Over the past 60 years, the U.S. Coast Guard has dealt with several mass migrations by sea. Many have involved Cuban refugees, which led one of the service's public affairs writers to note that Fidel Castro and the Coast Guard "are inseparable. You cannot discuss Castro without referring to the other."1 While many Americans are familiar with the 1980 mass Cuban migration known as the Mariel Boatlift, an incident of perhaps even greater importance took place earlier. The Camarioca Boatlift of 1965 foretold events to come. This humanitarian mission is little remembered, although its effects reverberate to this day.
In 1959 Fidel Castro successfully overthrew the Cuban government of Fulgencio Batista. By 1965, however, Castro faced growing unrest from the island's population. Many Cubans, especially members of the middle class, had become disillusioned with the economy and the government's turn to communism. Needing a way to defuse any potential internal problems, Castro announced his solution during a speech in Havana's Plaza de la Revolucion on 28 September 1965.
Cubans would be allowed to leave the country beginning 10 October provided relatives living in the United States filed a request. Family members' boats would then need to pick up the refugees at Camarioca. The small port on the north coast of Cuba lies almost directly across the Straits of Florida from Key West. Young men of military age—14 to 27—or necessary workers would not be allowed to leave, and those who departed would forfeit any Cuban land or property.2
Castro in effect planned to use refugees as a way to relieve pressure on his government. If the United States welcomed the Cubans, the influx might strain state and federal facilities in Florida, causing unrest and providing fodder for Castro's propaganda machine. If the American government refused the refugees, the Cuban dictator might well point out that the United States did not really welcome foreigners to its shores. The U.S. government, on the other hand, would try to spin the situation against Castro. Many of its press releases during the Camarioca Boatlift used phrases such as people "disenchanted," "longing for freedom," or "oppressed" and "ideals betrayed"—terms repeated in American newspaper articles. The U.S. press would be generally sympathetic to those who made the treacherous sea passage to "escape communism."3
The Coast Guard's Role
The U.S. Coast Guard had long patrolled the Gulf Stream waters off Florida, and after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, that was where its cutter crews began rescuing refugees from Cuba drifting helplessly in unseaworthy vessels. By 1961 one of the routes taken by some Cubans attempting to flee to Florida ran from the northern coast of Cuba to Cay Sal Bank. Approximately 60 nautical miles southeast of the Florida Keys, the bank lies between the Bahamas' Andros Island and Cuba. Refugees who chose this route waited at Cay Sal until spotted by Coast Guard aircraft, which vectored cutters to the area. The white ships then transported the Cubans to Key West.
The intelligence branch of the Cuban government, however, monitored Coast Guard radio transmissions. At one point, Cuban authorities in Soviet-made helicopters broke international law by landing at Anguilla Cay, where they captured 17 men and women fleeing Cuba. From then on, Coast Guard aircraft would fly well past refugees before sending a coded message to the Rescue Coordination Center in Miami, which then dispatched a cutter to the proper location. After 1961's failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, the sea-rescue work continued, but the Coast Guard also began patrolling for exiled Cubans heading home to conduct operations against Castro's forces.4
Shortly after the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy administration announced it "would take every step" to prevent Cuban exiles from launching an invasion attempt from, or training for such a mission in, the United States or other nearby countries.5 The Coast Guard consequently established an outer patrol line close to Cuba composed of HU-16E Albatross amphibious flying boats, HH-52A Seaguard helicopters, and large cutters. For at-sea endurance, the patrol needed the big vessels, such as 210-foot Medium Endurance cutters, rather than 82-foot Point-class and 95-foot Cape-class boats. The service continued patrols near the U.S. shore with 40-foot patrol boats and other small craft, and an intermediate patrol with the Point- and Cape-class vessels.6
A Wave of Refugees
When Castro announced the opening of Camarioca's port on 28 September 1965, the mission of the Coast Guard patrols between Cuba and Florida largely centered on law enforcement. But that was about to change. On hearing of the new policy, a few Cubans tentatively made their way to Camarioca. To show his sincerity, Castro had quarters built for people awaiting boats and even provided playgrounds for children. Soon, the refugee trickle became a flood.7
Two critical factors figured prominently in the Coast Guard's operations during this first mass migration from Cuba to the United States: boats and weather. The private boats making their way from Florida to Camarioca and then back again were usually too unseaworthy to safely cross the Florida Straits. Moreover, October is in the hurricane season. A storm hitting during the boatlift could result in a major loss of life. If that happened, Castro would be sure to claim that the United States let Cubans die at sea.
