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Florida and the Mariel Boatlift of 1980

The First Twenty Days

Kate Dupes Hawk, Ron Villella, and Adolfo Leyva de Varona, with Kristen Cifers

Publication Year: 2014

The 1980 Mariel Boatlift was a profound episode in twentieth-century American history, impacting not just Florida, but the entire country. During the first twenty days of the boatlift, with little support from the federal government, the state of Florida coordinated and responded to the sudden arrival in Key West of more than thirty thousand Cuban refugees, the first wave of immigrants who became known as “ Marielitos.”
Kathleen Dupes Hawk, Ron Villella, Adolfo Leyva de Varona, and Kristen Cifers combine the insights of expert observers with the experiences of actual participants. The authors organize and present a wealth of primary sources, first-hand accounts, archival research, government records, and interviews with policy-makers, volunteers, and refugees that bring into focus the many far-reaching human, political, and cultural outcomes of the Mariel Boatlift that continue to influence Florida, the United States, and Cuba today.
Emerging from these key records and accounts is a grand narrative of high human drama. Castro’ s haphazard and temporary opening of Cuba spurred many thousands of Cubans to depart in calamitously rushed, unprepared, and dangerous conditions. The book tells the stories of these Cuban citizens, most legitimately seeking political asylum but also including subversive agents, convicted criminals, and the mentally ill, who began arriving in the US beginning in April 1980. It also recounts how local and state agencies and private volunteers with few directives or resources were left to improvise ways to provide the Marielitos food, shelter, and security as well as transportation away from Key West.
The book provides a definitive account of the political, legal, and administrative twists on the local, state, and federal levels in response to the crisis as well as of the often-dysfunctional attempts at collaboration between governmental and private institutions. Vivid and readable, Florida and the Mariel Boatlift of 1980 presents the significant details that illuminate and humanize this complex humanitarian, political, and logistical crisis. 

Published by: The University of Alabama Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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Bob Graham

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pp. ix-x

As I reflect on my 41 years of public service, some of the most poignant memories involve the Mariel Boatlift of 1980. I was pleased and flattered when Ron and Kate asked me to contribute some of my memories to this volume.
At the start of the twentieth century, Florida was a lightly populated state with a primarily agricultural economy. When I am asked to identify the factors...

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pp. xi-xii

The 1980 Mariel Boatlift in Florida was one of the most profound events in twentieth-century United States history. It impacted not just Florida, but the entire country. During the first 20 days, with little support from the federal government, the state of Florida coordinated the arrival of approximately 30,000 Cuban refugees to the tiny town of Key West.
This book is a permanent record...

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pp. xiii-xvi

We, the authors, would like to acknowledge so many people who believed that the first twenty days of the Mariel Boatlift were Florida history that had never really been disclosed and that it needed to be recognized. John Burke, who with Ron Villella, was sent by then-Gov. Bob Graham to coordinate services not sanctioned by the federal government but enormously impacting the state...

Part I: Castro's Anti-American Obsession

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1. The Origins of Castro and the Cuban Revolution

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pp. 3-8

The Cuban revolutionary process that began with Fulgencio Batista’s coup d’état against Cuba’s constitutional president in 1952 was, at least until 1959, a popular uprising against the prototypical patriarchal Latin American dictator. Political, rather than economic and structural, factors were behind the emergence of revolutionary politics (del Águila 1984, 39).
According to a 1956 government...

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2. Cuba's International Conflicts and Communist Regime

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pp. 9-18

By mid-1959, the Cuban regime found itself in a widening clash with conservative Latin American governments, which were targeted by Cuban-trained and -financed Latin American exile groups. The first Cuban-supported military actions were against the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Panama, Guatemala, and Haiti. In the Dominican Republic, a rapidly defeated invading force...

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3. A Shift in Revolutionary Target and Rapprochement

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pp. 19-28

Secured in power and determined to play an international leadership role, Castro made his second “Declaration of Havana,” calling for armed revolution throughout Latin America as the only road out of “the economic exploitation and class oppression imposed in the region by oligarchic regimes sustained by, and dependent on, U.S. imperialist interests.” Yet at this time, the...

