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Mariel Port
In September 1994, hundreds of Cuban refugees aboard the USS Ashland in the Florida Straits await transport to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. (AP Photo)

Mariel Port
Margarita Uria Sanchez, right, hugs fellow refugee Teresa Fernandez, Jan. 31 1996. Sanchez was the last of 30,000 Cubans detained at Guantánamo and allowed to enter the United States. (Reuters Photo)

  The Mariel Boatlift

Bay of Pigs
By Aileen S. Yoo Staff
Updated December 1998

Once a naval station during British occupation in the 18th century, Mariel port became the focus of international attention in recent history when hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled in boats across the Atlantic to Florida 90 miles away.

The massive exodus of Cubans began on April 1, 1980, when a man seeking asylum rammed his vehicle through the gates of the Peruvian embassy. The event literally opened the floodgates as 10,000 Cubans, seeking relief from the harsh economic conditions, stormed the embassy. Under pressure, Fidel Castro eased restrictions on emigration, allowing anyone to leave from the Mariel port, 25 miles west of Havana.

In what President Jimmy Carter would call Freedom Flotillas, Cuban refugees living in the United States bought or chartered boats to travel the 90 miles between countries and transport about 125,000 "marielitos" over several weeks. In a move widely seen as an effort to embarrass the United States, Castro allowed 2,746 criminals, the mentally ill and other unwanted people among the refugees. Cuba agreed in 1984 to repatriate this group of Cubans. So far, 1,387 have returned home, according to U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service figures.

Debilitating economic conditions sparked another exodus of 30,000 Cubans in the summer of 1994. Faced with increasing anti-immigration sentiment in the United States, President Clinton announced in August that Cubans interdicted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard would be detained at Guantánamo Bay and repatriated to Cuba.

In September, the United States agreed to issue a minimum of 20,000 visas per year to Cuban immigrants while Cuba pledged to discourage would-be freedom seekers from Cuba's beaches. After strong criticism from the Cuban exile community in America and human rights groups, the Clinton administration policy was adjusted to allow those already detained at Guantánamo Bay into the United States. Up to this time, the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 automatically welcomed any Cuban fleeing their homeland. The 1994 policy change marked the end of an open-arms policy for Cubans fleeing their homeland.

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