The Coast Guard's task was made more difficult because it was illegal for a boat to leave the United States, enter the waters of another country, pick up passengers or crew, and re-enter U.S. waters without getting clearance from several governmental agencies. Proving a boat in the Florida Straits was on such a mission, however, was next to impossible. In any case, at all times during the boatlift, saving lives at sea was the Coast Guard's primary mission.
At the time, Rear Admiral Irvin J. Stevens, commander of the Coast Guard's Seventh District, which encompasses Florida, pointed out that the service's responsibilities during the boatlift could not be neatly pigeonholed: "It's an operation in which search and rescue, law enforcement and observation are all bound together and it is practically impossible to foretell which phase will be uppermost at a given time. What looks like search and rescue may turn out to be a law enforcement matter or vice versa."8
Soon, the number of Cubans the Coast Guard spotted at sea swelled, placing a heavy burden on its crews monitoring the exodus and helping refugees in trouble. For example, the service's Miami air station, which accounted for only 5 percent of the Coast Guard's aviation strength, flew more than 13 percent of its total mileage (an estimated one million miles) during the crisis.9 At times the aircrews flying the patrols felt frustrated. "There's no way to guess how many refugees have been lost before we could get to them," said one pilot.10
Lieutenant (junior grade) Tom Osborn recalled that the air station received "a call from the district Rescue Coordination Center, that a seaman had overheard faint voices as his ship cruised through the Caribbean night." The ship dropped a buoy at the location and circled until a Coast Guard aircraft released an electronic data marker there.11
Early the next morning, Lieutenant Osborn and his aircrew continued the search in their Albatross. As Osborn recalled, they scanned the ocean "until our fuel was nearly exhausted," and as fate would have it, a crew member reported spotting something on their final leg. There, "wallowing in eight to 10 foot troughs was a small boat," the lieutenant recalled. "A Cuban kneeled inside, thrashing a red cloth in the air. If we hadn't spotted him that last time, he might never have been found."12
Coast Guardsmen serving on cutters, patrol boats, and small craft also worked long hours. While on board the 210-foot Diligence (WMEC-616), H. R. Kaplan, a civilian writer employed by the Coast Guard's public affairs office, observed the cutter come alongside a "pathetically inadequate" craft with "two haggard men, aged 34 and 24" on board. They had departed Tampa, Florida, en route to Camarioca. After their outboard motor broke down, they drifted for two days, their only food "sugared water and crackers which they dipped in the water."
While an engineer from the cutter worked on the Cubans' engine, the cook sent down sandwiches and fresh water for the men. Then the executive officer, Lieutenant Commander John Fuechsel questioned the two through an interpreter. After Fuechsel explained that the would-be sailors could proceed on their way but if they picked up passengers in Cuban waters they risked legal action, including seizure of their boat, on their return to the United States, the two men decided to head back to Florida.13
Two hours later, the cutter's lookout spotted a sailboat crowded with refugees "standing shoulder to shoulder," according to Kaplan. Sailing without difficulty, the boat proceeded on to Key West. Shortly thereafter a desperate call came over the radio: A boat with Cubans on board was taking on water and needed immediate help. A helicopter from the cutter flew a pump to the vessel.14
Even later, the Diligence came upon the motorboat Loretta out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. On board were three men and two women, the latter who had served as navigators and incorrectly plotted their course. The Loretta had landed at Cal Sal Bank thinking it was Cuba. After requesting additional fuel, the crew told the Coast Guardsmen they were heading to Key West. Many in the cutter, however, thought that as soon as they were far enough away, the Loretta would continue on to Camarioca.15
During the boatlift, the Coast Guard established a receiving center at their Key West base to process the refugees. There, the Cubans were examined and/or questioned by Public Health Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, and Customs Service officials. Refugee families arriving with children were given care packages prepared by the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy Wives Clubs, and after processing, the new arrivals were usually bussed to Miami.16