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4. The Events that Led to the Mariel Boatlift

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pp. 29-46

Starting in May 1979, discontented Cubans perpetrated a rash of spectacular escapes into Latin American embassies in Havana. These events would culminate in the infamous Mariel exodus. On May 14, 1979, 12 Cubans crashed a bus through the Venezuelan Embassy’s gates. Cuban authorities shot at the bus, and five Cubans were wounded. Further escapes followed, all into the Venezuelan...

Part II: The First Days

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5. Monday, April 21, 1980—The Beginning of the End

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pp. 49-52

The first two boats reached Key West on April 21, 1980, with 40 Cuban refugees aboard. Among the boats was the Ochún, Napoleón Vilaboa’s 41-foot fishing vessel. The arrival was not considered unusual or significant, as Cubans had been arriving in the Keys by various means ever since Castro took power in 1959.
At the time, nothing was known about the boatlift; no one expected it to...

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6. Tuesday, April 22—Decision Making Adrift

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pp. 53-54

The mood in the harbor was bleak. Although some had already left, the Cuban government decided only refugees who had properly processed papers could leave for the United States. Families were separated. Teary-eyed parents were forced to place their children aboard boats and stay behind. Some parents left their children behind, hoping to create a new life abroad and bring...

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7. Wednesday, April 23—Systems a "Go"

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pp. 55-60

Two days after the first boats docked, officials began noticing that the stream of incoming refugees was not stopping. Miami and Key West went into a frenzy, with captains readying more boats bound for Cuba (Miami Herald, April 23 and 24, 1980). To accommodate ever-increasing numbers, Customs sent two additional people to Key West from its Miami district headquarters to assist...

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8. Thursday, April 24—White House Complexity and Confusion

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pp. 61-66

The weather had been bad that day. A storm was threatening South Florida. At approximately 9:20 A.M., Robert Daniel, director of disaster preparedness at the Tallahassee office of the Florida Department of Community Affairs (DCA), attempted to reach Bob Wilkerson. Daniel called to ask for the telephone number of the Coast Guard in Key West. The only number available was for the Coast...

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9. Friday, April 25—Miami to Mariel

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pp. 67-70

On April 25, Maj. Gen. Robert Bond of the U.S. Air Force stood in front of many at an especially harrowing memorial service held for the victims of the failed Iranian hostage rescue. As to why the mission ended, Bond read the presidential message stating, “Late yesterday, I canceled a carefully planned operation which was underway in Iran to position our rescue team for later...

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10. Saturday, April 26—And the Boatlift is On

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pp. 71-76

Unable to continue avoiding the situation, the White House convened its first high-level meeting April 26, chaired by Vice President Walter Mondale, to discuss options for stopping the boatlift. At the meeting it was decided to:

1. Allow the return of boats carrying Cubans and emphasize refugee processing once they landed in the...

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11. Sunday, April 27—The Hand of God

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pp. 77-88

Carbon-arc searchlights scanned the perimeters of Mariel Harbor, as people, armed with everything and nothing, crammed onto small, cramped boats. It was the beginning of an end, the refugees’ one chance for freedom. Their future in America was unsure, but there was hope, and that was enough.
The mood was somber. Parachute flares exploded overhead, drowning out...

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12. Monday, April 28—The Feds Are Coming, the Feds Are Coming

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pp. 89-102

During the morning, Bob Wilkerson, Victor Palmieri, Debbie DeLee, and Ron Villella briefed the governor by phone. It was clear that within 24 hours, the Cuban situation would escalate to disastrous proportions. After reviewing Elton Gissendanner’s report from Friday’s visit, Graham issued updates. He instructed National Guardsmen assigned to Monroe County to deal with the refugee situation...

