quadrupled that of the previous two years.21

The wave of Cuban immigration that rose in 1994 was not organized by the Cuban government and carried out by American watercraft, as the 1980 Mariel boatlift had been. Instead, it came about because individual Cubans, motivated by economic desperation, decided to embark on their own. The pattern of migration that reunited family members continued, involving many who had relatives in the United States who could assist in their resettlement. Approximately 3,000 or 4,000 Cubans were permitted to leave the island with official permission aboard direct flights to the United States, which resumed when the Mariel boatlift ended in September 1980. An agreement reached by the administration of President Ronald Reagan in 1984 gave the United States authority to issue 27,645 visas per year to Cubans. But during the early 1990s, the U.S. consular office in Havana granted only about 3,000 per year.22 Many people wanted to come but either could not get a visa or could not afford the cost of airplane tickets, or both, so they took their chances in whatever small craft they could construct or find, including make-shift rafts made of tire inner-tubes, boards, and tarps and small open fishing boats. All of them hoped to cross the Straits of Florida before exhausting the scant amount of water they could carry.

The rate of clandestine embarkation from Cuba increased each year beginning in 1989, but the diaspora reached its climax in August 1994, when the Cuban government suspended its efforts to prevent citizens from leaving. This decision came after gunmen seized a ferry boat in Havana harbor and tried to cross to Florida in it. Cuban naval vessels rammed and sank the ferry, drowning many of the pirates as well as those passengers who had opted on the spur of the dramatic moment to go to the United States. Castro had often criticized what he saw as a double standard in American policy, which condemned airplane hijackers who wanted to go to Cuba but welcomed Cuban boat hijackers as political refugees. His revenge was to open the gates to emigration, as he had when the Peruvian Embassy extended asylum to all comers in 1980, precipitating the first Mariel boatlift.

Thousands of hopeful Cubans flocked to the beaches and ports on the northwest coast of the island to launch just about anything that would float toward Florida. In all, 36,000 Cubans completed their voyages to Florida during 1994. Estimates of the death toll among those taking part in that flotilla run as high as 50 percent. Of those who survived, many were swooped up “like fireflies” by USCG cutters like the Baranof. Sixteen of the 110-foot cutters, half of the entire national fleet of the workhouse boats, patrolled the Straits of Florida during the crisis, joined by 18 other USCG vessels, including a group of old buoy tenders commissioned a half-century earlier. Ten Navy ships also served in “the most intense rescue operation in fifty years,” in the words of Coast Guard Commander Jim Howe. Between them, the 44 USCG and Navy vessels plucked thousands of Cuban boaters and rafters from the water. The Miami Herald ran a banner headline, “2,269,” announcing the “record number picked up in [the] human tidal wave” in the single day of Monday, August 22. The record only lasted 24 hours, because the very next day more than 3,000 came, part of a total of 8,000 people in four days. The commander of the USCG cutter Nantucket said the refugees were arriving on “anything that floats,” including contraptions made of Styrofoam and others constructed of bamboo.23

Then the weather changed, turning tranquil seas into whitecaps, and rain squalls brought lightning and gusts of wind more than 40 miles per hour.24 Fewer than 400 were rescued on the stormy Straits of Florida on Friday, August 26. Like everyone rescued during the previous week, American ships deposited them at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, because a change in American immigration policy had taken place, ordered by President Bill Clinton. For the first time since breaking relations with the Fidel Castro regime, the U.S. government considered refugees from Cuba to be economically motivated, not political exiles.

Abandoned boats and rafts became a mounting menace as the summer of 1994 drew to a close. Towboat Captain Bill Hicks of Miami cleared 122 rafts from Biscayne National Park in 22 days. Park rangers at Cape Canaveral National Seashore, far to the north of Miami, picked up 40 more rafts along the beach. Twenty pleasure boats were damaged after colliding with abandoned rafts, one of them having its propeller shaft ripped out of the hull when it became entangled with an inner tube. The largest boating hazards were rafts constructed solidly of steel drums, welded together with steel rebar supports and decked with wood, which could sink a sizable vessel in a collision. The smallest contrivances, made of lawn chairs lashed together with blocks of Styrofoam, posed less danger, but they brought to mind a pitiful picture of desperate, probably doomed, people at sea.25

The Clinton administration reached a settlement with the Castro government on September 9, 1994, agreeing to accept 20,000 Cuban immigrants annually, officially and by air, in exchange for Cuban government enforcement of the ban on immigration by sea. Beginning in October, the people intercepted in the Straits of Florida who were taken to Guantánamo Bay began to receive paroles to the United States, and none of them were deported without legal representation. Although it sometimes took several months, most of the Cubans held at the naval base since August 1994 were permitted to enter the country, albeit those with a criminal record joined the felons from the Mariel exodus in legal limbo in federal prisons.

