Florida and the Mariel Boatlift of 1980: The First Twenty Days

Florida and the Mariel Boatlift of 1980: The First Twenty Days

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817318376
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 07/30/2014
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Kate Dupes Hawk has published articles on medical history and the Mariel Boatlift. She has developed three museums for the Florida National Guard Historical Foundation and was awarded the Commander’s Award for Civilian Service medal for her work on the Camp Blanding, Florida, Museum of World War II. Ron Villella retired as vice-president of Smith, Bryan & Myers, a lobbying firm in Tallahassee, Florida. He served as Florida Governor Bob Graham’s first director of administration. Adolfo Leyva de Varona is an associate professor at Florida State University-Panama in the Republic of Panama, where he teaches international relations and Latin American history. He is the author of Cuba: Assessing the Threat to U.S. Security and Propaganda and Reality: A Look at the U.S. Embargo against Castro's Cuba. Kristen Cifers is the executive editor and co-owner of Florida Media, Inc., where she has edited and published Florida Monthly Magazine, Florida Living, Florida Parks & Wildlife, Florida Fishing & Boating, and other periodicals.

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Florida and the Mariel Boatlift of 1980

The First Twenty Days

By Kate Dupes Hawk, Ron Villella, Adolfo Leyva de Varona, Kristen Cifers

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8768-6


The Origins of Castro and the Cuban Revolution

The Cuban revolutionary process that began with Fulgencio Batista's coup d'état against Cuba's constitutional president in 1952 was, at least until 1959, a popular uprising against the prototypical patriarchal Latin American dictator. Political, rather than economic and structural, factors were behind the emergence of revolutionary politics (del Águila 1984, 39).

According to a 1956 government analysis (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1956, 4), Cuba was "the most heavily capitalized country in Latin America," and its "networks of railways and highways blanket[ed] the country." Cuba's rates of investment and capital formation (15 to 18 percent) were often higher than those of many industrially developed countries. The rapidly expanding middle class included "an impressive class of entrepreneurs," while 23 percent of the working class was classified as skilled (23). Salaried workers received 66 percent of the national income (second highest in Latin America). This was reflected in the acquisition of consumer goods, in which Cuba was virtually unmatched in Latin America. It ranked first in ownership of televisions and second in cars, telephones, and radios (Marrero 1987, 19–20). Cuba also had one of the "highest nutritional standards in Latin America" and "comparatively high rankings in terms of social delivery," which made possible the lowest infant mortality rate (32/1,000) in the region. The island ranked third in the number of physicians, had a life expectancy of close to 60 years, and enjoyed a literacy rate of nearly 80 percent, considerably above the Latin American rate of around 50 percent (del Águila, 1984, 40). By the late 1950s, less than 40 percent of Cubans lived in the countryside or were engaged in rural activities—among the lowest averages in Latin America (Illán 1964, 33). Despite significant differences between urban and rural areas (due partly to large seasonal unemployment among sugar workers), only a very small minority of rural workers was engaged in subsistence agriculture. Moreover, Cuba did not suffer from the "feudal peonage" problem that was present in much of Latin America. While sugar was still pivotal in terms of exports, its participation in the overall economy had been reduced by the growth of manufacturing (25 percent of the national income in 1954) and achievements in agricultural diversification (in 1957, Cuba produced 75 percent of the food it consumed). Thus, while Cuba was still mostly a one-crop exporter (though increasingly less so), it was not a one-crop economy. All of these statistics indicate that "although inequalities in the social structure and distortions affected the pattern of economic development, neither the dual society nor the classic underdevelopment models applied to Cuban society" (Marrero 1987, 28).

In 1952, months before presidential elections, Batista, a candidate well behind in the polls, led a successful coup, promising to end the corruption and gang-related violence that permeated the Auténtico administrations and to hold future elections. Batista was not a newcomer to Cuban politics. He had been a major player since the days of the frustrated 1933 revolution. As head of the military, Batista ruled Cuba behind weak presidents from the end of the 1933 revolution to 1940, when he allowed a constitutional convention of all Cuban political groups (including communists) to produce a surprisingly progressive constitution. Afterward, Cuba experienced a period of constitutional rule that lasted until 1952 and included three administrations: that of Batista (1940–1944), whose coalition benefited from the "broad front" collaboration of the communists during World War II, and the presidential terms of President Ramón Grau (1944–1948) and Carlos Prío (1948–1952), both representing the Auténtico Party, a social democratic party representing the nationalist social democratic ideals of the 1933 revolution.