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13. Tuesday, April 29—A Momentary Honeymoon

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pp. 103-112

As the sun rose, eight to 10 boats left the Key West port. Cuba released another 20 boats, and the Cuban Border Guard escorted boats midway from Cuba to Key West. Five thousand refugees were expected to arrive in Key West by midnight, so four National Guard armories were converted into shelters. As of 3 A.M., 1,737 boats were still in Cuba, waiting for their passengers. Although...

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14. Wednesday, April 30—Agency Games Begin

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pp. 113-124

On April 30, the Key West Citizen (1980l) published a concomitant article that seemed suggestive—perhaps even revealing. Jorge González was a car exporter by day and leader of a secret commando force by night. Nicknamed Maj. “Bombillo” González, he and his commando volunteers, between the ages of 18 and 50, hoped to one day overthrow Castro. The group, comprising contractors, construction...

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15. Thursday, May 1—The Sublime and the Rediculous

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pp. 125-136

Refugees managed to slowly make their way onto boats, trying to avoid rabid dogs and gunfire. Conditions continued to worsen for boat captains. One captain compared the situation to the Holocaust. He said the island was “a large concentration camp with spotlights going across your boat all night long and with machine gun nests set up on shore. . . . I have never seen anything like it...

Image Plates

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pp. 137-150

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16. Friday, May 2—Assessment, Assessment

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pp. 151-166

At 3 A.M., the pier experienced its first death. Around 2,000 people arrived that night, and in the midst of the chaos, a woman died on the pier. “The poor, elderly woman who did not even want to come here had died. Castro had emptied out the prisons and had also sent the terminally ill and elderly from the hospitals,” Dupes recounted (Dupes journal, May 2, 1980). Dr. Zarantz, a volunteer...

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17. Saturday, May 3—Chaos to Confusion

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pp. 167-178

May 3 started in chaos. As of 6 A.M., 10,032 refugees had been counted and processed off 345 boats, of which 56 had arrived since midnight. There were still 970 boats awaiting processing and relocation. There weren’t any new refugees on their way to the centers, but 200 were at the Tamiami center for processing. To keep things orderly, there were 630 National Guardsmen on duty...

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18. Sunday, May 4—One Potato, Two Potato

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pp. 179-184

Since officials had decided to close the West Palm Beach Armory, volunteers began setting up the West Palm Beach Fairgrounds to accommodate the 750 refugees. HRS, county administration, and Civil Defense established headquarters there to receive the transferred refugees by 2 P.M. Everything was in place.
At the same time, an airlift departed Key West for Eglin Air Force Base with...

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19. Monday, May 5—All the Ships at Sea

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pp. 185-196

The biggest single arrival of refugees occurred on Monday around 10 A.M., when the tugboat Dr. Daniels, registered in Grand Cayman, brought 773 refugees. As the boat docked, the refugees on board chanted, “Viva Carter, down with Fidel. Liberty, liberty, liberty.”
State trooper Jack Carmody witnessed the large boat with a red hull, much like a Miami River cruise boat, docking at Key West’s...

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20. Tuesday, May 6—The Mixed Blessing

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pp. 197-208

On May 6, 47 members of Congress wrote to President Carter regarding the boatlift. The letter stated: “Instead of making this an orderly evacuation, we have seen you fail to seize this opportunity, resulting in reckless attempts by Cubans in Florida to retrieve their compatriots in tiny boats, some of which have already capsized with loss of life.”
While some supported the boatlift, other...

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21. Wednesday, May 7—Marines, Winn-Dixie, and Balogna

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pp. 209-216

The day started with Customs agents seizing two suspected Castro agents inside the crowded hangar. As they were taken away, shouts of “Bravo!” erupted from the refugees. Sergio Piñón related his struggles with the Cuban agents: “You can tell how unprepared the FBI was. There was this one guy who went by the FBI. When I got him, he admitted to being a Cuban agent, but he said...

