Marielitos' Stories, 30 Years After The Boatlift
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
In April of 1980, two large commercial lobster boats sailed into Key West, Florida carrying refugees from the port of Mariel, Cuba. Fidel Castro had declared the port open and allowed anyone who wanted to leave to go to the United States.
Within days, hundreds of boats arrived. Within weeks, thousands floated into South Florida waters. Over the next sixth months, an estimated 125,000 Cubans staged a mass exodus.
While the majority of the boats carried families, the Mariel Boat Life became synonymous with criminals, prisoners and the mentally ill, after Castro decided to send a small number of them across the Florida Strait as well, and maybe a few spies as well.
As part of the 30th anniversary of the Mariel Boatlift, the Miami Herald collected stories from Marielitos.
Later in the hour, we'll meet Wilson, the romantic misanthrope and lead character of Daniel Clowes' new graphic novel. But first, if you were part of the Mariel Boatlift as a refugee, a boat captain, a member of the National Guard, call and tell us your story.
Our phone number is 800-989-8255. You can also send us email. The address is email@example.com. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
We begin with Maydel Santana Bravo. She's director of media relations at Florida International University and joins us from member station WLRN in Miami. Nice to have you with us today.
Ms. MAYDEL SANTANA BRAVO (Florida International University): Good afternoon, Neal.
CONAN: And you came on a boat from the Port of Mariel as a child. Do you remember what the journey was like?
Ms. BRAVO: Yes, of course I remember. I was 11. So I was just commenting here before the show that I was old enough to remember and young enough to be very terrified.
Ms. BRAVO: Yes.
CONAN: Because you were leaving your life behind?
Ms. BRAVO: Well, it was a long ordeal. We, my family, my parents and my brother and I, were home for many days before the government came to get us, to take us to, we thought, the port. So that was a long time to wait at home, maybe two or three weeks, maybe longer. I don't remember.
But eventually we were picked up by a government car and taken to a holding camp, where we spent a little more than a week just kind of sitting out there in the sun, until we were transferred to a second camp, called El Mosquito(ph), which is rather infamous.
And there we spent a few more days, maybe two or three more, before we were driven to the Port of Mariel. So by the time we got on the boat, a lot had already happened, and now we are on this shrimping boat full of people, probably way, way over capacity, and then a 24-hour ordeal started.
Very bad weather, the darkest ocean I've ever seen in my life, waves that came over the boat. It seemed like, you know, rising buildings from the sides of the boat. So yes, it was a rather terrifying ordeal.
CONAN: And what happened when you got to was it Key West?
Ms. BRAVO: Yes, we arrived in Key West at dawn on June 4th, and it was still dark our, and at the end of the dock was a magnificent, huge Coca-Cola machine, and then that's when you know that you're in the United States.
CONAN: I think that's when you know you're in the United States. I think you know that for sure. Obviously your family thrived after arrival?
Ms. BRAVO: Of course, yes, we've done well.
CONAN: And I wonder, though, have you always been eager to identify yourself as a Marielita?
Ms. BRAVO: Well, the first few years we moved away from Miami, only 20 miles up the road, really, but a world away. And so I was aware of the stigma, but I've never really experienced it myself much.
But yes, I do identify myself as a Marielita when, you know, when the situation is appropriate. I don't have a problem with it.
CONAN: But you don't carry a scarlet M on your chest anywhere?
Ms. BRAVO: No, I don't.
CONAN: I wonder: Have you ever talked to any of the people who were with you on that boat trip, the people you spent time in the camp with there in Cuba?
Ms. BRAVO: You know, I wish. I don't. And unfortunately I haven't been able to find my boat in the database, and my parents' recollection of the name of the boat doesn't seem to be exact. So I'm still searching for all those people.
CONAN: She mentioned the database. Luisa Yanez is a reporter for the Miami Herald and joins us also at member station WLRN in Miami, and she's helped assemble a database for the newspaper. Nice of you to be with us today.
Ms. LUISA YANEZ (Reporter, Miami Herald): Hi, Neal, thank you for having me.
CONAN: And this is where somebody can go online and look up and say, oh, I came aboard this ship with these people, and they are now contactable here?