While most civil society groups and the two main parties, the Auténtico and the Ortodoxo (recently created by disillusioned Auténticos who promised to clean up Cuban politics), sought a negotiated way out for Batista after the 1952 coup, others plotted insurrection. On July 26, 1953, Fidel Castro, a relatively unknown Ortodoxo, led an unsuccessful 150-man attack on the Moncada army barracks without his party's authorization. Dozens died and Castro, although captured and sentenced to 15 years in prison, managed to obtain some national attention. The following year Batista held elections, but his control of the electoral board led his main opponent, Dr. Grau San Martín, to withdraw, and Batista became president with 50 percent voter abstention. In 1955, a committee of civic leaders sought new elections through a "civic dialogue," but Batista refused to participate. Later that year, university students created the Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil (Student Revolutionary Directorate), which became the leading urban organization fighting the regime. Meanwhile, Castro, favored by a general amnesty in 1955, left for Mexico to organize the 26th of July Movement organization ("M-26-7") and a guerrilla campaign.

Only 12 out of 81 men survived Castro's landing in Cuba in late 1956, but government reports of his death backfired when New York Times reporter Herbert Matthews interviewed Castro in 1957, portraying him as a "Cuban Robin Hood" and exaggerating the strength of his forces. Meanwhile, a "loosely related" urban resistance movement with cells from the Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil, the Ortodoxos, the Auténticos, and the urban wing of the M-26-7 became the backbone of the anti-Batista struggle, giving Castro time to strengthen his position in the mountains while sporadically attacking the army with hit-and-run tactics. Other plots now multiplied: in April 1956, the Montecristi conspiracy of army officers was uncovered; an attack on the Goicuría army barracks by the Auténticos failed, and on March 12, 1957, the Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil attacked the presidential palace and nearly killed Batista. Instead, the head of the Revolutionary Directorate, José Antonio Echeverría, was killed.

In March 1958, reacting to the growing bloodshed, the United States imposed an arms embargo to pressure Batista to end repression and hold elections. Many businessmen and wealthy families, such as the Bacardis, were now bankrolling the opposition. A military offensive by Batista in mid-1958 fell dramatically, and a final mediation by the church to convince the opposition to participate in the 1958 elections went unheeded by most groups, giving Batista's handpicked candidate an easy victory. Yet military conspiracies and the growing success of military operations by the urban and rural guerrillas, as well as increasing U.S. pressures and the army's virtual refusal to fight, forced Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista to flee Cuba at dawn on January 1, 1959.


Batista's sudden departure caught most political parties divided and in disarray. Those who had participated in the November 3, 1958, elections were discredited. The Auténticos were still demoralized from their failures while in power. The Ortodoxos, as well as the students' Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil members, were splintered, and many of them had joined the 26th of July Movement. Other insurrectionary organizations lacked the mystique and the organized cadres of Fidel Castro's movement (Suchlicki 1986, 155–56).

Staying out of power for the first few weeks, Castro handpicked the first provisional president, former judge Manuel Urrutia, who appointed a civilian cabinet composed mainly of prominent and moderate anti-Batista political figures (H. Thomas 1971, 1065–67). Urrutia tore down Batista's governmental structure, dissolving Congress and removing from office all governors, mayors, and municipal councilmen. Yet Castro complained of the reforms' slowness and announced new public policies without consulting the cabinet, making it obvious that power rested with him. This led Urrutia's prime minister, Miró Cardona, to resign in favor of Castro, who accelerated reforms and prosecution of Batista collaborators in public "revolutionary tribunals." Hundreds were executed summarily. Faced with mounting national and international criticism, the regime ended these public trials but continued them privately (Suchlicki 1986, 156–57).

