Cuba’s El Mariel Port: The Ironies of History

Dariela Aquique

Container terminal at the port of Mariel.

HAVANA TIMES — El Mariel is a typical bay on Cuba’s northern coast. Its point of entry is a considerably wide canal that can be crossed by large vessels. Today, the Cuban government has laid its bets on this place and the island looks to it as the hope of a more prosperous future.

Possibly the most important business center in the country has been set in motion at El Mariel. The port is connected to Havana via the Panamericana highway, which borders the island’s northern coast.

It is equipped with a dock and a container terminal, as well as shipyards for vessels of different sizes. A cement factory and power station are based there. New piers, warehouses, highways and railway lines are also under construction. The Mariel Special Development Zone (ZEDM) Regulations Office has already started operations. This office will receive and process applications from foreign investors interested in joining the project.

In short, El Mariel has become a platform for attracting foreign capital, impelling economic development, substituting imports, increasing exports, creating jobs and accessing modern technologies.

Availing itself of the enthusiasm generated by the prospects of Latin American integration, the government evinces its political savvy and demonstrates its ability to find patrons, something it has done very well for years and which has allowed it to remain afloat more than once.

This massive project is being implemented by Brazil’s Odebrecht construction company and has a budget of 682 million dollars, invested by Brazil’s National Economic and Social Development Bank.

Mariel refugees.

El Mariel, however, has been an important part of the Cuban economy since well before the start of this project. This has to do with something of an ironic twist of history. We shouldn’t forget that family remittances are one of the pillars of Cuba’s precarious domestic economy and El Mariel was the stage of one of the largest exoduses in Cuban history.

The port never enjoyed more attention that it did between April 15 and October 31 of 1980, when the “Mariel Exodus” took place. It was a mass migration of Cubans that left for the United States from this port, on the ships of relatives and friends who came to look for them.

The Mariel Exodus lasted six months. During this time, more than 125,000 Cubans left the country on vessels arriving from US coasts.

According to data compiled by the Immigration and Foreign Affairs Bureau, this exodus was far larger than the one that took place in Camariocas in 1965, when around 30 thousand Cubans also left in masse for the United States.

Those who left the island from the Mariel port are known in Cuba as “marielitos.” The men and women of all ages who emigrated then have worked for these past 34 years to support their families and friends in Cuba. The money they send has sustained and continues to sustain the family economies of many.

Because of the inflow of foreign capital ensured by the Mariel Special Development Zone and the many dollars sent by those who once set sail from this bay (then referred to as “lumpens” and “scum”), the importance of the Mariel port is undeniable.

The Mariel port, to a greater or lesser extent and in highly different ways, would seem destined to be a pillar of Cuba’s economy. These are the ironies of history.

Dariela Aquique

Dariela Aquique: I remember my years as a high school student, especially that teacher who would interrupt the reading of works and who with surprising histrionics spoke of the real possibilities of knowing more about the truth of a country through its writers than through historical chronicles. From there came my passion for writing and literature. I had excellent teachers (sure, those were not the days of the Fast-track Teachers) and extemporization and the non-mastery of subjects was not tolerated. With humble pretenses, I want to contribute to revealing the truth about my country, where reality always overcomes fiction, but where a novel style shrouds its existence.

11 thoughts on “Cuba’s El Mariel Port: The Ironies of History

  • September 17, 2014 at 7:06 am

    For valid reasons – sentences, parole, … – people can be denied the right to travel.

    In Cuba all people are denied the real right to travel. Even after the last change in the law that hasn’t changed. the system of control has changed: before people had to get an exit visa, now they need to get a new passport that is “flagged” when they aren’t allowed to leave. those are people that are not on parole, that have committed no crimes, that have no debts, …

    See this case of a doctor:

    “olo por ser profesional es rehén?
    [11-07-2014 10:03:20]
    Jennifer Fonseca Padrón
    Activista y Periodista Independiente”

    The Cuban regime still has the law of “illegal exit” on the books:

  • September 16, 2014 at 10:46 pm

    Tens of millions of people in the USA do NOT have the right to travel outside of the USA. Minor drug offenses, unpaid debts are just two reasons why tens of millions of people in the USA cannot leave the USA.

    In Cuba, today, according to news reports, every citizen in that country can get a passport and is free to leave to travel to other countries.

    The corporate media in the USA does not report on obvious facts that most people in the USA know about, which is the tens of millions of people here in the USA who CANNOT travel to other countries because they are prohibited by the government of the USA from doing so.

  • June 19, 2014 at 9:32 am

    Don’t misrepresent my words, John.
    I said “Cubans should have had the right to freely travel all along”.
    If they had – and they still have not – it would be a part of the end of the dictatorship that would allow the lifting of all sanctions.
    First change, then the end of sanctions. That is how it works.

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