The Journey To Exile

Short Videos Of The Various Migrations Toward U.S. Including The Freedom Flights, The Pedro Pan Exodus, Mariel, Balseros.


When Fidel Castro forcefully assumed control of the Cuban government in 1959, emigration to the United States began in large numbers. Though in the wake of the violent takeover it was the wealthier sectors of society that fled, the 1960’s witnessed the mass migration and exile of middle-class Cubans who were victims of political persecution. In 1965, flights began leaving the island to the United States five times per week until 1973, bringing with them an estimated 300,000 refugees. Their specific point of arrival was Miami, Florida, a city that would be drastically shaped by Cuban culture. Upon arriving, many of the refugees were taken to a waiting room in what was known as La Casa de la Libertad (House of Freedom), a building near Miami International Airport. Some of these Cubans would be relocated to other parts of the United States, but the majority – staying in Miami – were redirected to the former site of the Miami News, a Mediterranean Revival style building in Downtown. Here, Cuban refugees would receive basic medical services, records on relatives already in the US, relief aid and in-processing services. Because of the building’s historic role in the story of the Cuban exile, it later became known as The Freedom Tower. The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 allowed Cubans from the Freedom Flights to enter the US as “parolees” with an expedited route to permanent residency. Many of the refugees had professional lives back on the island and they transferred these skills to Miami’s economic landscape, opening shops, restaurants, supermarkets, doctors’ offices, and beyond. An area near Miami’s downtown became known as Little Havana, where most Freedom Flight arrivals first congregated and where a notable Cuban presence could be felt, which is still the case to this day.


Due to the violent political climate in Cuba on and after 1959, as well as the mounting fears of political indoctrination in schools and other sectors of society, many Cuban parents opted for sending their children out of the country with relatives already living in the United States. Part of the mindset was that Fidel Castro’s rule would be short-lived and soon families would reunite back on the island.
In Miami, Father Bryan O. Walsh, then director of the Catholic Welfare Bureau, created Operation Pedro Pan in 1960, inspired by the story of a 15 year old Cuban who had previously emigrated and whose relatives did not have enough to provide for him. Walsh directly contacted Tracy Voorhees, President Eisenhower’s official Representative for Cuban Refugees and convinced the administration to provide funds for this program aiming to support young Cuban immigrants once in Miami.

The operation saw more than 14,000 unaccompanied minors arrive to Miami from Cuba from 1960 and 1962. It was made possible also by James Baker, the headmaster of an American school in Havana. Baker arranged the children’s transportation, working closely with their parents, while Father Walsh arranged for the children’s accommodations in Miami. Information about the program was spread “underground” in Cuba through a secret network of concerned parents.

While many of the minors in the program were eventually reunited with relatives, another significant number were placed in shelters managed by the Catholic Welfare Bureau, and eventually relocated to other locations in the United States, including New Mexico, Nebraska, Delaware and Indiana. Many children of Operation Pedro Pan grew to become important members of society, including in the world of arts and entertainment, business, cuisine and politics.


After the historic migrations of Cuban refugees in the 1960’s and 70s, the United States – specifically Miami, Florida – was bracing itself for a third significant wave. The Mariel Boatlift was a mass emigration of Cubans, traveling to the US via the Mariel Harbor, sparked by events of spring 1980. In January of that year several groups of asylum-seekers took refuge in Peruvian, Venezuelan and other South American embassies. The Peruvian was the most supportive, as their officials announced they would not hand over the Cubans to State Police. In April, over 2,000 Cuban asylum-seekers, including entire families, entered the grounds of the Peruvian embassy. The number continued to grow in just that month to over 10,000. This led dictator Fidel Castro to make an unexpected announcement on April 20th: the port of Mariel would be opened to anyone wishing to leave the island, as long as someone would pick them up. Word of the announcement rapidly spread amongst the Cuban exile in Miami and boats and other forms of watercraft started arriving daily at the port. From the 21st of April to September a total of 124,779 Cubans arrived at South Florida, receiving automatic refugee status. The majority of the asylum-seekers, which were dubbed Marielitos, decided to remain in Miami, resulting in a 7 percent increase in the local labor market.


Since Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959, thousands of Cubans left the island due to political persecution. Leaving via boats and other forms of watercraft – despite the risks – became a popular route for many. This method gained steam during the Mariel Boatlift. As hardships and tensions mounted, more and more Cubans were taking to the ocean in hopes of arriving to other countries, especially the United States. Many of these individuals opted for using self-made rafts to reach freedom. They became known as balseros, or rafters. In August of 1994, hundreds of Cubans spontaneously took to the streets to protest the attempts of the government to keep them from fleeing via ocean. Fidel Castro’s response was to once again announce that the Cuban Coast Guard would temporarily cease enforcing laws against using the sea as an escape route. Over 32,000 Cubans left the island on water vessels – mostly makeshift rafts – in the period of August 1994 and 1995, with the majority once again arriving in Miami, Florida.