Wet Foot/Dry Foot

The Cuban Adjustment Act, passed in 1995, provided that any Cuban with a visa or a parole who stayed in the United States for a year and a day would be eligible for permanent residency and a “green card.” Also as a result, Cubans who made it to U.S. soil would receive paroles, permitting them to stay in the country and apply for the green card a year and a day later. Cubans who were intercepted at sea, even if they got close to shore before being apprehended by the USCG, would still be sent back to Cuba. This came to be called the “wet foot/dry foot” policy.

Other pieces of legislation worsened Cuban-American relations in the 1990s. The first was the 1992 Torricelli Law, put forth as the Cuban Democracy Act, which prohibited foreign subsidiaries of U.S. corporations from doing business with the island, banned monetary remittances, and prohibited visits by U.S. citizens. The so-called Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996, better known as the Helms-Burton Act, tightened the provisions of the U.S. economic embargo by extending it to foreign companies doing business in Cuba or “trafficking” in assets that the Castro regime had seized from Cuban exiles or U.S. citizens and corporations. The stricter rules passed by Congress not only maintained the prohibition on trade from the United States but also pressured other countries that did business with Cuba to adhere to the American embargo, imposing penalties on those who refused. The Cuban government denounced this anti-trade policy as “the Blockade,” doing so in many ways, from official pronouncements by government representatives, to the official graffiti that the Communist youth organization paints on walls everywhere. The trade embargo/blockade has contributed to the hardships endured every day by average Cubans, such as the scarcity of soap, gasoline, paper, and many other quotidian “necessities” of the average American.

Cuban immigrants continue setting out for the United States in marginally seaworthy small craft, and many continue to die trying to reach U.S. shores. In a tragic repeat of the Analuisa’s experience, in March 2016, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship rescued 18 Cuban rafters but not before 9 others had already perished.26

Cuban immigration continues to be a sore subject on both ends of the political spectrum, as Harvard professor George Borjas, a specialist in immigration labor economics and a Cuban-American himself, found out in 2015. When he published a study on the impact of the Mariel boatlift on the Florida economy, which concluded that the event had depressed the wages of native-born Miami workers, he drew criticism from liberal and conservative voices alike.27


After more than a century of close ties between Cuba and the United States, the victory of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary forces in 1959 resulted in those connections being severed, including all legitimate transportation options. The upper crust of Cuban society exited first, most of them by passenger ship or airplane. At the same time, the first Cuban rafters tried to float to freedom, setting the precedent for legions of balseros to follow. When airline routes were cut, pent-up pressure to leave the island, with its political strictures and its chronic scarcity of food, gasoline, and electricity, led to three major moments of seaborne exodus: from Camarioca in 1965, from Mariel in the boatlift of 1980, and mainly from Mariel again during the refugee crisis of 1994. In the midst of the last of them, the U.S. government changed its welcoming stance toward Cuban immigrants, who had been classified as political refugees, and effectively barred their entry, as people escaping economic privation, not political persecution. The Cuban immigrants’ struggles after relocating to the United States have been well documented and are ongoing.

Discussion of the Literature

Cuban immigration received little scholarly interest prior to 1990, when Louis Pérez Jr. published Cuba and the United States: Ties of Singular Intimacy, a concise account of bilateral ties between the nations that places immigration into a broad context. Several other worthwhile books followed at the time of the 1994 refugee crisis and its aftermath. First among them was City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami (1994) by Alex Stepick and Alejandro Portes, followed by Mark S. Hamm’s The Abandoned Ones: The Imprisonment and Uprising of the Mariel Boat People (1995), Felix Roberto Masud-Piloto’s From Welcomed Exiles to Illegal Immigrants: Cuban Migration to the United States, 1959–95 (1996), Norman Zucker and Naomi Flink Zucker’s Desperate Crossings: Seeking Refuge in America (1996), and Havana USA: Cuban Exiles and Cuban Americans in South Florida, 1959–1994 (1997) by María Cristina García.