During its first months in power, the revolutionary government redistributed wealth in favor of the urban popular sectors through populist measures such as reductions in utility rates, freezing of urban rents, and changes in the tax structure. Some rural sectors benefited from the agrarian reform laws of May 1959, which established a maximum ownership of 988 acres. The confiscated property, to be compensated through 20-year bonds, was intended to favor squatters, sharecroppers, and renters, who were to be provided with credits and technical assistance (del Águila 1984, 46). However, most of the land was not distributed as promised but rather organized into farming and sugar cooperatives under the National Institute for Agrarian Reform.

Some of the early government decrees affected sizable U.S. interests in Cuba: the takeover of the Cuban Telegraph and Telephone Company, the government-ordered rate reductions for the U.S.-owned Cuban Electric Company, and the large tracts of land confiscated from American companies. While the United States insisted on adequate and prompt compensation, it did not dispute Cuba's right to the expropriations (Domínguez 1989, 19). The United States had recognized the Cuban government on January 7, 1959, and signaled its desire for good relations by replacing Ambassador Earl Smith with an experienced career diplomat fluent in Spanish, Philip Bonsal. Although Castro had already harped on "anti-Cuban" American interests and past "U.S. imperialist actions," Bonsal recommended patience and forbearance with Castro's anti-American "posturing" (H. Thomas 1971, 1207). Castro publicly sustained the image that Cuba was carrying out a humanist, liberal revolution: "It is not red but olive green" (Revolución, May 22, 1959).

In March 1959, Castro accepted an invitation to address the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) in Washington, D.C. Even though it was an informal visit, the State Department and Secretary of State Christian Herter honored Castro with a lunch, and Vice President Richard Nixon met with him for three hours. The State Department prepared to negotiate with Castro regarding an anticipated request for economic aid. Yet when Castro arrived, he instructed his startled economic team not to ask for aid. In his first press conference, Castro said, "We are proud to be independent and we have no intention of asking anyone for anything" (Revolución, April 17, 1959). According to Central Bank president Felipe Pazos, State Department and International Monetary Fund (IMF) officials were "more than willing, anxious, avid, desperate to discuss aid." The Cuban officials' courteous evasions perplexed U.S. representatives (Domínguez 1989, 18).

From Washington, Castro toured Latin America and attended the economic council meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Punta del Este, Uruguay. Attempting to speak for Latin America, he called on the United States to provide a $30 billion loan over 10 years for economic development in Latin America (H. Thomas 1971, 1213). This astronomical figure, Castro's combative "us" versus "them" approach, and his refusal to discuss U.S. aid while in Washington raised many eyebrows within the Eisenhower administration.

In its initial populist, reformist stage, the Cuban revolution spread its influence throughout the Americas. Batista symbolized everything hated in the region: dictatorship, corruption, military involvement in politics, and repression of the opposition. For true democrats, the Cuban revolution represented a dramatic statement of popular will in a region struggling to create more open and just democratic societies. Thus, democratic leaders such as Venezuela's Rómulo Betancourt, Colombia's Alberto Lleras Camargo, and Costa Rica's José Figueres became enthusiastic supporters of the Cuban revolution. In turn, leftists in the region were impressed by the rapid succession of socioeconomic decrees, such as the agrarian and housing reforms, and other measures to improve income distribution. Also, the anti-U.S. attitude that Castro began to exploit, if slowly at first, would find great echo among many in Latin America's intellectual elite, even within the small ultranationalist segments of the right, who were historically anti-Yankee and culturally anti-Anglo. They echoed Castro's growing criticism of U.S. "imperialism" and supported his decision to confiscate U.S. firms operating in critical Cuban economy sectors.

Clearly, the remaining dictatorships in the region felt threatened by the Cuban revolution. Within months of Castro's victory, Havana was full of exiles from these dictatorships, seeking support from the government to confront their dictators. On the other hand, communist parties throughout the region, unaware of Castro's real intentions or ideology, had reason to worry about what appeared to be a non-Marxist social democratic revolutionary movement that would spark the masses' imagination and weaken their claim to revolutionary leadership.


