The Mariel Boatlift: How Cold War Politics Drove Thousands of Cubans to Florida in 1980 - HISTORY

Cuban refugees at Eglin Air Frorce Base in May 1980 following the Mariel boatlift.

'Marielitos' Represented New Kinds of Cuban Americans

The arriving refugees faced a dearth of support from their new host country. Amalia Dache, assistant professor in higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, says so-called 'Marielito' refugees were granted less time to be on refugee assistance and given less employment, education and federal assistance than previous Cuban exiles.

“Marielitos differentiated from other Cubans in several aspects: they were of darker skin and there was also a part of the community that was homosexual—at the time, it was the 1980s, there was still a huge stigma in Cuba about homosexuality. So that part of the Marielitos conditioned the U.S. media to seeing them as this dark group, in various senses like with sexuality, race, criminalization—think about ‘Scarface’—those are the kinds of negative attributes they were choosing to use to categorize Marielitos.”

'Marielitos' Change Image of Cuban Migration

The Afro Cuban, working class, LGBTQ, formerly incarcerated and former mental institute patients who were all part of the Mariel Boatlift transformed the image of Cuban migration to the United States. Miami, Florida’s already-established Cuban American community had to find a way to incorporate the Marielitos, and later the more than 35,000 Balsero Cubans who immigrated in 1994 (many on makeshift rafts), into their ranks.

Ultimately, the Cuban Americans who immigrated to the United States during the Mariel Boatlift and later carved out a broader understanding of Cuba, its people and the islands’ politics. In the 1980 U.S. Information Agency documentary “In Their Own Words,” Cuban refugees spoke about having survived the Mariel Boatlift. 

Among those interviewed was novelist Reynaldo Arenas, who described his experience leaving Cuba for his new home country. 

"In reality, what I’m feeling isn’t in any way a victory, as if we are arriving with great happiness. But I can say that I feel at peace. I made it out and I’m alive," he said. "It’s the same feeling you get when your house burns down. You escaped…but still, the house burned down.”


“A 35 años de la embajada de Perú,” March 4, 2015, 14ymedio

Harry S. Truman: The Coming of the Cold War by Nicole L. Anslover, published by Taylor & Francis Group, 2013. 

“En recuerdo a un joven combatiente: Pedro Ortiz Cabrera,” April 3, 2010, Granma Año 14 / Número 93. 

The Impact of the Cold War on US-Cuban Economic Relations, 1946-1952, Library of Congress. 

“Pedro Ortiz Cabrera, una vida arrancada por el odio” by Reinier del Pino Cejas, Emisora Provincial Radio Artemisa, April 1, 2020. 

“Statement from the Revolutionary Government of Cuba.” El Gallo, vol. 12, no. 2, 1980, p. 3. JSTOR.

Cuba-cronología. Cinco siglos de historia, política y cultura by Leopoldo Fornés Bonavía, published by Editorial Verbum, 2008.

“In Their Own Words,” C-Span, Oct. 30, 1980.

“90 Miles,” written and directed by Juan Carlos Zaldivar, 2001.

“Refugee Act of 1980,” Kennedy, Edward M., The International Migration Review, vol. 15, no. 1/2, 1981, pp. 141–156. JSTOR.

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