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22. Thursday, May 8—The Witching Hour

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pp. 217-220

Florida senators Lawton Chiles and Richard Stone arrived in Key West at 5 A.M. Col. Bob Ensslin said he would meet them at the airport. But Key West naval base commander Capt. Ivan Lewis (who had refused to let National Guard trucks carrying refugees drive past his Bachelor Officers’ Quarters and instead made them travel three miles out of the way) flexed his muscles once again. He...

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23. Friday, May 9—Checkmate

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pp. 221-224

By 7 A.M., 27,400 refugees had arrived since the beginning of the exodus, an increase of 3,261 from Thursday. Approximately 4,000 refugees still awaited transportation to Miami or Eglin Air Force Base for further processing and were held at the seaplane hangar. According to Dr. Frank Vervaldi, Air Florida’s senior vice president of commercial services, the airline had flown approximately...

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24. Saturday, May 10—Yet Another Try

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pp. 225-226

There was a brief, welcomed lull in refugee arrivals the morning of May 10. During the lull, Representative Dante Fascell visited Key West facilities for four hours. Congressional aide John Clark and friend Harry Knight accompanied Fascell, and the three were met by commanding officer Capt. Lewis. While there, Fascell witnessed the efforts of hundreds of volunteers working with...

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25. May 1980 and Beyond—The End of the First Wave

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pp. 227-230

During May, a recorded 86,488 Cubans arrived. After opening response centers at Eglin on May 3 and Fort Chaffee on May 8, the federal government opened additional refugee centers at Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania on May 17 and Fort McCoy in Wisconsin on May 29.
When approximately 4,588 refugees arrived in Key West, aboard 58 vessels, on May 11, it broke all previous...

Part III: Mariel—The Legacy

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26. The Mariel Boatlift's Impacts

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pp. 233-246

“The Mariel experience represented cross currents of a lot of American history, attitudes and values,” Governor Bob Graham commented. “We are a country that has prided itself on being open to the world. With the exception of the indigenous Indians, all of us are the product of immigration. On the other hand we, in this century, have felt it necessary to bring that process under greater...

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27. Indictments, Threats, and Retrospections

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pp. 247-254

A month prior to Castro’s edict halting the Mariel exodus, Piñón received information from a source who had infiltrated an August 1980 meeting in Mexico’s Cuban Embassy, where he had learned of additional Mariel-related activities planned by the Cuban government. Piñón said the meeting was held at the embassy because Cuba’s DGI did not want U.S. intelligence to know about...

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pp. 255-256

In spite of the politicking, bloodshed, tyranny, and anger that accompanied Fidel Castro’s subversive and inhumane agendas, the Mariel Boatlift became more than just a blight on the Carter administration and a dark chapter in Florida history. It transformed into a new beginning for fortunate souls who fled the island nation’s poverty and oppression. It became the beginning of endless...

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pp. 257-258

The year 2010 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Mariel Boatlift of 1980. In 1990, I took a trip to Key West—kind of out of reverie. The Truman Annex administration building is now a condo complex called Mills Place, but the architect obviously treasured history, as he kept the character of the building, including the words “Administration Building, U.S. Naval Station, U.S. Naval...

Appendix A. List of People Involved

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pp. 259-268

Appendix B. Organizational Abbreviations

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pp. 269-270

Appendix C. Minutes of Meetings between the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples and Wayne Smith, December 20, 1978; Minutes of Dialogues between the Government of the Republic of Cuba and Personalities Representative of the Cuban Community Abr

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pp. 271-300


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pp. 301-308


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pp. 309-316


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pp. 317-338


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p. 339-339

E-ISBN-13: 9780817387686
E-ISBN-10: 0817387684
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817318376
Print-ISBN-10: 0817318372

Page Count: 355
Illustrations: 27
Publication Year: 2014

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Mariel Boatlift, 1980.
  • Cubans -- Florida -- History -- 20th century.
  • Refugees -- Florida -- History -- 20th century.
  • Emergency management -- Florida.
  • Disaster relief -- Florida.
  • Interagency coordination -- United States.
  • United States -- Foreign relations -- Cuba.
  • Cuba -- Foreign relations -- United States.
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