Cuba's International Conflicts and Communist Regime

By mid-1959, the Cuban regime found itself in a widening clash with conservative Latin American governments, which were targeted by Cuban-trained and -financed Latin American exile groups. The first Cuban-supported military actions were against the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Panama, Guatemala, and Haiti. In the Dominican Republic, a rapidly defeated invading force contained numerous Cubans, including a Cuban army commandant. Liberal regimes like Venezuela's and Costa Rica's did not react to Cuba's activities until these were also perpetrated on moderate regimes in the area. Perception sharply changed when 84 guerrillas landed in Panama to fight against Ernesto de la Guardia's elected government. The group included only one Panamanian and one U.S. citizen; the rest were Cubans. Venezuelan president Rómulo Betancourt, a Cuban revolution supporter, confided to his friends that "Castro was becoming an evil influence in Latin America" (H. Thomas 1971, 1239). Convinced the Castro regime would eventually become a threat to his power, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo helped finance a plot by Cuban cattle ranchers to topple Castro, but it failed, and Trujillo's participation was loudly publicized (1238).

Responding to "the situation of international tension in the Caribbean," the foreign ministries of the OAS-Río Treaty member nations called a meeting. After many charges and countercharges, the concluding resolution called for the strict observation of the OAS's nonintervention principle. It instructed the council to prepare a list of possible cases that constituted a violation of the principle of nonintervention, as well as to study the relationship among existing regional tensions, human rights violations, and the lack of a true representative democracy (García Amador 1987, 18–19).

These resolutions were obviously directed at the Dominican Republic and even more so at Cuba, but Castro was not overconcerned with OAS resolutions. Since early 1959, Castro had criticized, often brutally, the OAS, its purposes, and its activities. In March 1960, Cuba announced it would no longer accept actions taken under the Río Treaty (Domínguez 1989).


By June 1959, the political situation in Cuba began to change radically. Castro dismissed most of his cabinet's moderate members. When President Urrutia expressed concern about the increasing number of communists named to government positions, Castro publicly accused Urrutia of inefficiency and of blackmailing the revolution by "fabricating" the story of communism to provoke U.S. aggression. Aghast at Castro's televised coup, Urrutia ignored his aides' pleas to resist and resigned (H. Thomas 1971, 1224–30).


Excerpted from Florida and the Mariel Boatlift of 1980 by Kate Dupes Hawk, Ron Villella, Adolfo Leyva de Varona, Kristen Cifers. Copyright © 2014 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents


Foreword by Senator Bob Graham,
Part I Castro's Anti-American Obsession,
1 - The Origins of Castro and the Cuban Revolution,
2 - Cuba's International Conflicts and Communist Regime,
3 - A Shift in Revolutionary Target and Rapprochement,
4 - The Events That Led to the Mariel Boatlift,
Part II The First Days,
5 - Monday, April 21, 1980—The Beginning of the End,
6 - Tuesday, April 22—Decision Making Adrift,
7 - Wednesday, April 23—Systems a "Go",
8 - Thursday, April 24—White House Complexity and Confusion,
9 - Friday, April 25—Miami to Mariel,
10 - Saturday, April 26—And the Boatlift Is On,
11 - Sunday, April 27—The Hand of God,
12 - Monday, April 28—The Feds Are Coming, the Feds Are Coming,
13 - Tuesday, April 29—A Momentary Honeymoon,
14 - Wednesday, April 30—Agency Games Begin,
15 - Thursday, May 1—The Sublime and the Ridiculous,
16 - Friday, May 2—Assessment, Assessment,
17 - Saturday, May 3—Chaos to Confusion,
18 - Sunday, May 4—One Potato, Two Potato,
19 - Monday, May 5—All the Ships at Sea,
20 - Tuesday, May 6—The Mixed Blessing,
21 - Wednesday, May 7—Marines, Winn-Dixie, and Bologna,
22 - Thursday, May 8—The Witching Hour,
23 - Friday, May 9—Checkmate,
24 - Saturday, May 10—Yet Another Try,
25 - May 1980 and Beyond—The End of the First Wave,
Part III Mariel—The Legacy,
26 - The Mariel Boatlift's Impacts,
27 - Indictments, Threats, and Retrospections,
Appendix A. List of People Involved,
Appendix B. Organizational Abbreviations,
Appendix C. Minutes of Meetings of ICAP with Wayne Smith and the Committee of 75,

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