On 15 November 1965, U.S. and Cuban policy changes resulted in the Camarioca Boatlift officially ending. By then, between 2,979 and 5,000 refugees had escaped their homeland.17 Although the sea exodus was over, President Lyndon B. Johnson and Fidel Castro negotiated an agreement that permitted Cubans to leave their country by air. Under what became known in America as the Freedom Flight Program, the United States flew aircraft between Miami and Varadero, Cuba, allowing 3,000 to 4,000 people per month to flee their homeland. Castro reapplied one of the boatlift's main restrictions: young men of military age and necessary workers would not be allowed to leave. During the first year, the flights brought more than 45,000 Cubans to Florida.18 (Before Castro closed the program in 1973, an estimated quarter million people had arrived in the United States directly from Cuba and more than 100,000 others had come in through third countries.19)
The end of the Camarioca Boatlift and beginning of the Freedom Flight Program did not mean Cubans stopped trying to escape their homeland by sea. In some cases, reports appeared in Florida newspapers of Cuban gunboats allegedly firing on refugees. In 1968 The Miami Herald, for example, pointed out the gunboats' practice had "earned the Florida Straits the nickname of 'Machinegun Alley' since 1959." Coast Guard Commander J. W. E. Ward told a U.S. Senate committee that the service "on numerous occasions" found drifting boats and rafts and makeshift craft of various sorts, "some . . . with bullet holes [in them]." Yet another newspaper account had revealed the discovery of 14 bodies on Anguilla Cay in the early 1960s; the writer surmised that "Presumably the victims had been machine-gunned by a Cuban gunboat."20
Failure to Heed History's Lessons
The Camarioca Boatlift is a prime example of why learning from past operations is important. On 31 January 1980, approximately 15 years after the boatlift ended, the Central Intelligence Agency reported that the "Castro regime may again resort to large-scale emigration to reduce discontent caused by Cuba's deteriorating economic condition. . . . During the 1960s, Cuba resorted to large-scale emigration to rid itself of opponents of government policies and to reduce demand for scarce goods. . . . The revival of such a policy could reduce popular discontent."21
The CIA's warning, however, went unheeded, and a second Cuban mass sea migration-the Mariel Boatlift-began within three months. From 1 April to 25 September 1980, the Coast Guard processed at least 124,776 Cubans arriving in the United States. No one will ever know, however, how many Cubans died in their attempt to reach America. The factors in Cuba leading up to Mariel were almost identical to the ones preceding Camarioca. Mariel also mirrored Camarioca in operations, with some exceptions—such as the larger number of Cubans refugees involved and amount of law enforcement required during the later boatlift. However, if Castro and Johnson had not agreed to begin the Freedom Flights, the numbers and losses in 1965 might have equaled or surpassed those in 1980.22
The scale of the Mariel Boatlift overwhelmed the U.S. Coast Guard. In fact, overwhelmed may not be a strong enough word. In the only published detailed study of the U.S. Coast Guard's role in Mariel, the service's Captain Alex Larzelere made clear by omission that the Camarioca experience did not enter into any planning for the 1980 boatlift. In fact, like their civilian counterparts, the service appears to have virtually forgotten the earlier operation, thus finding itself unprepared for Mariel. A report by the Seventh Coast Guard District commander on the Mariel operations, included only a few mentions of Camarioca. Detailing the period just before the onslaught of Mariel, the report noted that "rumors were rampant about a possible repeat of the boatlift of the sixties. . . . Because of the rumors, the Seventh District staff engaged in some contingency planning which was largely informal. . . ."23 In other words, the district staff had no lessons-learned or formal contingency plan on hand.
In his study of Mariel, Captain Larzelere prophetically wrote, "We must consider how to deal with another massive migration by sea—for I have little doubt that this nation will face such an event again sometime in the future."24 Six years after Larzelere penned those words, another wave of Cubans attempted to leave their island country. Once again, conditions in Cuba paralleled those preceding the 1965 boatlift.
