A YEAR IN RETROSPECT
THE MARIEL EXODUS
A YEAR IN RETROSPECT
Silvia M. Unzueta
Special Projects Administrator for Refugee Affairs
Metropolitan Dade County Government
Office of the County Manager
Dade County Courthouse, Suite 911
Miami, FL 33130
This paper is an attempt to start unraveling the interrelation between the
Cuban "entrant", here called Marielitos, or Marieleros or persons from Mariel,
and the community life of Dade County, Florida, where most of the Marielitos
reside. Before their arrival, the population of Dade County was 35%
Hispanic, 16% Black American, and 49% White (Reference: Metro Dade County
Planning Department, 1979). The Black Americans are about equally divided
between those from the Islands and those from the deep South. After
their arrival, the Hispanic population increased by a half of a percent.
More than most other metropolitan areas, Dade County was a city of descendants
of immigrants or immigrants themselves.
The exodus of over 125,000 Cuban men, women and children started when more
than 10,800 Cubans moved into the grounds of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana,
on April 4, 1980, after the Cuban Government guards were removed from the
Peruvian Embassy. The word quickly spread throughout the island.
The removal of the guards was Castro's response to a dispute between the Cuban
and the Peruvian Governments, when the previous week a small group broke
into the Embassy seeking asylum.
At that time, no one predicted that the removal of the Cuban militia guard
from the Embassy was to be interpreted as anything but "teaching a lesson",
to Peruvian authorities. Instead, in less than twenty-four hours, over
10,800 Cubans jammed into the Embassy grounds seeking political asylum.
Dramatic photographs of crowded men, women and children in trees, and on the
Embassy roof without water, food and basic necessities hit the world press,
creating embarrassment, and pressure for their release. After extensive
third country negotiations and humanitarian requests from all over the world,
the Cuban Government agreed to allow the departure of Cubans holding the
Embassy. Peru, Spain and Costa Rica, along with the United States, agreed
to give refuge to the 10,800 Cubans seeking political asylum. During
these negotiations, spontaneous demonstrations of support by Cuban-Americans
throughout the United States, other countries and the world press, helped
to highlight the incident and eventually helped to achieve the release of
approximately 1,500 of the 10,800 originally in the Embassy. Upon the
arrival of the initial group in San Jose, Costa Rica, and Madrid, the Cubans
shared with the world media, the horrors lived while at the Embassy.
This exposure generated a negative opinion for the aging Cuban Revolution.
A few days later, in a skillful and talented show of strategy, Fidel Castro
announced the opening of the Port of Mariel and invited Cuban Americans to
come to Mariel, Cuba, and pick-up their relatives who wanted to leave the
island. The announcement was well- received by the Cuban-American community
which immediately began what appeared to be an endless flotilla through the
After a few weeks, it was evident that the Cuban Government had no intention
of fulfilling their promise. Instead, some individuals released from
jails and mental institutions became part of the human flow that constituted
the Mariel exodus. The "human avalanche" reached unprecedented numbers.
During the month of May, 88,817 Cubans arrived. This figure constitutes
the largest number of Cubans that arrived in any single previous year
During May, a number of other factors converged to create a very special
situation. President Carter stated that: "We will continue to provide
an open heart and open arms to refugees seeking freedom from Communist domination."
That statement was qualified less than a week later. Decisions surrounding
the handling of the Mariel exodus became entangled in the national political
In Dade County, the initial processing and housing of refugees was skillfully
handled by a handful of local, state and federal officials under the coordination
of Metropolitan Dade County Government. At Tamiami Park, a twenty-four
hour processing center was set up where more than 1,500 Cubans were scrutinized
by Immigration and naturalization Service, fingerprinted, x- rayed, and released
to family, friends and supportive others. Food, clothing, and shelter
were generously donated by individuals, local business, and civic groups.
The processing and housing operation involved more than 1,500 volunteers daily,
who worked day and night in a unique and heart warming show of care and goodwill.
The Tamiami Park opened its' doors on Monday, April 21st and operated until
the evening of Friday, May 9th, when the process was moved to an old hanger
near Opa-locka Airport.
That same month, a state of emergency was declared by the President and
the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was put into action.
FEMA is the arm of the federal government responsible for coping with natural
disasters and emergencies. FEMA's efforts were plagued by a lack of
staff with knowledge of the language and culture of the people arriving, changes
in personnel, policy inconsistencies, lack of clear direction, and clashes
among various federal agencies. A Cuban-Haitian Task Force was appointed
in a effort to guide federal efforts during the emergency.
Although many errors were committed and several criticism of the federal
management has been voiced throughout this process, many individuals were
served because of the work and dedication of workers and volunteers.
FEMA's presence, however, attempted to bring the needed federal dollars
and the recognition of the exodus as a national emergency. Meanwhile,
the Cuban Government had turned what had been a negative internal situation
for them into a serious emergency for some of us in the United States.