Ms. YANEZ: That's right. The database has everybody's name and also the names of the boats. So when you find yourself, you can put yourself on your boat. Literally, we're creating a passenger list for each boat.
And people have reunited there. And it's you know, for the Mariels, the boat that they came in on is their emotional hook. You know, they all usually remember the name. That experience of crossing the Florida Straits, it was dramatic for everybody. I don't think anybody had a good, a good trip across.
So it's a moment in their life. It's the moment when their life changed. So it's very important to them, and they get very emotional about finding their name, their boat. It's quite something to watch.
CONAN: It sounds like there was quite dramatic weather that summer of 1980. Everybody had a tough trip.
Ms. YANEZ: I know. It's very few people will tell you, oh, it was, you know, no sweat. Mostly it's a horrible story of, you know, this weather, too many people on boats.
Even if the weather was fine, there were just so many people on these boats because Cuba was overloading them, and they would put on you know, first they usually would put the families and the regular people who had been claimed, and then they would bring on the criminals and the mental patients. So it would be, you know, I think a horrific ride for some people.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We want to hear from the Marielitos in our audience, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Nelson(ph) is with us from Little Rock.
NELSON (Caller): Hello, Neal, nice to talk to you.
CONAN: Okay, nice to talk to you.
NELSON: I came here when I was 13 years old. I remember the first hour and a half of the boat ride, my father and I were sitting outside in the center of the boat. So all the rocking around, you know, the boat was not affecting us, but my grandmother and sister and mother were inside, you know, where the captain of the boat sits.
And they were getting sick. My dad had gone to check on them and saw that they were sick. So he took me inside the boat, and I lasted about 10 seconds, and I started getting sick. But...
CONAN: From that accent, it sounds like you're from Southern Cuba.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NELSON: Well, I was born in Havana. I live in Little Rock. I've lived here for 28 of the years that I've been in the United States.
CONAN: And picked up a little local color.
NELSON: Yeah, yeah, I have. I have I get a lot of comments from my cousins that live in Miami, say that, you know, I have the redneck accent. But that's okay. They have, you know, an accent as well.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: And I wonder, have you gone to the Miami Herald website to check on the other people who were on that boat with you?
NELSON: No, I just heard about this yesterday. So that's why I'm listening and calling. I will visit the website and find out I couldn't tell you which boat I came in. I have no recollection of the name. Like I said, I was 13 years old. So I don't remember the name of the boat.
I do remember there was just way too many people on the boat, but...
CONAN: And like Maydel, were you and your family kept in a camp, kept waiting before you could leave Mariel?
NELSON: Oh, yes, we there's a police officer who came to our house at 3:00 o'clock in the morning, knocked on the door, said you have to be here, you know, in a certain amount of time.
So we all it was 15 of us that left, that signed up at the same time. We all left in groups because there were some people that were getting beat up and things like that by some of the locals.
So we left in the middle of the night. We went and got our passport, and then from there they took us to the only thing I can describe it is a little concentration camp.
Then we stayed there for two days. There was some very bad Russian Spam and water. That's what we had to eat, twice, while we were there. And we were there for two days, and then they came, you know, and called us, and we they walked us over, you know, to the boat, and we got on the boat.
CONAN: I wonder, Maydel Santana Bravo, does that Russian Spam sound familiar?
Ms. BRAVO: Oh, I will not eat Spam. I'd rather not eat - to this day. Spam and scrambled eggs are not on my menu.
NELSON: Yeah, the Spam was pretty terrible. I just remember, you know, eating it, and it was not, it was not your typical Cuban food, you know, that we, you know, it's famous and we enjoy it so much. It was terrible, actually.
CONAN: Well, Nelson, thanks very much. I expect you're not having Spam for dinner.
NELSON: No, I will not have Spam. I don't eat Spam, and I won't eat chicken, either, because that was the main meal, you know, meat that we had to eat there either. So I haven't eaten chicken in 30 years.
CONAN: Okay, well, Nelson, thanks very much. We appreciate the phone call.
NELSON: Thank you, Neal, you have a great day.
CONAN: I wonder, Luisa Yanez, are a lot of the Marielitos like Maydel, they don't necessarily remember the name of the boat, also like Nelson?
