Voting with their oars – mass escape from Cuba

With the long-awaited transfer of power by Cuban dictator Fidel Castro last week, many have begun calling for an easing of U.S.-Cuban foreign policy restrictions. But before we become too hopeful, perhaps this is a good time to reflect upon Cuba's long history of self-exile under the Castro regime, says Kenneth Artz, a writer/editor with the National Center for Policy Analysis.

According to the "Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression," Cubans began to "vote with their oars" beginning in the 1960s, shortly after Castro seized power. The first to leave were fishermen, in 1961. Exile was subtly used by Castro as a means of regulating internal tensions. The phenomenon dates from the earliest days of the regime and was used constantly until the mid 1970s. Many of the exiled fled to Florida or the American base at Guantanamo.

The phenomenon first came to the world's attention in April 1980 with the Mariel crisis:

  • Thousands of Cubans mobbed the Peruvian embassy in Havana, demanding exit visas to escape from an intolerable daily life.

  • After several weeks the authorities allowed 125,000 – out of a population of 10 million – to leave the country from the port of Mariel.

  • Castro also took this opportunity to get rid of a number of criminals and people who were mentally ill.

    Departures have been constant ever since, and the American bases at Guantánamo and in Panama are full of voluntary exiles:

  • In the summer of 1994, 7,000 people lost their lives while attempting to flee.

  • It is estimated that approximately one-third of all "balseros" have died while at sea.

  • Over 30 years, approximately 100,000 have attempted the journey.

  • The result of this exodus is that out of 11 million inhabitants, 2 million now live in exile, scattering many families across Miami, Spain and Puerto Rico.

    Source: Stéphane Courtois et al., The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, pg. 663, Harvard University Press, 1999.

    For more on "The Black Book of Communism":

    For more on International Issues:

    FMF Policy Bulletin/ 26 February 2008
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