I believe that the Mariel Boat Lift is the sort of thing that people only know about if they remember it from 1980, or, for some, they have roots in Cuba, and stories told in their families.
For me, I keep bumping up against it in my memory whenever I hear stories of total despair emanating from modern day Guantanamo. And, yeah, other than the stories of total despair there are no similiarities there. Still, I was in the federal prison system when "The Marielitos" burned down two federal prisons in 1987. Wow, if I had been in their shoes, instead of "only" working on my own more or less clear cut 8 years of lockup, it's all too easy to see how it would have made me crazy enough to choose death over a "life" like that.
To me, it seems like most folks look at prison only as what it is, the "conditions", the "amenities". the "programs". Or the lack of any or all of those. But for me, having been there, I can tell you that I never wasted even a second without fixating (at least on some level) over what prison is not. Freedom!
Oh, I played so many tricks in my mind to not notice that that many years were more than I could "handle", and all because if I had not done so there would have just been no reason to keep trying to wait the system out. Had I ever been forced to believe that the prison was never going to end, I don't think so!
The story of regular people coming togther to move 125,000 others escaping, by private watercraft, from one nation to another is simply mind boggling. Just the magnitude of it. Sure, there was the family helping family angle of it, but what else equals that in human history? Castro did leave the routes open for awhile, but, and I'm serious here, it was a bitch of time trying to find any boat owner in Florida, or on the Gulf Coast who would even stop for a couple of minute to listen to an offer of moving a load of weed out of Colombia for a suitcase of cash. Sometimes the pay was better over at Mariel, and sometimes there was no pay at all over there, but Americans, for those several months, were all about figuring out how to get Cubans from over there to over here. Amazing, simply amazing.
But what was not even vaguely surprising was that Castro found a way to put a kink in a situation that was, otherwise realistically to good to believe. The rule on the docks and beaches at Mariel was that boats were not allowed to leave with vacancies. "Got all your peeps, well there's still folks standing in line, and, uh, you and your family members can just as easily go to a Cuban prison, as to Miami, so finish loading up, and see ya". The Cuban economy crashed. Communism was failing. And it didn't take that long for all involved to figure out that Fidel not only had too many mouths to feed, but that many of his challenges had already been isolated into prisons and mental hospitals, and he drained them. Legitimately under the scenario he crafted, he did drain them.
But the ploy, considering that he couldn't, and didn't hide it, was transparent. Which is where the pale analogy to "Al Qaeda at Quantamo Bay" comes in.
Marielitos arriving here were snatched up right and left. Rightly, wrongly, or otherwise thousand and thousands were incarcerated. And then some lucked out and moved out of custody, and thousands never did.
At least not before the prison riots of 1987.
I won't claim to be able to make sense out of what was a very complex and complicated situation. But I do know what the view was from the inside when things finally exploded.
See, whatever had been going on between 1980 and 1987, the population of "problem Marielitos" (think the "Scarface" movie here) had been distilled down to the old Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta, and a new immigration holding facility joint in Oakdale, Louisana (repurposed from a Leprosy Colony a long time before). Anyway, you got 1,400 Marielitos in Ga., and 1,000 in La. and they all became pissed off at once, and more than 100 hacks were taken hostage, and millions of dollars of buildings were burned down (only one peron died though), and the occupation occupied the national consciousness for nearly two weeks.
I read about the hunger strikes in Guantanamo, and I'm pretty sure that no one not already in federal prison heard about "the Marielito problem". So I have no idea who else might see things the same way that I do. But what I know from back then makes me pretty sure that the desperation I'm watching play out now has nothing to do with terrorism, Islam, etc. because I heard too many terrible stories about Marielito desparation. (And some conflicting ones as well, but I gotta go with what I personally know.)
So Oakdale was like the next federal prison east of FCI Texarkana, where I was at. And the hacks at our place (like they all do) talked. It's like "Man, Oakdale is a real shithole. They can't get local workers, and we're not allowed to decline special assignments over there. I mean, these poor bastards ain't ever going any place so we can't even work the cellblocks without Rain gear. We're trying to serve food, or distribute, books, supplies, etc., and they're using any and every container possible to save piss, shit, or whatever, and we get drenched. What are we going to do, write them up, in they're mind they ain't ever getting out anyway, so what the fuck have they got to lose.
And next month I gotta pull extra duty at Atlanta. Over there, the range bosses assign guys to dive bomb us from the third tier just to make a point. Yeah, I mean, we can protect ourselves fairly well, but scrapping the motherfuckers up off of the floor is bad enough. Eyeballing a near miss all of the way down? God, I can't wait until the kids get out of the house and i can llok for a job somewhere that actually makes some sense."