Ms. YANEZ: No, I guess I think Maydel was a child and her parents didn't speak English. So you know, most of the names were most of the boats that went down there were shrimp boats from Key West or Louisiana. So they had, you know, the names could be you know, they were usually American names.
CONAN: Or Cajun names, yeah.
Ms. YANEZ: Or Cajun names, right. So it's not so I think that's a little difficult if you weren't an adult. But most of them do remember their boats. It's amazing after all these years. And we've like I said, in our database we're connecting passengers. You know, we can for example, one very popular boat is Queen of Queens, and we've had, like, you know, 40 people from that boat have signed up.
And they talk to each other. It's quite moving to see what they say to each other.
RAZ: Maydel, can I ask you, when you find out somebody else you've met is a - is also a Marielito or a Marielita, is there some special bond?
Ms. BRAVO: Oh, of course, of course. I recently met someone that well, there's someone that I have known for some time and recently learned that he was a Marielito, and all of a sudden, of course, the conversation went to that experience, because it's a mark. I mean, it's something that you carry forever.
And coincidentally, he too remembers a Coke machine. I don't know if we came on the same boat or in the same dock, or there's a Coke machine at the end of every dock, I'm not sure. But for a child, you know, there's certain things that you remember, and we sort of bonded over the Coke machine.
CONAN: Well, thank you very much for being with us and for sharing your story. Appreciate your time.
Ms. BRAVO: Thank you.
CONAN: Maydel Santana Bravo is now director of media relations at Florida International University. Coming up, we're going to also speak with Cesar Odio, who greeted some of the first boats back from Cuba, back in 1980. We'll hear his story next. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
It's been 30 years since the Mariel Boatlift, when something like 125,000 Cubans came to this country over a period of six months. We're talking with some of those Marielitos today. We want to hear from you.
If you were part of the Mariel Boatlift as a refugee, a boat captain, a member of the National Guard, call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. And our guest is excuse me - Luisa Yanez, a reporter for the Miami Herald, with us from WLRN in Miami.
And we also your newspaper has also been reporting about how the Mariel Boatlift and the year 1980 was a huge change for the city of Miami.
Ms. YANEZ: Oh, absolutely. That was one of the biggest news years in this community. We had the Mariel Boatlift going on, which lasted for six months during that summer, and then in the middle of that, we had what we call the May Riots, the May race riots in Miami, where 18 people were killed after several Miami police officers were found innocent of killing a black motorcyclist.
So that was a summer like no other. To this day, Neal, I don't think we've had a summer like that summer.
CONAN: And the story that was in the Herald described it as a pivotal moment when the city became inevitable, started to change its identity to become the international city it is now.
Ms. YANEZ: Absolutely. All of a sudden - you know, there have been Cubans here. There were Cubans here. But when 125,000 new Cubans arrived here, it changed Miami forever, totally. We became more of an international city. Spanish was spoken. It had been spoken before, but now it was everywhere.
You had a whole new crop of new Cuban arrivals in this area. So it really changed Miami forever.
CONAN: There was a battle over bilingual reforms that summer, the bilingualism went down, required to speak English, a battle that I think went on for 13 years.
Ms. YANEZ: Absolutely, and not everybody welcomed all the Cubans that arrived. So that created some tensions with the older residents here, who felt that they were losing their Miami. So they set out to prevent I guess Spanish becoming an official language in the city and the county. And that was very bitter. That created a lot of bitterness in the community.
CONAN: In a lot of ways, you're seeing in some ways the same battle that happened in Miami in 1980 happening in other places in the United States right now.
Ms. YANEZ: That's true. You could say that that's the same thing is happening out West, too. But Miami always bounces back. You know, we always we absorbed all those people. Today you know, back then, being, like my dad was saying, being a Mariel could be, you know, a negative term, what we would say somebody who was a Mariel was a you know, it wasn't very nice.
But today, 30 years later, I think we're just all Cuban refugees, escaping from the same regime.
