The Mariel Boatlift of 1980 brought 125,266 Cubans to the United States. The influx was not officially sanctioned by Jimmy Carter’s government, and Fidel Castro won the public relations war when he claimed that most of those who left Cuba for America were criminals and other anti-social elements. The boatlift was instrumental (along with a declining economy and the fiasco of the failed mission to rescue hostages in Iran) for Carter’s unsuccessful reelection bid. While numerous historical accounts exist of the boatlift, Mirta Ojito provides a personal and humanistic account of this singular event in the troubled U.S.-Cuba relationship.
Ojito was sixteen when she came over on the boatlift with her parents and her sister. While her parents were single-minded in their quest to find a better life in America, Ojito was torn between leaving her beloved Havana and being with her family. Ojito paints a vivid portrait of life in Cuba under Castro, a life that is both fraught with the joys of everyday pleasures that a young schoolgirl encounters, as well as the myriad furtive attempts her father makes to get essentials such as meat and vegetables that are strictly rationed in a shortage economy.
From her childhood, Ojito knew that her parents wanted to leave Cuba and that her uncle in Miami was the conduit through which they were to get their exit visas. But it takes forever, and as the family waits for their “escape” out of Cuba, the country goes through turmoil when Hector Sanyustiz, an unemployed laborer, decides to crash his bus through the gates of the Peruvian embassy. His motive is to seek sanctuary in the embassy and, eventually, a way out of Cuba. As the walls of the embassy come crashing down, thousands of Cubans make a beeline for it, creating a tremendous public relations chaos for Castro. In what essentially is a fit of pique, Castro permits any Cuban with a U.S. sponsor as well as those who are socially undesirable to exit the country from the harbor at Mariel. Ojito’s family is one among the many “Marielitos” who took advantage of Castro’s “generosity.”
Ojito, who became a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The New York Times, writes with an uncanny eye for the small details that bring the essentially element of verisimilitude to the narrative. There is humanity as well in Ojito’s descriptions of brave souls such as Sanyustiz and Mike Howell, the captain of Mañana, the boat which brought Ojito’s family to Florida.
By alternating between the broad sweep of Cuban-American political relationship and the more personal relationship of a person to her native soil, Ojito has written a poignant account of what it is to be young and Cuban and caught in the eddy of a historic exodus. In this book, the heroes are not the political leaders. The true heroes are the people who take risks and make hard moral choices – people such as Sanyustiz and Howell.