30 years later, revisiting the Mariel boatlift

Miami’s Merle Frank never expected what followed after she asked President Jimmy Carter in 1980 how he could help her city with the mass of Cubans arriving on the Mariel boatlift.

“We’ll continue to provide an open heart and open arms,” Carter told Frank, then-head of the Miami League of Women Voters, during a League conference in Washington.

Fidel Castro took Carter at his widely reported word. Six days later, on May 11, Mariel set the one-day record for arrivals and newly freed criminals began boarding the boats.

No U.S. president, before or since, has tried as hard as Carter to establish normal relations with Castro. And none have been burned as badly.

The boatlift officially ended Sept. 26, 1980, when Cuban soldiers ordered the last 150 boats in Mariel to leave the port west of Havana, without passengers.

By that time, 125,000 Cubans had landed in Key West, Carter had secured his image as indecisive and Castro was boasting of another blow to the “empire.”

“Unfortunately, a democracy is at a disadvantage when a totalitarian regime decides to do something like this,” said Robert Pastor, the Carter White House’s point man on Cuba.

Carter already faced other crises when the Mariel boatlift erupted in April 1980 — the aftermath of the failed Iran hostage rescue raid and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

There were gasoline lines across America, Sen. Ted Kennedy was challenging Carter in the Democratic Party primaries and GOP presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan was gaining ground.

The key factor in the Mariel crisis, Pastor said, was the early on decision that Washington could not halt the boatlift without harsh measures that could endanger lives at sea.

“The truth is, once it was determined the only way we could stop the flow was to risk loss of life — and that was too high a price — we were never able to take control of events and after that we were just reacting,” he said.

But the problems went well beyond that decision, David W. Engstrom wrote in his 1997 book about Mariel, “Presidential Decision Making Adrift.”

The Carter administration initially considered the crisis a problem between Cuba and Peru, whose embassy in Havana was jammed with 10,000 asylum seekers, Engstrom wrote.

Then it waffled between trying to ensure the safety of the Cuban migrants and trying to avoid encouraging even more migration, he argued.

While the State Department was warning that the boatlift amounted to migrant smuggling and telling exiles that they were only helping Castro, the Coast Guard was urging exile boaters to carry enough life vests and file sailing plans.

Not until May 14 did Carter personally attend a meeting on the crisis, and no single federal agency was put in charge from the start, according to Engstrom.

“Governments were fighting with each other — Federal against state against county against city, and the decisions changed day by day,” recalled Sergio Piñon, then a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigator.

Then Carter made his May 5 comment during the question-and-answer period after a speech to the LWV, opening the floodgates to the Mariel exodus.

“At the time, we all looked at each other and basically agreed that he didn’t offer any specifics,” recalled Frank, a real estate agent. “But Castro must have said, ‘Oh, great. What an opportunity for us.’ ”

Carter later said he was misunderstood, and May 14 ordered the Coast Guard to stop all Cuba-bound boats. By the end of June, the flow of arrivals had slowed to a trickle, but the problems continued.

It took two months for the administration to decide to treat the arrivals as asylum seekers rather than refugees, to avoid setting a precedent that foreigners arriving by boat would be considered refugees.

State Department officials meanwhile argued that the boatlift was largely a domestic issue, while other U.S. departments wanted the State Department or the White House to take the lead.

“This was a unique emergency that was half foreign policy and half domestic policy, and involved a whole bunch of people who were not accustomed to working together,” said Pastor, now a professor at American University in Washington.

Carter initially refused direct negotiations with Castro, but later sent to Havana Pastor, then Latin America director at the White House’s National Security Council, and Peter Tarnoff, executive secretary at the State Department.

Mariel “was totally mishandled,” Engstrom quoted Stuart Eizenstat, Carter’s chief domestic policy adviser, as saying.

In the end, the boatlift helped spike what was the most determined effort by any U.S. president in half a century to resolve U.S.-Cuba hostilities.

“We should attempt to achieve normalization of our relations with Cuba,” Carter wrote in a secret Presidential Directive — in essence an order to his administration to work toward that goal — soon after he entered the White House.

He lifted all restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba, including tourism, and exchanged diplomatic missions known as Interests Sections in Havana and Washington.

Carter negotiated a 1977 agreement that delineated territorial waters and fishing rights, and agreed to take more than 3,000 former political prisoners released by Castro.

But he failed to persuade Cuba to pull its troops out of Angola — one of Carter’s key goals — and the last Cuban soldier did not leave Africa until 1991.

An analysis of the Mariel crisis carried out by the Reagan administration concluded that Mariel “destroyed any prospect of improved bilateral relations under President Carter.”