CONAN: Here's an email from Dee(ph) in Fort Myers: I was living in Miami during the Mariel Boatlift, and they were housing the people in the middle of a major expressway, which was my only way to get to work. It was heart-wrenching and scary seeing these people every day. We were afraid of the violence, as many of the people were very dangerous, let out of Cuban jails. The people couldn't go back. But overall, the Cuban community did help soothe the situation, but you could not hide from the violence.
Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Jose(ph), Jose with us from Orlando.
JOSE (Caller): Good afternoon.
JOSE: Hi, this story is actually my own personal story. I'm not from Mariel. My family is Cuban and Puerto Rican. And my mother was heavily involved with the Latin community in Miami at the time. As a matter of fact, she was one of the more significant employers in Miami, in Hialeah, actually, and was in the pipeline for information.
We got this information about the Mariel Boatlift probably before any of the government officials actually reacted to it. My mother called me and said listen, we need to go to Key West because the Marielitos are coming. And I said what do you mean they're coming? She said, yeah, they're coming from Mariel. They're Cuban refugees. And they're going to be there any time.
So we went down to Key West and found the naval base that was there, and it was chained up, and it had been closed for some time. And my mother told me to call the sheriff.
So we called the sheriff, and my mother said you need to let us in there. And the sheriff said, well, that's federal property. I can't let you in there. Too bad, so sad. And she said well, look. Do you want the Cuban refugees to be walking on your streets, or would you like them in there?
He cut the chain, put my mother and I in there and put a lock back on it. For the next three days, we received the very first Cuban refugees to come to Key West. It was three days before the Red Cross came in and took over our operation. But my mother funded the whole thing with people, medicine, clothing.
We both got citations from the government at the time for the effort, but my biggest thing is that the government was, like, three days behind on the whole deal.
CONAN: And what was your mom's name, can you tell us?
Ms. YANEZ: Lea Rodriguez(ph).
CONAN: Lea Rodriguez. Well, Jose, thanks very much for the information. That's interesting.
JOSE: You're quite welcome.
CONAN: And joining us also from WLRN is Cesar Odio, assistant city manager for the City of Miami at the time of the 1980 Mariel Boatlift. And he joins us there at WLRN, and is Jose right? Were officials taken by surprise?
Mr. CESAR ODIO (Former Assistant City Manager, City of Miami): No and yes. The officials were surprised at the magnitude of what happened afterwards.
The first boat arrived April 21st with some 250 refugees, and the immigration people were waiting. They were put in buses, and a call that was made to me thanks to a call that was made to me that same day, we opened up a processing center on A Street in Little Havana.
And that's when we realized when we started this process that we were facing a tremendous, tremendous challenge, that it actually turned out to be bigger than I thought. But that's the way it really happened. It was one boat that we were notified about it, and they were processed, and they were all then released to their families right there on A Street, the ones that did have families.
CONAN: But eventually I mean, was that emailer right? Did you have people living in the median strip of a highway?
Mr. ODIO: No, what happened is that's the end of the story, really, of the Mariel Boatlift. What happened is as more and more boats arrived, the federal government and the city of Miami coordinated the effort to put the refugees at the Orange Bowl. And the reason why the Orange Bowl was that we had room for 70,000 people for football games. We had concession stands to feed 70,000 people. So that was and we had the bathroom facilities for 70,000 people.
So we had all been bused to the Orange Bowl, where we would process them, and then they would be turned over to the federal government for relocation or reunification with their families. And that's what happened.
Ms. YANEZ: But eventually, Neal, there was a group that ended at the the remnants of the Mariel Boatlift, they did end up living in what we call Tent City in Miami.
And unfortunately, if you've seen the movie "Scarface," the opening scene is supposed to be Miami's Tent City, the beginning of the movie with Al Pacino.
Mr. ODIO: Because what happened, Neal, we processed close to 60,000 people in the Orange Bowl, but there were so many more arriving that the federal government decided to move them to military camps like Fort Chaffee, McCoy, Eglin and so forth.
Some of those people that were in those camps were released through espousals(ph) that did not exist, and they came to Miami and had no place to go. And that's when we had to open Tent City under the expressway.
CONAN: I see, all right. Let's see if we can get another caller on, Barry(ph), Barry calling us from Swansboro in North Carolina.
