A River Of Tears: Happy Land
Mariel Bay, Cuba
9:00 A.M., May 15, 1980
The young man, who was just 26 years old, he didn't think much. Most of his time was spent following others. He had been that way as far back as he could remember. When the guards kicked the prisoners out of their stinking cells that morning, he simply followed behind the people in front of him. But he hadn't committed any real crime; on this occasion, that is. He simply told the police that he was a drug dealer so he could join the boatlift to leave Cuba. The guards marched them quickly through the forest toward the bay. A rolling surf pounded against the beaches with a familiar rhythm as they gathered at the edge of the sea to wait. They huddled onto a dilapidated wooden dock that seemed to barely hold the crushing weight of hundreds of people. They stood in rows of threes as Castro's troops, their AK-47s held at the ready, hurried them along. "Vamanos! Vamanos!" the soldiers yelled as they pushed the helpless men and women toward the swaying boat at the end of the dock. The crowd moved quickly for they knew the soldiers would shoot them down like dogs at the first provocation. "Vamanos desgraciado!" they screamed as they beat the prisoners with long, flexible sticks held in one hand and drank cerveza with the other. Of course, these people didn't know where they were going and didn't really care. Anything was better than a Cuban prison where there was no food, little water and lots of muerte. Some said they were headed for America, though none could really comprehend this. What government would be crazy enough to take in another country's criminals?
Somewhere among this multitude, the young man, who was wearing rags and hadn't eaten in two days, glanced around him. He had deserted the Cuban Army in the early seventies and spent 3 years in prison. He recognized some of these men since he had been in jail with them in 1974. They were thieves, drug addicts, the mentally deranged, rapists, murderers and worse. There were political prisoners too, for Castro's jails made no distinction between them and other common criminals. These people were the national flotsam of Cuba: the corrupted and depraved, the rejected and the homeless. They joined a hundred thousand other refugees who would soon risk life and limb to reach the shores of a magical country they could easily die to see. They were a small part of a larger group, a footnote to history. And although these prisoners represented less than 4% of the immigrants who arrived in America during this tumultuous period, this era would mostly be remembered as the time Fidel Castro emptied his jails and dumped Cuba's unwanted into Carter's lap. This ragtag exodus became known as the Freedom Flotilla and these people were later called los marielitos.
The crowds shuffled along the dock, like so much cattle, until they were tossed on the boat deck by two powerfully built soldiers who alternately cursed and beat the prisoners between gulps of warm beer. The tropical heat was brutal; several women fainted and were lying on the deck unattended as the frightened mass simply stepped over their bodies, eager to escape the swinging whips of the guards. The boat trembled as the shifting weight caused it to tilt dangerously to port. When it finally got under way, its ancient engine kicking and gasping for air, the boat seemed as if it would barely make it out of Mariel Bay. But out to sea it went, northeast, across an azure sea, on its perilous journey to the fabled country that, for them, existed only in their dreams. For most of these refugees, however, that dream would soon become a nightmare when they later found themselves languishing for months and years in detention centers in Arkansas and Wisconsin, the pawns of bureaucratic red tape and the ever-shifting political winds. Barely two weeks later, on May 31, 1980, at Key West, Florida, Julio Gonzalez, 25 years old, uneducated, impoverished, a military deserter in his own country, a man who, so far, had accomplished nothing in life, an ex-convict with no possessions and no future, arrived in America.