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The exodus ended in September 1980, after a U.S. Coast Guard and Naval blockade stopped the inflow of boats. But during the six months that the Mariel port was open, about 125,000 Cubans arrived in Miami.
Tensions between the United States and Cuba heightened during the 1980s, and the tide of refugees slowed to a trickle until the fall of the Soviet Union.
The Soviets had provided generous subsidies for Cuban exports from the early 1960s until the late 1980s. Within a couple years of the Soviet Union's collapse, almost all of its aid to Cuba disappeared. In 1991 alone, the Cuban economy shrank by 24 per cent.
As economic pressure built within the country, so did discontent among the people. When desperate Cubans began rioting in the streets, Castro blamed their dissent on a U.S. policy that encouraged Cubans to leave.
Castro announced in a televised speech that "either the U.S. take serious measures to guard their coasts, or we will stop putting obstacles in the way of people who want to leave the country, and we will stop putting obstacles in the way of people in the U.S. who want to come and look for their relatives here."
Damian Jimenez, born and raised in Cuba, was sitting at his mother's house in Havana when the phone rang. His friend was on the other end. He was ecstatic.
"He told me that everyone was leaving, that Castro was letting everyone leave," Jimenez says. "He told me to turn on the television."
Sure enough, Castro had pulled his guards away from the coast, reversing a long-standing Cuban law that punished attempted escape with arrest. During the month following Castro's announcement, an estimated 35,000 Cubans, now known as "balseros," left the island and floated to Florida.
Jimenez and seven friends were among them. They paid about $375 for a raft. After rowing for three days, the group was picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and, like many of the balseros, taken to the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.
Jimenez was eventually released and shuttled to Miami where a caseworker with Catholic Charities, a resettlement agency, found him a job on a Michigan farm. Ten years later, Jimenez moved to Houston to work for Catholic Charities and help newly arrived Cubans (see "Immigration: Luck of the Draw").
In response to the balsero crisis, the U.S. government created a special immigration program for Cuba. Twenty thousand Cubans a year would get visas, which are distributed through a process that Cubans call "the lottery," to live and work in the United States. As a tradeoff, Castro promised to take steps to stop the wave of rafters disembarking from Cuba's shores.
The agreement also led to the creation of a "wet foot/dry foot" policy. Cubans caught in the water are now taxied back to the island on Coast Guard ships. But, if Cubans can make it to U.S. soil, they can stay and seek legal residency.
"Dry foot" Cubans technically enter the country on a one-year parole. At the end of that time, they are required to appear before an immigration judge to have their status upgraded to permanent residency. The new phenomenon of Cubans crossing Mexico by land has given rise to a new term: "dusty foot."
The policy has been widely criticized as hypocritical since its inception. Bizarre and dangerous incidents along the Florida coast — including Cubans threatening to kill themselves or their children to hold the Coast Guard at bay — have drawn attention to the problem.
"We've had cases where...they've poured gasoline on themselves and threatened to light themselves on fire," says Chief Dana Warr, an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard in Miami. "People will stab themselves or cut their wrists to be evacuated by helicopter to a U.S. hospital, and as soon as they touch down, they're 'dry foot.' It's almost like the wild, wild west out there, except on the water."
In June 1999, Coast Guard officers attempted to stop six Cubans from reaching the Miami beach by blasting their boat with a high-power water cannon. When the men bailed into the sea to swim for shore, the officers trolled alongside, spraying pepper spray into their faces.
A crowd gathered on the beach to cheer on the swimmers, and two made it ashore, dashing through police and diving onto the sand. The entire incident was filmed by a news helicopter, and all six men were eventually allowed to enter the United States and awarded a seafood dinner with then-Miami mayor Joe Carollo.
In 2005, again with news cameras rolling, the Coast Guard tried to seize a homemade Cuban vessel by throwing rope into its propeller, and then using the powerful water cannon to turn back the boat. The Coast Guard tossed life jackets to the Cubans. The Cubans quickly tossed them back.
And in January 2006, 15 Cubans were found on a section of Old Seven Mile Bridge, an abandoned structure in the Florida Keys. The group was deported to Cuba after Coast Guard officials determined the bridge, which had partially collapsed, did not qualify as dry land.