The masses of humanity continued arriving in Key West and other parts of Florida.
In Cuba, one of the results of Mariel was alleviating serious internal administrative
and political problems, and exporting a high risk population to its political
rival, the United States. The exodus freed jobs, houses, and prison
space for the Cuban establishment, and these were critically needed in the
island. The departure of dissidents and other marginal persons, relieved
Cuba from explosive internal pressure.
At this time, still in May, another phenomenon took place: FEMA opened four
refugee camps in Florida, Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin:
1. Eglin Air Force Base in Northwest Florida, housing 10,025.
This was the first camp, a city of tents.
2. Indian town Gap, in Pennsylvania with a population of 19,094 Cuban
3. Ft. McCoy, in Wisconsin, housing 14,243.
4. Ft. Chaffee in Ft. Smith, Arkansas with 19,060 refugees.
The continued human migration and the inability of authorities to cope with
the large numbers at their immediate point of arrival, offered little alternative
but to use these four military installations.
Life in camp began another chapter in the lives of these new immigrants.
Physical and psychological abuse, beatings and rapes were happening along
with riots as the weeks went by and many Cubans remained tangled-up in the
red tape of federal bureaucratic management. At one point in the month
of June, more than 62,000 Cubans were in the four camps.
The processing and resettlement of these individuals was delayed while diverse
Voluntary Resettlement Agencies (VOLAGS), in contract with the Department
of State, tried to seek and place the Cubans throughout the United States.
In expediting their placement, credentials and careful matching with potential
sponsors was not always followed. As a result, the rate of broken sponsorships
was estimated to be as high as 30% to 40% of those resettled. Most of
those without relatives and who had broken away from their sponsors or "padrinos",
gravitated to areas of high Hispanic populations. California, New York,
New Jersey, and Florida became primary targets where homeless Cubans sought
In the Miami, Dade County area, where the largest number is still being
concentrated, their presence created another emergency for public officials.
Emergency temporary housing measures included opening up the Orange Bowl
and making cots available to those with no place to stay. The Orange
Bowl was opened by the City of Miami in the second week of June. On
June 20th Metro Dade County obtained a special allocation from Washington
to feed refugees breakfast and one hot meal a day. Those staying at
the Orange Bowl were certified for food stamp assistance by HRS - Food Stamp
Division. But as the stadium is the home of the Miami Dolphins, the
City of Miami decided to establish another temporary facility erected by
July 21st: a tent city under a downtown expressway. Up to 800 Cubans
were housed in Tent City at one time, and more than 4,000 lived there during
the two months it was open. Tent City remained open until September
30, 1980. Simultaneously, with the operation of Tent City and the increasing
number of broken sponsorship, the wave of weekly hijackings of commercial
planes by Cubans, (up to three a day) made national headlines.
Reflecting on the Mariel Flotilla, it is clear that it's final chapter are
still unfolding. More than 3,000 still remain in Ft. Chaffee, now a
modern-day concentration camp, were men and a few women await the opportunity
to enjoy life in the United States. Efforts to relocate the last refugees
and close the camp have failed. Major communities heavily impacted by
the Mariel refugee population have demanded careful planning and screening
on the part of the federal agencies handling their resettlement.
Demographic Characteristics of the Mariel Refugees
One of the most severe problems surrounding the Mariel population has been
the lack of factual information as to the characteristics of the group.
In a brief six month period, 125,266 (Reference: Official figure released
by INS) Cubans entered the United States. Now, twelve months later,
accurate demographic information about the group remains unavailable.
To date, one of the few officials data released, is the one obtained of the
first 61,569 refugees who arrived and where processed in Miami.
Initial Group (Reference: John Lasseville) Processed in Miami, Fla.:
Males - 55.2%
Females - 44.8%
Age group 15-45 - 54.7%
Age group 23-35 - 29.2%
"Immediate Family" in U.S. - 28.5%
---TOTAL - 61,569
Key elements in the composition of this population are age, race, educational
level and family ties. Although no conclusive figures are available, individuals
familiar with the Mariel population place the umber of non-Whites as high
as 30% to 40%, and males making up approximately 60% to 70% of the population.
The average educational level is estimated to be between the 6th and the 9th
grade, with few of the arrivals being able to communicate in any language
Perhaps the most serious problem this group faces is a lack of attachment
to family and friends outside of Cuba. This lack of a support system
has often inhibited effective resettlement efforts.
