Mariel Boatlift Thirty Years After

HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 13 — Thirty years ago a dramatic situation occurred at the Peruvian Embassy in Havana that led to the Mariel boatlift and the spontaneous emigration of around 125,000 Cubans to the United States.  Aurora Arrue recounts her unforgettable experience.


By Aurora Arrue (*)
[email protected]

Mariel Refugees 1980. Photo: Robert L. Scheina,

The radio station was the Voice of the America.  The news was constantly repeated: ‘‘Thousands of Cubans seeking asylum at the Peruvian Embassy in Havana.”  And the numbers grew.

Raquel, my mother-in-law, was visiting someone in the Miramar neighborhood, not far from that embassy.  She was the one who first heard the rumors.  Resolved to seek asylum, she called us insistently.  She wanted us to go with her.

I couldn’t believe it.  That some people had even entered by force, yes.  This wasn’t the first time.  But now they had withdrawn the Cuban guards for two days; that seemed impossible.

Despite my skepticism, we decided to confirm the situation late that night.  My husband Enrique called my younger brother Adrian, and the three of us left from Cojimar for Havana.  I said goodbye to my father with a ‘‘see you later,” thinking that we would return in a few hours.

Something sordid was in the air.  The corner of Aguila and Neptuno Street was darker than ever.  People didn’t stop packing into buses, especially the ones heading in the direction of the Playa/Miramar area.

We finally arrived and meet up with Raquel.

We took another bus whose passengers all got off at the bus stop closest to the embassy; this happened with all of the buses.

We didn’t know exactly what direction to walk in, but we didn’t have to; there was a procession moving quickly and silently with people almost running through those endless streets.

The area around the Peruvian headquarters had no light.  It was total darkness.  People desperately looked for places to get in onto the grounds, ways to climb up over the fence.  When things reached their extreme, the gate was forcibly opened.  “Do you want in?” someone asked us.  People held me in the air from the street side of the property and others received me on the embassy side – my feet never touched the gate.  I landed on my feet in the garden of the embassy, where grass had already become scarce.  I felt the mud on my feet and the dampness of the night through my sandals.  It was after midnight, maybe even past 1:00 a.m.  Minutes later it began to rain, and not just drops of water, but sticks, stones and other objects – anything that hurt.  There were gunshots in the air, people losing their cool, screams and terror.  Soldiers and the police circled the area.

We were some of the last ones to get in.

Afraid, we spent the night standing, hugging each other and protecting our heads.  The four of us were squeezed tightly together.  We could barely move.

Dawn finally came.  The garden of the Embassy of Peru was sowed with bodies.  A dense mass of people had flooded the front and sides, even sitting on the eaves of the roof and in each of the trees around the building.

Accustomed to running across the same faces of friends everywhere in Havana, here —to my surprise— I didn’t know anyone.  Where had all these people come from?

Instead of a shelter, the place seemed more like a trap, the end of everything.

It was only the first day, Sunday, April 6, and we were already exhausted.  We had nothing to eat or drink, and had barely closed our eyes.  And this was not to mention our nerves!  We tried to make more room to breathe.  But where?  Every inch of space was coved, packed with people.

By the afternoon I couldn’t take the thirst any more.  Somehow I was able to find some water and I drank until I was satisfied.  Someone showed me where the women’s restroom was, at the back of the yard.  To enter, I had to walk down a couple of steps.  But when I entered, I stood there paralyzed: an open empty room had turned into a pond full of urine and excrement from a whole day of hundreds of desperate women, like me.  I had no other alternative than to step down into it, soaking my feet and sandals.

On the following day, or the day after that, they gave us a signed slip that would allow us to leave for 12 or 24 hours and then be able to get back in.  We took the risk.  It was the only way to bring back some food and medicine to be able to survive whatever was to come.

Upon our return, they painstakingly registered us in when we arrived at the entry post.  They took away any cans or bottles, but we could bring in candy or crackers bought on the black market, or vitamins sent by relatives in the community.  Since we couldn’t go in with a flask of milk of magnesia, we had to drink it there on the spot.

The days passed.

The trees soon had no leaves, no branches.  The former green lawn became a slippery bog.  Every day we were dirtier, hungrier and more tired.  We were like shipwrecked castaways in a garden, waiting for a miracle – one that would allow us to emigrate anywhere.

We lived terrified of those who were outside and fearful of those within.

Some people lost their shirts.  Some people fashioned knives out of tin.  Anything was done to survive.  There was too much hunger, too much anger and more than enough violence.  One day the rumor began circulating that government agents had infiltrated our ranks to create problems among us.  Unaware of that rumor, my brother Adrian got the idea to clean his tennis shoes in the bathroom (a group of latrines recently installed in a row near the front of the embassy).  When my brother finished and was seen wearing almost white shoes, I don’t know how many men prepared to jump him shouting ‘‘Infiltrator!”  Fortunately, several of his friends from Cojimar intervened at that very moment.  They saved his life.

