The Summer of Mariel (Part 2)

Official logo of the videogame "Scarface:  The World is Yours," distributed by Vivendi Universal Games. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Official logo of the videogame “Scarface: The World is Yours,” distributed by Vivendi Universal Games. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the summer of 1980, in spite of race riots in Miami and the failed military mission to rescue the American hostages in Iran, the U.S. unleashed a vast and welcoming generosity upon the Mariel Cuban refugees.

Military planes carrying ambulances, trucks, tents, field kitchens, portable showers, mobile hospitals and tons of supplies were dispatched to refugee centers established in Florida and elsewhere across the nation. Refugees with families in the U.S. who could act as sponsors were quickly processed and released by immigration authorities. Those who confessed to crimes or prison histories in Cuba were sent to Federal Penitentiaries. Refugees who did not admit to felonies (confession was the only means of determining culpability), or who acknowledged crimes not considered serious in the U.S. (such as the crime of “killing a cow without government permission”), were held indefinitely in the camps.[1]

By 15 May 1980, over 46,000 Cuban refugees had landed in the U.S., a number that would swell to 125,000 by the end of that summer. 2,000 of them were violent criminals; 22,000 were “non-felonious criminals and political prisoners.”[2]  

In his right hand, Tony Montana wears the mark of Cain—a tattoo of a heart crossed by a banner on which the word “Mother” is written. The scar and tattoo are a double sign of destiny, of fate and ontological ancestry. Tony is one of the wild children of Fidel, a member of that generation of young men—born within the bosom of the revolution—whose intractable courage and ferocity in Castro’s jails won the admiration of hardened political prisoners. This Cain does not lament his fate, and is thrilled to have come to the Land of Nod.

I’m Tony Montana, a political prisoner from Cuba, and I want my fucking human rights. Montana claims to be a revolutionary; he considers himself one of Cuba’s political gangsters. Here is the curse and the fate of Scarface: an outlaw in the Communist system of Fidel Castro, he is also an outcast in the promised land of Jimmy Carter. Punctuating his lines with comic arm gestures, Tony speaks a warning:

Here, there, this, that, it don’t matter. There’s nothing you can do to me that Castro has not already done.

Tony’s time in Cuban prisons has flamed his fury towards a sacred vindication for misdeeds visited upon him. His holy war will have to wait. For now, he is sent to yet another holding camp, with the Orwellian name of Freedom Town.

Fidel Castro speaking in Havana, 1978. (Credit:  Marcelo Montecino / Wikimedia Commons)

Fidel Castro speaking in Havana, 1978. (Credit: Marcelo Montecino / Wikimedia Commons)

In Freedom Town, Scarface is offered a business proposition. In exchange for killing a former Castro torturer, Tony Montana and his friends will be sponsored and released from the detention center with jobs and green cards (the official document that allows immigrants to work legally in the U.S.). Tony’s reply reflects the attitude of Cubans who joined the ill-fated Brigade 2506 in the Bay of Pigs invasion: I kill a Communist for fun, but for a green card, I’m going to carve him up real nice.

In early June 1980, a full-scale riot took place in the Mariel refugee camp at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Hundreds of Cubans stormed the gates, shouted the slogan “¡Libertad!” and set fire to mess halls and supply rooms.[3] At Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, 200 Cubans jumped the fences and threw bricks and stones at the camp’s military guards.[4] The U.S. media understood that the refugees were protesting the uncertainties and delays of a clumsy resettlement process. But what the media did not see was the profound anxiety of the Mariel refugees at the possibility of being sent back to Cuba. The situation called for a fully committed public act, a categorical expression of refusal to accept repatriation after exodus.

This picture of violence and impending murder while heroes cry out ¡Libertad! is an emblem in miniature of Cuba’s cyclical political struggles: from the Great Wars of Independence to the 20th Century Revolutions, pursuing the demon pig of tyranny in the name of Freedom. And along with the killing of the pig the repeated illusion that you have won your freedom, and then the dissolution of that freedom by the very forces unleashed to kill the pig.

And so till the end of time an executioner jumps up to knife the pig, and the hog walks his death-walk as chaos triumphs, and falls bleeding and expiring to the ground. And the blood shed by the pig is lamented, and the blood spilled on the capitol and university steps is remembered for a while, and you think that this time you will really be free.


Taken on the Carnival Liberty in August 2014, Cuban refugees that built a raft and were rescued by the ship. (Credit:  Andrew Smith / Wikimedia Commons)

Taken on the Carnival Liberty in August 2014, Cuban refugees that built a raft and were rescued by the ship. (Credit: Andrew Smith / Wikimedia Commons)

[1] “We Want Out,” Time Magazine, June 9, 1980; Paul L. Montgomery, “1774 People Without a Country: Cuban Refugees Sit in U.S. Jails,” New York Times, December 7, 1980.

[2] Adrian Sainz, “Effects of Cuban boatlift felt 25 years later,” The Arizona Republic, April 10, 2005, A19.

[3] “Impatient for Freedom,” Time Magazine, June 16, 1980.

[4] “We Want Out,” Time Magazine, June 9, 1980.


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