The Summer of Mariel (Part 1)

Graffiti art of Tony Montana. (Credit: redleaf / Wikimedia Commons)

Graffiti art of Tony Montana. (Credit: redleaf / Wikimedia Commons)

By 1980 (35 years ago this summer), it was believed that all enemies of the Cuban Revolution were either dead, exiled or in jail.

On 1 April 1980, a public bus driver crashed a bus with all its passengers into the gates of the Peruvian embassy in Havana. A Cuban soldier on duty in front of the embassy was killed. The bus driver and passengers asked for political asylum. When the Cuban government requested the return of the asylum-seekers, the Peruvian ambassador refused to hand them over. Castro withdrew his armed protection from around the embassy building.

In less than a week, compelled by an unobstructed passage into the grounds of a foreign embassy, 10,000 Cubans flooded the Peruvian legation asking for political asylum.

At the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana during the May Day celebration of 1980, Fidel Castro instructed the crowd that in the past few months, a series of incidents had occurred in which Cubans had tried to force their entry into foreign embassies:

He who has no revolutionary genes, he who has no revolutionary blood, he who does not have a mind that can adapt to the idea of a revolution, he who does not have a heart that can adapt to the effort and heroism required by a revolution: We do not want them; we do not need them.[1]

The asylum seekers at the Peruvian embassy were “scum,” “limp-wrists” and “shameless creatures.” Castro announced that anyone who wanted to leave “for a country that will receive them” was free to do so through the sea port of Mariel, 20 miles west of Havana. President Jimmy Carter, responding to Castro, assured the world that the U.S. would accept the asylum-seekers with “open heart and opens arms.” After all, “ours was a country of refugees.”[2] Meanwhile in Florida, anxious families chartered boats and readied pleasure yachts to pick up relatives in Cuba.

A boat crowded with Cuban refugees arrives in Key West, Florida, during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift. (Credit: U.S. Department of Homeland Security)

A boat crowded with Cuban refugees arrives in Key West, Florida, during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift. (Credit: U.S. Department of Homeland Security)

In the flood of images of the Mariel refugees sailing across the Florida straits in the opening sequence of Scarface (1983), we observe not only a Cuban story, but also the shattered fragments of an American myth.

The voyage across the sea is part of our collective consciousness. If we could zoom into detail, jump into the pictured boats, we would be privy to eerily familiar scenes, echoes of treasured stories handed down through oral histories in generations of American families.

There among the human cargo of the “freedom flotilla” (the name used by the American press to refer to the Mariel fleet) is the face of a mentally handicapped young man with fearful eyes, who when asked whether he comes from a mental institution only mutters the word “embajada.”[3] (Spanish word for “embassy”; the prisoners and mental health patients had been told to say that they had come from the Peruvian embassy, otherwise the Americans would arrest them.)

Pale prisoners with close-cropped hair and rotten teeth line the ship railings. “This whole country is a prison,” says one of them, referring to Cuba. An elderly grandmother, surrounded by grandchildren, tearfully speaks: “I want to die … in a free country. There was never enough meat and good food for them.” A black man, an auto mechanic, holds up his callused hands for his fellow passengers to see: “Are these the working hands of scum?”[4] All reflections from a deep well of shared experience, a binding and holy past.

OG

Lobby card for the 1932 film Scarface. (Credit:  Wikimedia Commons)

Lobby card for the 1932 film Scarface. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

[1] Fidel Castro, “May Day Rally Speech 1980,” Castro Speech Data Base: Speeches, Interviews, Articles 1959-1996, LANIC, lanic.utexas.edu/la/cb/cuba/castro.html

[2] Robert Quirk, Fidel Castro (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1993), 809.

[3] Edward Schumacher, “Retarded People and Criminals Are Included in Cuban Exodus,” New York Times, May 10, 1980.

[4] Edward Schumacher, “The Long Journey of Hope From Mariel to Key West,” New York Times, May 20, 1980.

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