Juan Clark, in "The 1980 Mariel Exodus: An Assessment and Prospect," estimate
that "about 50,000 men came without their families." He further estimates
that about 20,000 men were forced by the Cuban government to be separated
from their spouses in coming to the United States, in violation of their human
Dr. Jose Szapocznik, Director of CAMP, Cuban-American Adolescent Management
Program, University of Miami, Department of Psychiatry, Spanish Family Guidance
Center, which provided services to Cuban unaccompanied minors, reports their
total in the camps at 672. Of those more specific information was obtained
on 549 cases; of these:
55 or 10% were females
43% were non-white
18% have been or were in a marital or paired relationship
12% reported coming directly from jail
50% reported having been in jail at some point of their lives
59% reported having some relative in U.S., but only about half of these
could give any portion of an address.
Parental occupation and education was reported to be:
20% skilled labor
Szapocznik reports that a large portion of the interviewees appeared to
have poor adjustment to school. Sixty-five percent stated that they
had stopped going to school. The rough literacy assessment turned up
approximately 8% illiteracy rate.
Six of the 55 female minors stated that they thought or knew that they were
pregnant at the time of the interview. Fifty-six, or almost 10% of the
respondents reported sexual abuse, venereal disease or multiple sexual problems
in their recent or distant past.
Clinical judgements of a series of psychiatric symptoms and conditions reported
the following characteristics:
47% had experienced behavioral problems in Cuba
14% had experienced hallucinations
8% had experienced delusions
31% were or had been clinically depressed
22% had experienced suicidal tendencies
14% had made a suicide attempt
Although much political has been given to the criminal record of this population,
reliable information is not available. The Immigration and naturalization
Services had 1,761 or 1.4% in custody, charged with committing felonies and
other serious crimes in Cuba. Most of these remain in jails throughout
the United States, for crimes committed outside of the U.S. A total
of 23,927 were considered by INS as non-felon criminal and political prisoners,
representing 19.1% of the total arrivals. It is very unfortunate that
the two categories were lumped together into one total figure.
Much has also been said about the percentage of homosexuals in those arriving
from Mariel. However, no data is available as to the actual number of
homosexuals in the Mariel population.
The Mariel Boatlift ended in the same abrupt manner it had started, with
Fidel Castro's instruction on September 26, 1980, that boats waiting to pick
up relatives in Mariel Harbor return home empty. On September 26, the
exodus that had brought to our shores 125,266 Cuban men, women and children
in 2,011 boats and one airplane was concluded. In final negotiations
between the United States an Cuban officials, during the end of September,
the Cuban government advised the United States Interest Section in Havana
of an additional 600 Cubans stranded by the abrupt closure of Mariel, and
requested they be cleared for admission into the United States. The
U.S. accepted the Cuban government's request and agreed to bring these Cubans
to Miami, after careful screening by U.S. authorities in Havana. These
individuals were granted full "refugee status," they are not classified as
Throughout this paper reference is made to ‘refugees". Legally, the
individuals coming in the Mariel Flotilla have been granted the new administrative
category of "entrant". This technicality rendered them ineligible for
assistance available through the U.S. Refugee Act of 1980. Many experts
believe that the denial of refugee status to these people greatly contributed
to the many problems encountered a all levels. It was through the Fascell
- Stone Amendment to the Refugee Act of 1980, that special funding was authorized,
and in the form of cash assistance, reached the entrants during the latter
part of February 1981.
The Mariel experience dramatized the need to look at the U.S. immigration
laws and to re- evaluate the 1980 Refugee Act. The Select Commission
on Immigration felt a wave of public pressure as a direct result of Mariel.
The Commission's final report was issued in March 1981, in Washington, D.C.
The Commission made important recommendations in the area of U.S. Immigration.
Dade County, Florida
Official estimates put the number of Mariel refugees in the Dade County
area at over 90,000. Despite resettlement activities aimed at relocating
refugees out of this area, it is anticipated that many have not left Dade
County and many, resettled out of the State of Florida, have turned to it.
By the end of 1980, it was estimated that a large number of Cuban entrants
will be added to the total record in the U.S. Census, conducted April 1, 1980.
It becomes difficult to overstate the impact of this wave of refugees on
the social, economical and institutional framework of the Dade County community.
The emergency nature and the short span of time involved in the arrival of
many thousands of people has been particularly taxing to the existing governmental
entities, and to the residents of this community. Their arrival
coincided with an increasing flow of Haitians seeking freedom from Haiti and
Social security, driver license and food stamp offices became overwhelmed
by the great number of people requesting services. Lines at the INS
Office begin forming daily in the early hours of the orning. Medical
care demand at the County hospital and in community mental health centers
and other social service programs, has increased substantially.
Although the official unemployment figures for Dade County are reported
at 6.7% these exclude an estimated 50,800 unemployed Cuban/Haitian entrants
who increase the actual unemployment rate for the area to 13.0%. Many
of the Cubans require upgrading of their skills before they are able to find
As of mid March 1981, the Little Havana Manpower Agency reports 3,046 individuals
on a waiting list. Of these 2,893 o 94.9% are Mariel refugees.
