This post was written by Beth Fortson. Beth is an Archives Technician with the Still Photos Branch in College Park, MD.
In April 1980, after desperate attempts by Cubans to gain asylum at the gates of the Peruvian Embassy, Fidel Castro was pressured to ease restrictions on emigration and granted those wishing to immigrate to the United States the chance to do so. This mass exodus of Cubans, leaving from Mariel Harbor and braving the 90 mile journey between the two countries, became known as the Mariel Boatlift.
On April 22 1980, an official announcement was published in a Cuban newspaper notifying those wishing to emigrate of the ability to be picked up by private boats at Mariel Harbor. Many living in the United States with ties to Cuba rushed to the port of Key West, Florida to obtain boats and set out towards the port of Mariel. The United States Coast Guard noted that the size of the refugee flotilla, dubbed “Freedom Flotilla” by the U.S. media, was staggering with the first wave of boats leaving for Cuba numbering 1,000 to 1,200. This high volume was due in part to a large number of Cuban-Americans who owned boats. Facing poor weather, overcrowded boats, and anti-refugee sentiment in the United States, the refugees were processed out of Cuba, and after reaching the port of Key West were temporarily placed in resettlement camps before sponsorship and processing was complete.
Eglin Air Force Base, Florida was just one of four additional resettlement camps established by an Executive Order. Today, more than 35 years later, The National Archives holds photographs depicting the first refugees to arrive at Eglin Air Force Base and life in the camp while awaiting resettlement.
The preparations for the refugees began frantically; for the first eleven days construction continued 24 hours a day in order to build the first of over 450 tents that would eventually become Campo Libertad, or Camp Liberty. Prefabricated materials allowed the tents to be constructed in a modular fashion in an average of 30 minutes. The camp also contained mobile field kitchens, immigration and processing stations, and mobile field hospitals.
The first 125 refugees arrived on May 3, 1980 on a flight from Key West, but that number would soon become 10,025. At the height of operations, airmen served nearly 30,000 meals per day. The arrival of the Cubans attracted so much information that more than 300 newspapers, magazines, radio, and television stations sent reporters and photographers to the camp.
In the first several days of Camp Liberty the number of refugees outnumbered the amount of available beds and the refugees were temporarily housed in hangars and gyms. Upon arrival, the refugees often received a meal or were able to pick out a change of clothes from clothing and shoes donated by local residents, churches, and the Red Cross.
Air Force documentation states that immigration and naturalization processing continued 24 hours a day until the last Cuban completed the tedious and hours-long process. The exodus of immigrants ended with a mutual agreement between the Cuban and American governments in October of 1980 after approximately 125,000 refugees emigrated from Cuba.
These images are found in RG 342-CR with Records of United States Air Force Commands, Activities, and Organizations. Additional research can be completed at the National Archives at College Park with textual records entry UD-WW 1281, Historian Background File Concerning Refugee Resettlement, 1975-1980.
4 thoughts on “From Mariel Harbor to Eglin Air Force Base: Cuban Refugees and the Mariel Boatlift”
My college Spanish teacher came to the US during that time. Her parents sent her ahead of them. Such sacrifice parents made.
I was part of that operation at Ft. Indiantown Gap, PA, in 1980. My Army unit (part of the 82nd Airborne Div) was providing security against the rioting Cubans.
I was also sent to Ft. Indiantown Gap for a few months in late July, 1980. A plumbing and water treatment specialist with the 92nd Engineers from Ft. Stewart, Ga. Thanks for the security Thomas Gannon. What an experience that turned out to be.
I was a USAF law enforcement specialist assigned to the camp from Eglin AFB. I patrolled both on/outside the camp the entire duration working 12 hr shifts..
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