Literature following up on the immigration events of 1980 and 1994 has emerged more recently, with two books standing out among them: Miami’s Forgotten Cubans: Race, Racialization, and the Miami Afro-Cuban Experience (2016) by Alan Aja and Debating U.S.-Cuban Relations: How Should We Now Play Ball? (2017) by Jorge I. Dominguez, Rafael M. Hernández, and Lorena G. Barberia. Several noteworthy periodical pieces joined this wave of publishing, including Alan Taylor’s article “Twenty Years After the 1994 Cuban Raft Exodus,” which appeared in The Atlantic on November 12, 2014; “Of Flights and Flotillas: Assimilation and Race in the Cuban Diaspora” by Kelly Woltman, in The Professional Geographer: Forum and Journal of the Association of American Geographers (2009); Emily H. Skop’s “Race and Place in the Adaptation of Mariel Exiles,” in The International Migration Review (2001); and Diana Fulger’s “The Colors of the Cuban Diaspora: Portrayal of Racial Dynamics Among Cuban-Americans,” in the Forum for Inter-American Research (n.d.).

Two other volumes are useful for background: That Infernal Little Cuban Republic: The United States and the Cuban Revolution (2011) by Lars Schoultz and Cuba America and the Sea by Roorda (2005).

Primary Sources

Most primary sources fall into the categories either of oral history or contemporary periodical accounts.

Elizabeth Campisi’s, Escape to Miami (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016) is a collection of interviews with survivors is the most recent work in oral history. “The Cuban Exile Archives and History Project,” part of the “Cuban and Cuban America Collections” in the Special Collections of Florida International University in Miami. This trove of primary materials “contains documents relating to the exile experience . . . publications from the Cuban American National Foundation and photographs of exiles . . . correspondence between project director Dr. Miguel Bretos and other exiles, and publications of the project.” Also valuable is the collection of Alex Stepick, co-author of City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami (1994) and professor of anthropology and sociology at Florida International University, of materials depicting the plight of the Cuban and Haitian refugees in the 1980s in Miami, Florida. The documents detail the treatment of refugees once on American soil and the condition in the countries they were escaping from, highlighting the contrasting experiences of Cuban and Haitian refugees.28

Mystic Seaport Museum’s Oral History Collection contains interviews with most of the people who traveled aboard Analuisa, as well as the boat’s builder, recorded in 2000 and 2001.

Newspapers that devoted the most extensive coverage to Cuban immigration are The Key West Citizen and The Miami Herald, in particular the latter’s reportage by John Dorschner, who has been on that beat since the early 1990s and continues to chronicle new developments.

Secondary Works

Aja, Alan. Miami’s Forgotten Cubans: Race, Racialization, and the Miami Afro-Cuban Experience. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.Find this resource:

Borjas, George. “The Wage Impact of the Marielitos: A Reappraisal.” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 21588. Washington, DC: National Bureau of Research, 2015.Find this resource:

Dominguez, Jorge I., Rafael M. Hernández, and Lorena G. Barberia. Debating U.S.-Cuban Relations: How Should We Now Play Ball? New York: Routledge, 2017.Find this resource:

Doss, Joe Morris. Let the Bastards Go: From Cuba to Freedom on God’s Mercy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Fulger, Diana. “The Colors of the Cuban Diaspora: Portrayal of Racial Dynamics among Cuban-Americans.” Forum for Inter-American Research, n.d.Find this resource:

García, María Cristina. Havana USA: Cuban Exiles and Cuban Americans in South Florida, 1959–1994. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.Find this resource:

González Pando, Miguel. The Cuban Americans. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Hamm, Mark S.The Abandoned Ones: The Imprisonment and Uprising of the Mariel Boat People. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Masud-Piloto, Felix Roberto. From Welcomed Exiles to Illegal Immigrants: Cuban Migration to the United States, 1959–95. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996.Find this resource:

Pérez, Louis A. Jr. Cuba and the United States: Ties of Singular Intimacy. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Roorda, Eric Paul. Cuba, America, and the Sea: The Story of the Immigrant Boat Analuisa and Five Hundred Years of History Between Cuba and America. Mystic, CT: Mystic Seaport Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Schoultz, Lars. That Infernal Little Cuban Republic: The United States and the Cuban Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Skop, Emily H. “Race and Place in the Adaptation of Mariel Exiles.” The International Migration Review 35, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 449–471.Find this resource:

Stepick Alex, and Alejandro Portes. City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Taylor, Alan. “Twenty Years After the 1994 Cuban Raft Exodus.” The Atlantic (November 12, 2014).Find this resource:

Woltman, Kelly. “Of Flights and Flotillas: Assimilation and Race in the Cuban Diaspora.” The Professional Geographer 61 (2009): 70–86.Find this resource:

Zucker, Norman, and Naomi Flink Zucker. Desperate Crossings: Seeking Refuge in America. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1996.Find this resource:


The 1983 film Scarface, directed by Brian DePalma and starring Al Pacino, put a Cuban spin on the 1932 gangster movie of the same name. The earlier film had starred Paul Muni in the lead role, with supporting actors Boris Karloff, of horror-movie fame, and George Raft, who later became closely associated in real life with one of the most notoriously gang-operated casinos in Havana, the Capri Hotel. (Raft personally defended the casino from being vandalized by a mob during the first hours after Batista fled Cuba, New Year’s Day, 1959, when the rest of the corruption-tainted casinos were stormed and sacked. “In his Hollywood, gangster-like style, Raft snarled ‘Yer not comin’ in my casino.’”)29 The 1983 Scarface opens with actual footage of densely packed boats leaving Cuba and depicts the horrifically violent criminal career of “Tony Montana,” a Mariel immigrant in Miami, including a knifepoint murder in the chaotic detention facility. Scarface did well at the box office, spreading the pernicious stereotype of Cubans as gangsters to a wide audience of Americans.

A lighter cinema treatment of the ordeals of the Mariel immigrants was the 1995 film The Pérez Family. The movie depicted a loveable but bizarre Cuban “family,” really an assemblage of unrelated outcasts posing as a family to fool the Customs authorities, who build a new life together. Director Mira Nair took a comic approach to refugee life, first with scenes in the crowded Orange Bowl. The cast included the great vocalist Celia Cruz as a wise, prophetic woman, but the leading role, played by Marisa Tomei, is a prostitute, perpetuating the negative stereotypes clinging to “the Mariels.” Neither Scarface nor The Pérez Family did the Mariel immigrants any favors. Both of the movies portrayed them mainly as social misfits and prepared the way for the unfavorable reception accorded the next wave of Cuban arrivals in 1994.

A Spanish documentary tracing the lives of a group of 1994 immigrants, Los Balseros, was released in 2002 with the English title The Cuban Rafters. The film drew the largest crowds at the Havana International Film Festival, an annual event that draws audiences from all over the world. The theater showing the movie was besieged by Cubans interested in the sold-out film. Even though they could not get tickets, they came because the screening of the movie was itself something of an event. The documentary’s gritty portrayal of the rafters’ lives follows them from Havana in 1994, through their voyage, several months of incarceration at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, and the years after their release in 1995, when they were permitted to enter the United States and settled in Miami, The Bronx, and Connecticut, among other places. The seven immigrants profiled in Los Balseros endured a variety of hardships in both countries, before and after their dangerous ocean passage by raft. At the Havana Film Festival, directors Carles Bosch and Josep Domenech said their film was “a true story about a people torn between two worlds.”30

Megan Williams’ documentary, Tell Me Cuba (2006), shows that the first members of the Cuban Diaspora influenced the U.S. government to support the new arrivals.31

The Cuban Heritage Collection of the University of Miami offers many resources, including a multimedia presentation on “The Cuban Rafter Phenomenon.”

The Library of Congress maintains a website called “Crossing the Straits,” which provides materials on both Cuban and Puerto Rican immigration by sea.

The Digital Library of the Caribbean is another trove of online information and images.