The same agency reports having placed, from April 21 to March 1981, 2,165
persons in various jobs. Of these only 285 or 13.1% were Mariel refugees.
The above figures confirm the severe unemployment problems experienced by
the newly arrived group.
Dade County's rental housing market has a vacancy rate of less than 0.5%.
Overcrowding indexes in Hispanic communities was high even prior to the Mariel
influx. It was to these areas that many of the new refugees came adding
to the existing housing crunch. Rent has skyrocketed, further curtailing
the ability of the new arrivals to secure adequate and safe housing.
By the end of December, 1980, the Dade County public school system was hit
with approximately 13,800 Cuban children in grades K-12 (ages 5 to 17).
The children, fluent only in Spanish, came into an already overcrowded system
which continues to make every effort to respond to community needs, in spite
of severe funding constraints.
The increase of criminal activity has been one of more item often blamed
on the Mariel refugees. As of December 26, 1980, Unzueta reports that
of 163 Cubans charged an/or convicted felons housed in Dade County's main
jail 103 or 63.9% are Mariel refugees, 11 or 6.8% are Cuban ex- political
prisoners, and 47 or 29.1% are Cuban-Americans. Mariel refugees represented
9.8% of individuals in the main jail. In the Women's Detention Center,
where females either charged or convicted of felonies or misdemeanors are
housed Unzueta reports 8 or 4.6% Cuban-American women along with 8 or 4.6%
Mariel Cuban females and 7 homosexual Mariel males. Mariel refugee women
represent 4.6% of the total females, while Mariel homosexual men represent
4.0% of the total individuals housed in the Women's Detention Center on December
26, 1980. The increase in criminal activity has impacted heavily on
the entire Dade County judicial system.
While no specific data is available on the total number of Mariel deaths
a study was conducted by Unzueta of dead Mariel refugees who were taken to
Dade County's Medical Examiner Office. It is estimated that the Medical
Examiner's Office receives only 33.9% or one-third of all County deaths, and
all homicides and suicides. An analysis of the Medical Examiner's records
for the period between April 21, 1980 to March 31, 1981, indicates 101 Mariel
refugee cases came through this office.
Homicides represented fifty-seven or 56.4% of those cases, followed by natural
deaths, which represented twenty-three or 22.7%, accidents with eleven or
10.8% and ten or 9.9% suicides. Seventy-eight or 77.2% were white and
twenty-three or 22.7% were black. Eighty-eight or 87.1% were males,
while thirteen or 12.8% were females. The average age of the Mariel
cases was 41.8 years.
Metro Dade County's Involvement
The County's involvement began early as the coordinating entity in charge
of processing Cubans during the first nineteen days.
Throughout the past year, Metro Dade has worked hand in hand with the legislative
delegation and the Governor to lobby for the passage of the Fascell-Stone
The County's social delivery system has been, and continues to be, heavily
impacted with the Cubans who came through the Mariel-Key West Flotilla.
During 1980, Metro Dade County obtained a grant from the Department of Health
and Social Services - Office of Refugee Resettlement, for the purpose of implementing
a three phase program for Cuban and Haitian entrants.
The grant will address the following critical areas:
1. Development and implementation of a community and entrant need
assessment to determine specific needs faced by the Cuban and Haitian entrant
population, along with an evaluation of existing social service needs, their
present capabilities and need for future expansion. A Resources Directory
of services available to entrants will be compiled as a result of this survey.
2. Development and Implementation of Training Program for social services
and mental health professionals at various levels of government and
non-profit agencies to insure that existing and new services are known and
utilized. The training will familiarize approximately 200 participants
with the characteristics of the entrant population and review resources available
to serve them.
3. Development of a proposal application for a Comprehensive Individualized
Assessment Center where entrants exhibiting serious social and/or mental problems
would be administered a biosocial/psychological evaluation and channeled for
referral and resettlement to communities and programs where their individual
needs could be met.
The grant is scheduled to run twelve (12) months for the period from January
1, 1981 through December 31, 1981. Dr. Kay Flynn, Special Assistant
to the Director of the Department of Human Resources is the Project Director.
The publishing and release, in May, of the results of the assessment of
the needs of Dade County entrants will be a significant contribution to clarify
the needs of this population.
A Cuban Haitian Entrant Advisory Committee has been convened by the County
to address special issues and concerns related to the Entrants in Dade County.
The Committee, chaired by Assistant County Manager Sergio Pereira and staffed
by Silvia Unzueta, Special Projects Administrator for Refugee Affairs, is
made up of thirteen individuals who represent various levels of government,
the school system, religious groups and the community at large. The
bringing together of this Committee is a step in the right direction as better
communication and solution strategies are discussed and evaluated by various
levels of officials and community leaders.
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