Operation Boatlift/Exodus of Cuban Exiles

Published: 1980
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Fidel Castro is pictured in a October 10, 1979 file photo. (UPI Photo/FILE)

On April 5, 1980, about 750 Cubans gathered at the Peruvian embassy in Havana and said they wanted diplomatic asylum. The next day 10,000 people gathered at the embassy saying they too wanted to leave the country. A few days later when the Cuban government agreed to let them go, some Latin American countries said they would offer them asylum and resettlement. When the United States offered its hand, Operation Boatlift began and the waters between Cuba and Southern Florida became flooded with Cuban refugees.

Peter Donnelly: An impromptu exodus of Cuban refugees to key West Florida turned chaotic during May. Hundreds of refugees arrived nearly everyday by private boat. Some made it from Florida to a Cuban community in New Jersey. Through an interpretor, Leo Jiménez spoke about why he left Cuba.

Leo Jiménez: (Non English) They are very happy to be here. They are very happy to be in a land which is free. They could do anything they want.

Peter Donnelly: The refugee flood quickly became controversial. Yolanda Rodriguez, an official helping to resettle refugees said Fidel Castro was taking advantage of the situation.

Yolanda Rodriguez: Castro is sending whichever he wants to send people from prison, people from the mental institution which I know, he is sending all crazy people in here and we are going to deal with that.

Peter Donnelly: President Carter finally announced restrictions aimed at slowing down the sea-lift from Cuba. The Coast Guard impounded many boats and the boat operators faced heavy fines. This is Peter Donnelly reporting.

Nick Charles: By May 14, the situation started getting out of hand. Too many refugees were coming into the US. The slow processing procedure kept most of them confined to refugee camps and still Cubans kept arriving on privately-owned boats. United States took steps to limit the influx of refugees, seizing boats until the situation could be brought under control. By the time the sea-lift ended, more than 100,000 Cuban refugees had entered the United States.

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