BARRY: Yes, sir, well, good afternoon. And I'm calling as a former Marine helicopter pilot that was participating in the boatlift, and all I'd like to say is not only was it a boatlift, but it was an airlift, as well.
Many Marine helicopters sent as a part of President Carter's order for a Marine special Marine air-ground taskforce to be sent to help rescue refugees. The helicopter pilots, and I was one of those, would hover over sinking boats and actually pull people into the helicopters in order to safely get them to the large helicopter carrier that was just sitting in the Straits of Florida to take these folks. So it was not only a boatlift, but it was an airlift.
CONAN: We have this email from Albert(ph) in Miami: I came on a shrimp boat, Miss Betty(ph), which sank. My family was rescued by a Navy ship and then transported by helicopter to Key West. Is there information about the Navy ship's history, about the rescues, and also, how many Cubans drowned in the crossing? Is there any naval history as far as you know, Barry?
BARRY: Yes, there's quite a bit of naval history, and as one of the ladies earlier in your broadcast spoke about, it was a very tragic event. Many people secondhand knowledge that I had, I never saw it personally, but secondhand knowledge that we received from refugees was that many were eaten by sharks on the sinking boats.
CONAN: Luisa Yanez, is there any information gathered on that in the database?
Ms. YANEZ: Yes, we have he's right. There were many refugees who were rescued as their boats began to sink. Helicopters, naval helicopters, would come and rescue them. We've heard that story a lot from many of the refugees.
And, you know, officially, there are supposed to have been 27 people who died during Mariel, but everybody says that that number is way too low. There are some people who just, you know, we never know what happened to them along the way.
Ms. YANEZ: There were just no - there really was no record as to who was coming and going. But, yes, there was - there were tragedies along the way.
CONAN: Barry, thanks very much for the call.
BARRY: Yes, sir, and my pleasure.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Lou(ph) in San Francisco. "Before Night Falls" is the only movie I can think of that portrays this Mariel event at all. Are there any others? Well, we just heard about the "Scarface" movie. Any others, Luisa, that you know of?
Ms. YANEZ: Yes, "The Gomez Family." There's a story - there's a - it's a small independent film, but that also is the story of a Mariel family. You see it mentioned in some movies that are about Cubans. But I think, you know, "Scarface" is the most...
CONAN: Mm-hmm. The best known.
Ms. YANEZ: Yeah.
Ms. YANEZ: The best known is that, unfortunately, but...
CONAN: Saul(ph) is on the line from Miami.
CONAN: Hi, Saul.
SAUL: Hi, sir.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
SAUL: Yeah. (Unintelligible) I was able to arrive on May 15th, in the morning. And the funny thing is they have the visa waivers in 1962. And for one reason or another, basically because I was under military age, I was not able to leave Cuba. So on Tuesday, May the 13th, I went to a police station and I - following the guidance of a policeman, I declared myself a criminal, and he did all the paperwork. And by Friday morning, I was in Key West.
CONAN: And that quickly, you were Key in West?
SAUL: He was - I was so surprised. I remember being on the boat yet by the - in Key West. And I've - even when I was watched - I was able to see the American flag, the (unintelligible) everything, I thought it was a set up, that we were not in Key West, that we were in some place in Cuba. And we were going to be deported to Russia or place like that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SAUL: I'm sorry. It's amazing. I - I love this country very much for the opportunity of being here.
CONAN: Do you remember the name of the boat you came over, Saul?
SAUL: Yes, the Viking.
CONAN: The Viking. Okay.
SAUL: That's right.
Ms. YANEZ: There you go.
CONAN: ...thanks very much for the story.
SAUL: All right, sir. Thank you. Bye.
CONAN: Appreciate it. It's also interesting reading in the Miami Herald, Luisa Yanez, that because of people who did serve in the Cuban army, who were part of the Mariel boatlift, the United States debriefed them and got a lot of information.
Ms. YANEZ: That's true. At that point, it was chaos. You know, everybody was leaving Cuba. And the U.S. tried to monitor who was coming in. And they did - you know, if you had any sort of experience working with -for the Cuban government I think they questioned you. And, you know, they were also watching out for spies. If you saw, we have a story about that, too, that we think that maybe some spies had come in. But that would have been, you know, a small amount. But, yes, everybody - all you had to do...
