NY Times January 16, 2005

The Long Voyage From Mariel Ends


At dawn on May 11, 1980, the 20th day of the Mariel boatlift, a boat called America reached Key West, carrying on her three decks more than 700 Cuban refugees, about half of them looking suspiciously subdued and weary. Some, toothless and tattooed, wore crisp-looking khaki clothes bearing creases typical of clothing that has been folded and stored too long. They didn't cheer or cry and kept their eyes on the ground. To anyone paying attention it was obvious that these men had been in jail or in an asylum.

Others like them had arrived earlier in the boatlift and gone unnoticed by most Americans, though not by the authorities. But the America's arrival was captured on film and videotape by journalists alerted by a front-page article that day in The New York Times, reporting its departure from Mariel under a headline that said "retarded people and criminals" were being included in the boatlift. Almost immediately, the way Americans perceived the boatlift darkened, casting a pall on the future of the more than 125,000 Cubans - most of them law-abiding - who, by September of that year, would arrive in the United States.

For 25 years now, the Marielitos, as Mariel refugees were called, have quietly chipped away at the stereotype they were saddled with. According to American immigration statistics, more than 90 percent of them worked hard, paid taxes and stayed out of trouble, becoming like any other Cuban exile, except for one legal distinction.

The distinction was this: Up until last week, any Mariel refugee who had not become an American citizen or legal resident could be detained indefinitely after completing a jail term for even the smallest crime. The lack of normal relations with Cuba makes it impossible for them to be sent back, unless they were on a 1984 list that allowed for the deportation of 2,700 (most of whom have been deported). That deceptively small detail left many Mariel Cubans feeling stigmatized and especially vulnerable - no longer in Cuba but not fully accepted in the United States, either. In the eyes of the law, in fact, Marielitos had technically never reached American shores - they had simply been saved from the sea.

Last week the Supreme Court changed that, ruling that open-ended detention of Mariel Cubans was illegal. This may seem like the mere correction of an anachronism, affecting only the 750 people still in detention, but for Mariel Cubans it was a hugely important and emotional event: The highest court of the land they have chosen as their own has validated the status not only of those convicted of crimes but of all Cubans who in 1980 set sail for the United States.

That such a legal distinction could survive so long for a class of people defined only by the name of the port from which they sailed is a testament to the enduring power of a negative stereotype.

After May 11, 1980, editorial pages of The Miami Herald and other newspapers began to question the wisdom of uncontrolled immigration. It wasn't just a reaction to the hundreds of pictures taken that day. May 11 also broke all previous records for daily arrivals: 4,588 refugees aboard 58 boats. By nightfall, the total number of refugees that had been clocked in Key West since April 21, when the first boat arrived, had reached 37,000, a number equal to 10 percent of Miami's total population at the time.

Thus, the narrative of Mariel shifted from one in which thousands of Cubans were fleeing Communism in pursuit of freedom to one in which, in the words of the New York Times columnist James Reston, Fidel Castro was "exporting his failures."

Before the year was out, President Jimmy Carter had lost his bid for re-election; so had Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, in part because many of the refugees had ended up in his state, at Fort Chaffee. And the Mariel Cubans soon realized they were unwanted. Then, in 1983, came "Scarface," starring Al Pacino as the violent, cocaine-crazed Mariel refugee, Tony Montana. To this day, some Mariel Cubans don't admit that they left Cuba in 1980.

There is no doubt that Castro sent criminals in the boatlift. He did it, by most accounts, for three reasons: to get rid of malcontents and misfits; to try to show that those who wanted to abandon his revolution were the scum of society, not hardworking revolutionaries; and to punish the United States, as part of his longstanding antagonism toward Washington.

Statistics released by the Immigration and Naturalization Service at the time revealed that 600 people with serious mental problems and 1,200 who were suspected of committing serious crimes in Cuba were among the 125,000 Cubans who arrived in the boatlift. But, by 1987, 3,800 Mariel Cubans were serving sentences for crimes committed in the United States, and another 3,800 were in indefinite detention after completing sentences.

About 2,300 of those ended up in federal prisons in Oakdale, La., and Atlanta. In 1987, when the government announced that it was ready to resume the deportation of those included in the 1984 list, the detainees took over the prisons and rioted for days, ceasing only when the Justice Department agreed to establish review panels to examine each case and release those who were fit to rejoin society.

Though flawed, the panels freed thousands of people who otherwise would have languished in jail for life, including a woman named Agrispina Manzo Guevara, who was in detention for 11 years but had never been convicted of a crime in the United States; instead, her unruly behavior in detention camps and later in jail led her to be deemed a danger to society.

For Marielitos seeking an equal place among America's immigrants, the Supreme Court decision last week ends the final leg of a long journey. Twenty-five years after these Cubans left Mariel, they may have finally reached the shore.

Mirta Ojito, who arrived from Cuba in the Mariel boatlift, is the author of "Finding Mañana: a Memoir of a Cuban Exodus," to be published in April by the Penguin Press.