The days were hot, though sometimes it rained.  The nights were cold however, like it almost always is in April in Havana.  There was never enough space to lie down.  At best, the four of us would sit back-to-back on the ground, laying our heads on the shoulder of the person behind us.  During the day, we couldn’t leave that spot; it was our place.  At least one of us had to stay there at all times to protect the area, our sole little patch of earth.

My family of four lived on a few pieces of candy.  The crackers had disappeared early on.  They sometimes distributed yogurt and that day there was a veritable fiesta.  They distributed cardboard boxes of food: some rice and an egg.  Those boxes were passed in by the Cuban authorities through the fence.  But to get to the fence was a superhuman feat, and to get one of the very few boxes was something more dangerous still.  The police often took pleasure in tossing boxes into the air to enjoy the ensuing fights.  On one occasion a box landed on Adrian, who was laying down guarding our spot.  He was able to eat a little, but people immediately pounced on both him and it, fighting over the scattered grains of rice.  They almost crushed him.

The pathetic spectacle of “dinner hour” was filmed again and again.  Those were the perfect images for propaganda against the asylum seekers, those who would be seen on television by people here, those who would be seen in documentaries around the world.  These were images for the manipulation of history.

On our side of the fence there were also unforgettable scenes.  It’s a shame that those film directors didn’t shoot the insides of the latrines.  If toilet paper had been non-existent in our homes for years, what could have been expected under those conditions?  The problem was resolved with the only paper available: money.  Bills of all denominations plastered the walls and floors.  The images of our revolutionary martyrs, renowned leaders of our nation, were covered in shit.

Since it was nearly impossible to move from our piece of ground, we became very familiar with the people around us, like neighbors.  We kept each other abreast of all the rumors.  We knew that it was necessary to hang in.  It was being said that the Peruvian officials had agreed to give us asylum, but it wasn’t official.

The ambassador and the embassy employees came and went.  Grateful, we applauded them when we saw them.  But one day they left and didn’t return.

The fear increased. What were they going to do with us?

We tried to walk, to clear a path in the crowd.  We wanted to find out what was being said in other areas of the yard, to find some friend with whom we could share information.

There were all types of people, ones of all ages, mostly men and some children.  There were whole families, without hygienic conditions, without rest, without food.  People began to get sick and pass out.

I don’t know how many days lapsed.  Ten?

As the situation was untenable, the attempt at negotiations began on loudspeakers.  The Cuban government committed to give permission to anyone to leave the country if they would also leave the embassy.

The loudspeakers stated the same thing repeatedly.

But there was a lot of fear.  Would they throw us in jail once we were out?  Would they send us to work camps in the countryside?  Of course our lives would never be the same.  If the promise of asylum turned out to be a lie, the government would surely take reprisals.

The four of us decided to take the risk.  By that time we were too sick of everything, too weak, too worried.

We waited until the middle of the night, to avoid the crowds in the street, and we asked for safe-conduct.

When leaving, they separated us and made us cut through a thicket in complete darkness.  Gunshots, barking dogs and strange noises were heard.  In the distance we could see some lights.

At that hour they then took our photos and made us fill out paperwork and more paperwork.

Finally they gave us gray passports to emigrate.

The soldiers made us get on a bus, just the four of us along with the driver.  It was cold.  At full speed, and with the windows and doors open, large pieces of iron were thrown at us from the street and from all directions.  We were lucky; none of them hit us.  Any one of those chunks of metal could have killed any one of us.

We hid in our house in Cojimar for almost a week.  I always kept turned away from the windows to avoid the looks of neighbors.   The thing was to try and make it seem like everything was normal.   We didn’t know for sure if the neighbors knew that we had been in the embassy…

During that period I burned the diaries of my youth, old letters from my friends, my cherished papers and my mementos.  I didn’t want to implicate anyone.

Only one great friend dared to come say goodbye to me, though I don’t blame the others.  Some would judge me, others were afraid.  Perhaps they were already on their jobs or in their schools chanting slogans against me.  That’s how it was at that time.  By then I had become “scum,” transformed into the enemy of my own family, of my own friends.

Although I was at home and being taken care of by my family, I found it difficult to recover.  I couldn’t stand food.  I lost more than ten pounds in a few days.  My mind was in limbo, in a strange fog.  I was very sad.

The fact was that I had never planned to leave Cuba.  I had never before imagined going into exile.  At 30 years old and being a university student, leaving the country was legally impossible.  I survived in the manner that was the most decent and that made me happy: within the rules of the game.  Like other youth of my generation, I had resigned myself to my karma.  I had lost my revolutionary adolescent fervor a long time earlier, but I continued there, wrapped in daily fears, in the paranoia of being heard, of being misinterpreted.  The country’s situation back then was a joke.  The slogans were only food for jokes, for that sarcastic and invincible Cuban humor.

