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Panelists Discuss Social and Racial Tensions in South Florida in the Wake of Cuba’s 1980 Mariel Boatlift

The Rockefeller Center co-hosted an event on the April 1980 Mariel Boatlift.
The Rockefeller Center co-hosted an event on the April 1980 Mariel Boatlift. By Owen A. Berger
By Jacob I. Buehler and Emmy M. Cho, Contributing Writers

Three professors spoke at a lecture Thursday on the effects of the April 1980 Mariel Boatlift — which brought more than 15,000 Cubans to Miami in a matter of weeks, and about 125,000 refugees by October of that year — on southern Florida's politics.

Florida International University Associate Professor of History Julio Capó, Jr., George Washington University Associate Professor of English Antonio López, and Rowan University Associate Professor of History Chanelle N. Rose, discussed how the boatlift increased racial and political tensions in the region.

Thursday’s lecture was hosted by Harvard’s Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, in collaboration with the Cuban Heritage Collection and the University of Miami Libraries.

In 1980, the United States agreed to accept thousands of refugees from Cuba through a so-called “Open Arms Policy,” in part as a way to improve its international image.

One of the policy’s effects was a more open stance toward immigration of LGBTQ individuals to America, according to Capó. Before 1980, the United States had largely prevented LGBTQ foreigners from entering the country.

Many of the Cuban immigrants — known as marielitos — were LGBTQ individuals. In part to avoid appearing inequitable in its acceptance of refugees, the U.S. adopted a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” up until 1990, when it officially repealed the law making sexuality a consideration in immigration.

Capó said that in response to the Boatlift, Fidel Castro developed a narrative regarding the mass exodus of civilians that worked to bolster a sense of elitist national pride, ordering criminals, prostitutes, members of the LGBTQ community, and the mentally ill to board boats to Miami.

“Castro claimed, ‘If somebody wants to leave Cuba and the Cuban Revolution, there must be something wrong with them. They must be defective in some way,’” Capó said. “In this way, the marielitos themselves became counter-revolutionary. He claimed that they were criminals.”

The Mariel boatlift exacerbated an already tense period in Miami’s racial landscape, according to Alejandro de la Fuente, a professor of Latin American history and economics at Harvard and the moderator of Thursday’s event. The murder of Arthur McDuffie, an unarmed Black man, by White and Latino police officers — who were subsequently acquitted — heightened racial tensions among African American, white, and Latino residents.

“The historic mass migration of Cuban exiles first fostered what many local civil rights activists viewed as a kind of compounded racism, as the U.S. government adopted a Cold War policy that indirectly elevated the social and political status of Cuban refugees over native born Blacks,” Rose said.

In an interview after the event, Rose highlighted the unique development of Miami’s racial hierarchy in the 1980s, in which African Americans — already beset by a lack of institutional and social support — felt diminished even further after the Boatlift.

“I would say that in 1980, Miami was the only city that actually had that kind of racial unrest,” Rose said. “This kind of tri-ethnic, racial hierarchy that was developing where, historically, especially since the revolution, African Americans had begun to feel like not just second class citizens, but now almost third class citizens.”

López encouraged students to explore Latinx studies courses in the Humanities and Social Sciences division at Harvard and elsewhere, particularly around Cuba and race contained in the archival holdings of the Boston area.

“There are many materials waiting to be researched on this topic,” he wrote in an email following the lecture.

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