Cuban boat people

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Cuban refugees spotted and rescued by Carnival Liberty in 2014.

Cuban boat people mainly refers to refugees who flee Cuba by boat and ship to the United States.[1][2]


Migrants from Cuba to the United States since the time Fidel Castro rose to power under a Communist regime, have strongly influenced U.S foreign policy concerns through special humanitarian provisions of the law, which has led to various public sentiments.[3][4][5]

First boat arrivals, 1961–1965[edit]

The first major wave of Cuban boat people came after the failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, which ended a "temporary exile status" period of commercial air travel between the United States and Cuba, which was positively received by the American public. This had seen a score of roughly 125,000 Cuban exiles reach U.S. soil that were to return upon an overthrown Castro regime that never happened.

During this time, the United States Coast Guard would make no attempt to turn back undocumented Cubans who were usually arriving in small boats.[3] Afterwards, Cubans who wished to come to the United States, would have to do so illegally by crossing the Florida Straits, or travel to other countries. Between 1962 and 1965 around 6,700 Cubans arrived in Florida in makeshift boats and other vessels. Emigrants were not given a process of migration until the Camarioca boatlift in 1965.[6]

"Marielitos" (1973–1980)[edit]

Two boats sailing during the Mariel Boatlift.

As relations with Cuba slowly and steadily improved, a foreign policy that enacted a migration intervention to begin a 7-year program of passages called the Mariel boatlift, which was perceived to 'aid Cuba at ridding itself of undesirables', was met with little public support. After stages of these initial trips, Vice President Walter Mondale of the Carter administration served to justify this political position by stating there "is no better proof of the failure of Castro's revolution than the dramatic exodus which is currently taking place."[3] There was a growing stigma that surrounded marielitos as they were not viewed as romantically as the initial exiles. Even though President Jimmy Carter welcomed migrants in with open arms,[7][8] it was not well received, as the image of a criminal grew rampant among the public eye, even though it were only about 10-20% of them. Castro had called these people the escoria ("scum") of his country: the "homosexuals, drug addicts, and gambling addicts".[8]

"Balseros" (1993–1995)[edit]

A Cuban migrant detained at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

After years of decline since the Mariel boatlift, a few thousand Cuban boat people had made their way to the U.S. in 1993 after a rise from a few hundred in 1989. After riots ensued in Havana after threatening speeches made by Castro in 1994, he announced that any Cuban who wished to leave the island could. Around 35,000 rafters left the island after the announcement and 40,000 Cubans in total were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard that year.[4]

U.S. President Bill Clinton announced that any rafters intercepted at sea would be detained [9][10] at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Around 31,000 rafters would be detained at the base, which became known as the Balsero crisis.[10] These "Balseros" (Spanish: rafters) as these boat people were known during this time, were known to wash up to shore at the Floridian coast on any conceivable thing that could float such as on wooden rafts or truck tires.[11]

Victims of "13 de Marzo" v. Cuba[edit]

A complaint was filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on July 19, 1994 regarding an old tugboat with 72 people on board, who were attempting to flee Cuba hours before dawn on July 13 [1994], who were attacked with pressurized water hose equipment just 7 miles off the coast of Cuba by 4 boats organized by the Cuban State. The boat named 13 de Marzo, eventually sank with a death toll of 41, which included 10 minors after the cries of women and children for it to stop were in vain.[12]

The Cuban government argued that 13 de Marzo was stolen at a dock and that authorities were attempting to intercept it. Days following the tragedy, the Cuban government were requested to recover the bodies from the bottom of the sea but declined citing the lack of experienced divers. Instead, a nonprofit organization named Hermanos al Rescate (Brothers to the Rescue), whose mission is to rescue boat people attempting to leave Cuba, made a request to the Cuban government to recover these bodies themselves but were denied.[12]

Wet feet, dry feet policy[edit]

In an attempt to control the influx of boat people, the Clinton administration agreed to grant 20,000 visas annually for Cubans who wished asylum, which became known as the wet feet, dry feet policy.[13][14]

End of an Era[edit]

Fearing that the end of the wet feet, dry feet policy was near after an announcement by Barack Obama in December 2014 regarding possible changes to the Cuban Adjustment Act, there was an increased concern by the U.S. Coast Guard about a possible spike in boat people, which they had intercepted an increased 117% more Cubans in 2014 than the previous year.[8]

In 2017, the wet feet, dry feet policy finally came to an end. Fewer Cubans attempted to make the journey to the United States. Those who manage to arrive in Florida would only be able to remain legally by applying for political asylum.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Cuban/Haitian Adjustment" (PDF). Library of Congress. 9 May 1984. p. 46 (first mention, but throughout). Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  2. ^ Neilson, Brett, ed. (1996). "Threshold procedures: Boat People in Western Australia and South Florida" (PDF). Institute for Culture & Society Pre-Print Journal Articles. pp. 6–7, 9. Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  3. ^ a b c Scanlan, John; Loescher, Gilburt (1983). "U. S. Foreign Policy, 1959-80: Impact on Refugee Flow from Cuba". The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 467: 116–137. JSTOR 1044932.
  4. ^ a b Wasem, Ruth Ellen, ed. (2 June 2009). "Cuban Migration to the United States: Policy and Trends" (PDF). Congressional Research Service. p. 1. Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  5. ^ Greenhill, Kelly M., ed. (2002). "Engineered Migration as a Coercive Instrument: The 1994 Cuban Balseros Crisis". MIT. Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  6. ^ "Cuban communities in the United States: migration waves, settlement patterns and socioeconomic diversity". Retrieved 2019-12-06.
  7. ^ Scheinman, Ronald S.; Zucker, Norman L. (24 May 1981). "Refugee Policy". Opinion. New York Times. Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  8. ^ a b c Brown, Hannah Mackenzie, ed. (2015). "The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966: Politics & Perception in Cuban Migration to the United States". Bard College. pp. 62–63, 75. Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  9. ^ Gunderson, Theodore B., ed. (2002). Immigration Policy in Turmoil. Nova Science Publisher. p. 161. ISBN 9781590331552. Retrieved 11 April 2021.
  10. ^ a b Rock, James, ed. (18 September 1994). "Rescued into limbo CRISIS IN THE CARIBBEAN". Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  11. ^ Neikirk William Atlas, Terry, ed. (2005). "Cuban Exiles in America". PBS. Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  12. ^ a b "Victims of the Tugboat "13 de Marzo" v. Cuba, Case 11.436, Report No. 47/96, Inter-Am.C.H.R.,OEA/Ser.L/V/II.95 Doc. 7 rev. at 127 (1997)". Human Rights Library. 16 October 1996. Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  13. ^ Greenhouse, Steven, ed. (21 May 1995). "How the Clinton Administration Reversed U.S. Policy on Cuban Refugees". New York Times. Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  14. ^ Press, ed. (20 August 1994). "Pulling Up The Welcome Mat". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  15. ^ Penton, Mario (29 January 2020). "Cubans are still arriving in Miami aboard rafts and speed boats". Miami Herald. Retrieved 10 April 2021.

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