On Monday, April 21, we received the promised telephone call.  We had to appear in two hours in the Abreu Fontan Social Center.

Enrique was in La Vibora at his parents’ house with his only brother.  The four of us would soon be at the center.

Everything was so quick.

I couldn’t say goodbye to my mother.  Nor was my father at home, him being so sick.  My other brother, a teacher in a rural school, was unaware of everything that had happened.  I could only hug my sister, who was clutching her one-year-old daughter in her arms.  It was my sister who was crying at the door of my house; that was my last image, the last good-bye.  From the car window I watched as she faded away.  Everything was wrapped in the deepest pain.  With it remained everything I loved: my family, my friends, my people, my city, my history.

When we arrived at Abreu Fontan, they asked for our papers and we immediately got on a bus.

We went to a port that was unknown to any of us.  There was a short line to board the next boat.  But since it was almost dark, they decided to leave the rest of the people for the following day.

There was only one tent in that place.  They told us women to go in and that the men would sleep under the stars.  Thanks to the guard’s negligence, I was able to sneak my brother in.  With his being 18, with long hair and his back turned in the darkness, no one would discover him.  In this way I was able to protect Adrian the whole night.

We spent those hours between fear, nervousness and a great deal of noise from tools and voices.

At dawn the place was unrecognizable.  They had erected an entire camp with rows of tents.

More people arrived, but we were among the first group.  They boarded us on the first boat that docked there.

It was a deluxe Miami yacht, or maybe not

A family from Miami had come to pick up their relatives.  The rest of the passengers consisted of us: “people from the embassy.”  We crossed the Strait on board the Lollipop.  It was a sunny day, clear, perfect.  Havana gradually disappeared in the horizon; in fact, every trace of land disappeared.  Now there was only the wide sea, the other side of the sea.

Over the eight hours that the trip lasted, some people got seasick.  Others ate too much and it went down poorly.

The first lights.  It was night by the time we got to Cayo Hueso.

When getting off the boat they gave us a hamburger from McDonalds and an apple.  A short while later they put us on another bus to take us to Miami.

We were safe.  We were happy with having survived, confronting the country that would change our lives forever.

I was especially sad, very sad.  Maybe I would never see them again, my family, my friends.  Maybe I would never return to my city again.

On the trip to Miami, almost asleep, exhausted, leaning against the window, and along a totally dark highway, things were outlined that I had never before seen, unrecognizable things that didn’t stop: thousands of lights, intense lights of an electric orange, endless.


(*) A Havana Times translation of the original story published in Spanish by El Nuevo Herald newspaper.

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7 thoughts on “Mariel Boatlift Thirty Years After

  • Leaving Cuba was the best thing we did for the revolution…… They did not need us, neither want us. That is was they said. Please no hard feelings!

  • HT, Thanks for the translation and posting of this one-sided view of Cuba, which led so many to flee. It is refreshing to see a media in today’s Cuba open to print opposite views of Cuba’s revolution than those who lead it. It is heartening and most necessary for finding sane, effective ways to overcome root problems that a media opens debate, discussion, even offering possible solutions to what ails the country.
    What had been the policy of debate in public–what aids socialism and the revolution is permitted, what does not is not–is not palable; it is ineffective and anti-democratic, and thus not revolutionary.

  • Mark, don’t bother with Julio. He thinks Cuba before the Revolution was “free and democratic” and not owned by Uncle Sam. He has no historical perspective ans sense of context what-so-ever.

  • Mark
    Before Fidel Castro 50 years ago there was no such thing. So it is clear that this is happening because of them. I could go on an on but I think I have said enough in other posts here.

  • Julio: Seriously? Mariel was certainly a tragedy – but to lay the blame at the feet of “those in power in Cuba” is to express profound ignorance of the effects of U.S. policy toward Cuba, the economic embargo, sabotage, terrorism, etc., originating in the United States. As for those who are “lost at sea”, for every push-factor (primarily economic, the same factor that pushes hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans to attempt illegal entry into the U.S. each year), Cubans have the additional pull-factor of the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, granting residency & fast-track citizenship to any Cuban who sets foot on U.S. territory! Imagine how many Latin Americans would be at the U.S. border if they were guaranteed such treatment!

  • If Cuba can extricate herself from the ideology and system of state monopolism without reverting back to capitalism–that is, by becoming a socialist cooperative republic–she will indeed be a “Cuba with freedom for all.”

  • The dimensions of the human tragedy generated by those in power in Cuba must be so painful to so many Cubans!
    How many families divided, How many lost at sea maybe dying a tragic death. How many untold stories.
    One day we will be able to rebuild a Cuba for all a Cuba with freedom for all.

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