The Mariel Boatlift: Voting With Boats

It is said that freedom always wins when people are allowed to vote with their feet…they move from locations of high tyranny to places of relative freedom—always in very great numbers. 34 years ago today, on April 20, 1980, Fidel Castro announced that any Cubans who wanted to leave could do so without punishment from the port town of Mariel. In the clearest possible expression of their hatred of Castro’s rule, Cubans voted by boat. More than a hundred thousand took to rickety, makeshift vessels in what came to be known as the Mariel Boatlift. Americans in Miami grabbed whatever boats they could find to reunite with friends and relatives across the channel. Braving hurricane winds, exposure at sea, pirates and sharks, desperate refugees crowded aboard anything that floated, regardless of seaworthiness, because freedom seemed so worth it. At first the U.S. government of Jimmy Carter lived up to the ideals of the Statute of Liberty and embraced these refugees. The U.S. Coast Guard didn’t actually go to the port of Mariel to provide safe transportation for those eager to leave, but the U.S. armed services did a commendable job of rescuing many of those who became stranded on the high seas. After all, the U.S. had sanctioned Cuba for 20 years, condemning Castro’s regime for the brutality of his communist dictatorship, for the forced economic squalor and repression of free speech and civil liberties. The U.S. had even attempted to overthrow or assassinate Castro. So why wouldn’t Americans at least welcome those who tried to flee Cuba? Then the mood turned against refugees when it was rumored that Castro’s trick was to release “undesirables” from prisons and mental hospitals, sending them all to America. Jimmy Carter, in an election year, then agreed with Castro that they would both put …