After Camarioca, the Coast Guard at a minimum should have instituted a Spanish-language training program for its Florida crews. Policies should have been in place to train personnel in handling large numbers of undocumented migrants. Some Coast Guard officers have pointed out that as late as the eve of the 1994 balsero (rafter) exodus from Cuba they lacked clear mass-migration guidelines.
Thrust into a major mission in the waters between Cuba and the United States, the Coast Guard must follow the changing and often-confusing policies ordered by U.S. civilian leadership. The service cannot, however, afford to ignore the lessons of previous experiences in mass migrations; it must learn and build on these lessons.
There is, perhaps, a ray of hope. Fidel Castro's failing health has caused local, state, and federal governments, as well as the armed forces, to begin planning for another major Cuban migration across the sea. Unfortunately, in a briefing concerning this possible future exodus there was no mention of Camarioca, even though some of the plans listed under the Coast Guard's "Maritime Interdiction Operations: Coastal and Offshore" mirror the boatlift operations of 1965.25
1. H. R. Kaplan, "The Coast Guard's Cuban Patrol," p. 1, undated typescript [1965-], Box, "Migrants-Cuba," Office of the Historian of the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, Washington, D.C. (hereinafter cited as located in "Migrants," Historian). Kaplan at the time was a writer in U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, Public Affairs Division. It should be pointed out that other branches of the U.S. armed forces have assisted in migrant operations at sea, notably the U.S. Navy, but their assistance supported the U.S. Coast Guard's efforts.
2. CAPT Alex Larzelere, Castro's Ploy-America's Dilemma: The 1980 Cuban Boatlift (Washington. D.C.: National Defense University, 1988); Norman L. Zucker and Naomi Zucker, Desperate Crossings: Seeking Refuge in America (Amonk, NY: Sharpe, 1996), p. 32.
3. Various newspaper clippings from "General File, Miscellaneous Info" file, "Migrants," Historian.
7. H. R. Kaplan, "The Coast Guard and the Cuban Exodus," U. S. Coast Guard News Release 74-65, 5 November 1965, pp. 2-3, "Migrants," Historian.
8. Ibid., p. 10.
9. Kaplan, "Cuban Patrol," p. 12.
10. Don Bedwell, "Drama's the Rule for Coast Guard Since Castro," photocopy of an unidentified and undated newspaper article, "Migrants," Historian.
13. Kaplan, "The Cuban Exodus," pp. 5-6.
14. Ibid., p. 7.
15. Ibid., pp. 7-8.
16. Ibid., p. 8.
17. Larzelere gives the number as 2,979, while another source places the number at 5,000. Larzelere, Castro's Ploy, p. 117, note; Eric Paul Roorda, Cuba, America and the Sea: The Story of the Immigrant Boat Analusia and 500 Years of History Between Cuba and America (Mystic, CT: Mystic Seaport, 2005), p. 119.
18. Zucker and Zucker, Desperate Crossings, pp. 33-34. Jane Franklin states that when the boatlift became "a nuisance for the U.S. Coast Guard," the United States proposed an airlift. Franklin states more than "3,000, perhaps as many as 5,000," Cubans came by sea." Franklin gives the date of 6 November as when the U.S. and Cuba agreed upon the flights and she states "more than 200,000" left by aircraft. Jane Franklin, Cuba and the United States: A Chronological History (New York: Ocean Press, 1997), p. 79.
19. Ibid., pp. 33-34.
20. All quoted material in this paragraph comes from photocopies located in folder, "Immigration"1960s-26 de Julio Stand Off, Portsmouth, VA," Box, "Immigration, Cuba, 1960s."
21. Larzelere, Castro's Ploy, p. 115.
22. See www.uscg.mil/hq/g-o/g-opl/AMIO/mariel.htm; Commander, Seventh Coast Guard District, Report on the Cuban Sealift of 1980, passim, an undated photocopy of a typescript located in Box, "Mariel, 1980," located in Historian.
23. "Report on Sealift of 1980," p. 5.
24. Larzelere, Castro's Ploy, p. xxii.
25. "OPLAN Vigilant Sentry (OVS) Mass Migration Plan," an unclassified briefing in the Office of Law Enforcement, U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, Washington, D.C.; Zucker and Zucker, Desperate Crossings, p. 34.