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.

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

  • 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:

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Tourism is a big part of Cuba’s economy .
    The gusanos’ money will always be welcome in supporting what I hope will be a democratic socialist Cuba.
    Were they at all principled however , they would not spend a cent in Cuba and like Moses and the GOUSA , keep trying to starve them to death………… or surrender .

  • The facts are as I stated them.
    The U.S. government and it’ allies in Europe and the corporate media and south Florida were all clamoring for the GOC to release all its prisoners because in their view , all prisoners in Cuba were there for political reasons.
    Any logical person understands that in every country there are murderers, are thieves, are rapists, are common criminals but when you run on emotion rather than logic all rationality goes out the window.
    So when the agreement was made between the two countries in which Cuba would release all its prisoners as requested/demanded and the U.S. would take these fine upstanding democracy- minded heroes and the U.S. reneged , they got exactly what they deserved but what they specifically asked for .
    The problem was that the GOUSA did not think that the Cubans would agree to such a deal and were , in no way, ready to take in those they knew to be largely common criminals.
    On the Peruvian embassy incident which was a corollary to the Mariel Boatlift, a busload of Cubans ran down a Cuban guard stationed at the Peruvian Embassy and killed him .
    Contrary to all other embassies in Havana , the Peruvian Embassy granted political asylum to these murderers.
    As soon as the word got out, others crowded onto the grounds and created all sorts of health and order problems as you can imagine.
    So the Peruvians, for whatever reasons of their own, decided to play a part in the propaganda war .
    And yes, the Cubans probably loaded every undesirable they could identify onto the boats coming from Florida and gave the GOUSA what they asked for.
    It was a win-win situation.
    The Cubans rid themselves of undesirables and the U.S. got boatloads of prospective Senators and Representatives and drug-dealers .
    That’s my partial take on Mariel and strictly from memory.
    Please tell me specifically where I am in error in your judgment and I will respond accordingly. .

  • You are correct .
    The US government should allow all U.S. citizens who wish to travel to Cuba to do so.
    The government of the USA should also make it cheaper and faster to get processed and approved at the U.S. Interests Section where now it takes something like 6 months pay and 18 months wait to find out whether or not you have been approved .
    Before the revolution, some 50,000 Cubans came to the USA annually,.
    Today that number is about half because of the DELIBERATE bottleneck at the USIS AND despite the “wet foot-dry foot” invitation which permits any Cuban to be admitted to the USA provided they risk their lives and those of their families to get that Cuban-only privilege.

  • Cubans should have had the right to freely travel all along, John.
    Not just some “temporary openings” in which they could risk their lives.

  • Oh Dariela you are so good.

    The vast majority of Cubans who left through el Mariel were decent people. It was so embarrassing for the Cuban government to see that 6 out of 10
    Cubans were ready to leave the country in one go that they came up with the macabre idea of carefully selecting the worse criminals from jail and sending them on the boats with the good families. One of them was my neighbor Andres, in jail for 15 years for stabbing; he was called by the prison guard and offered
    a free ride to a boat.

    How embarrassing for a government to realize that 6 out of 10 were ready and willing to leave.

    In regards to the new Business area in the port we have to see what happen, the Cuban people have been promised so many times a bright economic future, that this could be the next PPG.

  • You should remember that Cuba released all its so-called “political” prisoners on the condition that the U.S. would take them .
    Cuban authorities told the U.S. authorities and media the obvious truth: that the
    vast majority of the people in Cuban prisons were common criminals much as you’d find in any country’s prisons .
    The U.S. authorities, the corporate U.S. media and of course the Miami Crazies all insisted that every prisoner in Cuban custody was a clean-cut political prisoner .
    So Cuba released these common criminals and was hit with a crime wave when the U.S. reneged on the arranged deal to take them all and they roamed the streets of Havana and elsewhere committing the same crimes they were originally jailed for.
    When these “political” prisoners arrived in the States and were interrogated, they turned out to be…….. COMMON CRIMINALS or “lumpen and scum” as you wrote.
    Some stayed in custody in the U.S. for a great many years..
    The U.S., its corporate media and the counter-revolutionaries around the world all tried to embarrass Cuba and Fidel turned the table on them and made them pay for their lies and stupidity .
    As the world’s leading incarcerator, the U.S. is far better equipped to handle common criminals who are a drain on a socialist-style society and money-makers in some of the privatized U.S. prisons
    But then Fidel has always been smarter ( and more principled and moral) than any of the 10 U.S. presidents with whom he has had to deal and opening Mariel to all Florida boats was a brilliant foreign policy action on his part.
    You do not see the GOUSA telling the Cubans to make any more wholesale releases of “political” prisoners to U.S. care , do you ?

  • That is indeed an irony. That the Castro regime is now begging for those the regime once slurred as “gusanos” to return with their money to help keep the regime afloat is a very bitter irony indeed.

    In his brilliant memoir, “Before Night Falls”, the great Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas described how he escaped Cuba in the confusion of the Mariel exodus. The police were looking for him, trying to prevent him from leaving, yet he managed to sneak aboard a boat and sailed to freedom.

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