Further Reading

Aja, Alan. Miami’s Forgotten Cubans: Race, Racialization, and the Miami Afro-Cuban Experience. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.Find this resource:

Dominguez, Jorge I., Rafael M. Hernández, and Lorena G. Barberia. Debating U.S.-Cuban Relations: How Should We Now Play Ball? New York: Routledge, 2017.Find this resource:

García, María Cristina. Havana USA: Cuban Exiles and Cuban Americans in South Florida, 1959–1994. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Mark S. Hamm. The Abandoned Ones: The Imprisonment and Uprising of the Mariel Boat People. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Masud-Piloto, Felix Roberto. From Welcomed Exiles to Illegal Immigrants: Cuban Migration to the United States, 1959–95. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996.Find this resource:

Pérez, Louis A. Jr. Cuba and the United States: Ties of Singular Intimacy. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Roorda, Eric Paul. Cuba, America and the Sea. Mystic, CT: Mystic Seaport Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Schoultz, Lars. That Infernal Little Cuban Republic: The United States and the Cuban Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Stepick, Alex, and Alejandro Portes. City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Zucker, Norman, and Naomi Flink Zucker. Desperate Crossings: Seeking Refuge in America. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1996.Find this resource:


(3.) Allen Freeman, “A Sense of Belonging,” Smithsonian (March/April 1994), 28–34.

(4.) Frank Jacobson, “Empty Refugee Raft Is Found with ID Papers,” The Key West Citizen, September 17, 1969.

(5.) Dan Keating, “Rescues Don’t Tell Number of Lost Rafters: Crossing Proves Fatal For Many,” Miami Herald, June 13, 1991.

(6.) John Dorschner, “Cuban Roulette,” Miami Herald, July 4, 1993.

(7.) Katha Sheehan, “Rafters Report Amazing Feats,” Florida Keys Island Navigator, February 1994.

(9.) Mirta Ojito, “My Escape From Cuba: A Mariel Boat-Lift Memory,” The New York Times Magazine (April 23, 2000): 68–78.

(12.) Staff report, “In Mariel, Massive Boatlift a National Embarrassment,” Miami Herald, April 21, 2000.

(14.) Laurie Horn, “Mariel Artists Claim Their Place,” Miami Herald, April 22, 1990.

(15.) Keating, “Rescues Don’t Tell Number.”

(16.) Richard Wallace, “Four Refugees Reach Keys in Rafts, But One Man Still Missing,” Miami Herald, March 23, 1991.

(17.) Chris Doyle, “More Refugees Brought Ashore,” The Key West Citizen, October 6, 1992.

(18.) Mirta Ojita, “Crewmen Say Cubans Forced Boat to Keys,” Miami Herald, September 25, 1989.

(19.) Scott Hiaasen and Nancy Klingener, “Vacationing Family Watches Men Make Dash For Freedom,” Miami Herald, July 10, 1993.

(20.) Dan Keating and Anglie Muhs, “Two Rafters Charged in Captain’s Killing,” Miami Herald, January 21, 1992.

(21.) Katha Sheehan, “Cubans Sail For Florida,” The Key West Citizen, July 5, 1989.

(22.) UN Ambassador Ricardo Alarcón quoted in Stanley Meisler, “Cuba, U.S. Still Far Apart on Refugee Crisis Solution,” Los Angeles Times, September 2, 1994.

(23.) Frances Robles and Martin Merzer, “2,269: Record Number Picked Up in Human Tidal Wave,” Miami Herald, August 23, 1994.

(24.) William Booth, “U.S. Cutter Picks Up Cuban Rafters—‘Like Fireflies,’” Washington Post, August 27, 1994.

(25.) Jim Flannery, “Boaters Rescuing Cubans Risk Smuggling Charges,” Soundings (November, 1994).

(26.) Carol Rosenberg, “Coast Guard: Nine Cuban Rafters Perish at Sea; 18 Survivors Saved by Cruise Ship,” Miami Herald, March 19, 2016.

(27.) George Borjas, “The Wage Impact of the Marielitos: A Reappraisal. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 21588 (Washington, DC: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2015); and John Dorschner, “Controversial Mariel Study Puts Cuban-American Professor in Middle of Storm,” Miami Herald, July 20, 2017.

(28.) Descriptions are from the website of the collection.

(29.) Thomas Paterson, Contesting Castro (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 226.

(30.) Joseph M. Domenech and Carles Bosch, Balseros (Barcelona: Baucan Films, 2002); and Anthony Boadle, “Film on Cuban Rafters Packs in Crowd in Havana,” Reuters, December 2, 2002.

(31.) Megan Williams, Tell Me Cuba (2006).