CONAN: Well, the story about the spies concludes by people saying Fidel Castro already had plenty of spies in Florida. He didn't need anymore.
Ms. YANEZ: That's true. That's true. But, yeah, you know - and like Saul said, you know, all you had to do in Cuba was declare yourself a criminal because they were trying to get rid of all their criminal elements, so anybody could come. All you had to do was say you, you know, you wanted out and you were a criminal or a prostitute and they would let you get on a boat.
CONAN: We're talking with Luisa Yanez and with Cesar Odio about the Mariel boatlift 30 years ago. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go to Clifford(ph), Clifford with us from Lisbon in Connecticut.
CLIFFORD (Caller): Yes, hi. Long time listener, first time caller.
CONAN: Well, thank you for both of those.
CLIFFORD: Yeah. The lady that spoke first, she was saying that the government came and transferred her from her house and took her to a holding place or something like that.
CONAN: It was the Cuban government, yeah.
CLIFFORD: Right. Did the government know what was going on? Did they all plan this stuff and let the people that wanted to go, like her, know what was going on and...
CONAN: The Cuban government, you mean?
CONAN: How much do you know about that, Luisa Yanez?
Ms. YANEZ: Yes. This all begins - the Cuban government was well aware. This all begins on April 1st, 1980, when a group of Cubans break into the Peruvian embassy and 10,000 more Cubans follow them in there. Five days after this, Castro has a speech and he says, if you don't have the revolutionary blood, if you don't want to be part of this, go ahead and leave. We don't want you here. And that is what gives the impetus for all these people to - who wanted out to - gave them a way out.
CONAN: And mentioned that some were beaten up. They were considered by some to be traitors.
Ms. YANEZ: That's right.
Mr. ODIO: Neal, if I may. I want to point out that Castro did receive a huge defeat the day that 10,000 Cubans broke into the Peruvian embassy. That was a total embarrassment for him and his totalitarian government. Being the way they are, they turned the cars on the United States. And they used people as armed, like war, like if they were - so that's how they use this people, to get at the United States because they were embarrassed at the Peruvian embassy.
CONAN: All right.
Mr. ODIO: When 10,000 people were living in a house (unintelligible).
CONAN: All right. Here's an email we have from Gary(ph) in Iowa City -and Clifford, thanks very much for the call. In the discussion about the Mariel boats, I haven't heard any credit given to the man who made it happened, Jimmy Carter. He was vilified by Republicans, and it was part of the reason he lost the 1980 election.
Not the only reason he lost. But Luisa Yanez, of course, Castro let them go. Somebody had to let them in.
Ms. YANEZ: That's right. And Jimmy Carter very famously said, you know, we welcome you with open arms, and that turned out to be more than he expected. But Mariels have a soft spot in their heart for Jimmy Carter, believe it or not. You know, they still thank him through this day. You know, if it wasnt for Jimmy Carter, I wouldn't be in this country. So with Mariels, I think Jimmy is still very popular.
CONAN: Cesar Odio, can you tell us...
Mr. ODIO: Yes.
CONAN: ...in what way have the Marielitos changed the city of Miami?
Mr. ODIO: Well, the first thing you have to think about if you're sitting somewhere in Nebraska or Oklahoma or California, that the city of Miami had 400,000 people, population of - and all of a sudden, a small city somewhere in the United States is transferred in two months over to Miami.
And the reason I feel so proud about my city is that we took care of this problem. We did not have people living on the streets like had been pictured. The Mariels that arrived at that time, the people that arrived from Mariel at that time - I said it at the time under record that they had families here, they had already houses waiting for them, they had jobs waiting for them and they were absorbed into the community almost immediately.
Mr. ODIO: It was only few that had problems because they had no families here.
CONAN: Cesar Odio, former assistant city manager for the city of Miami, thank you for your time. Also our thanks to Luisa Yanez, a reporter for the Miami Herald, and our thanks also to the member station there in Miami, WLRN. Appreciate your time today. Thank you.
Ms. SANTANA-BRAVO: Thank you.
Ms. YANEZ: Thank you, Neal.
Mr. ODIO: Thank you.
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