Returning to Cuba we learn how a mass migration turned into a Cold War drama : White Lies The story of the men on the roof didn't start with that prison takeover in 1991. It didn't start when they were detained in federal prisons. And it didn't start when the government made a secret list of their names in 1984. Instead, it started in the spring of 1980, with one of the largest refugee crises in American history: the Mariel Boatlift. Want to hear the next episode of White Lies a week before everyone else? Sign up for Embedded+ at

The Boatlift

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Previously on WHITE LIES...

MARY HOGAN: You had that kind of in the back of your head, that bad things could happen any second.


ROBERT MACNEIL: Cuban inmates took over part of a federal prison in Talladega, Ala., today.

JERRY WALSH: Had the whole list been deported, there wouldn't have been any more reason for my job.

LINDA CALHOUN: Even though we were a hostage and they threatened us and everything, they still treated us with dignity and respect.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Justice, freedom or death.


GARY LESHAW: These guys...

BRANTLEY: Hey. I'm Chip Brantley.

LESHAW: ...Chip and Andy...


Hey - nice to meet you.

LESHAW: More people working on the Cuban stuff.



GRACE: We're in downtown Atlanta at the offices of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. And our guide - Gary Leshaw, a longtime staff attorney here.

LESHAW: Let's go upstairs. I don't know if Angie is here. I mean, I'm - I don't - I'm happy to talk to you guys. I'm a little scattered today...


LESHAW: ...Because of stuff.

GRACE: Yeah.

While Gary is now retired, he worked here for 20 years. And he still does a lot of volunteer work for legal aid, so he finds himself in the office quite a bit.

LESHAW: I'm going upstairs, but we'll be up and down, so don't lock me out.

GRACE: Gary wants us to meet some of the attorneys, the building manager, the security guy.

LESHAW: Hey. This is Chip and Andy - more Cuban stuff.



GRACE: And he's doing all this because he wants us to have access to what has been brought out of storage and placed in the basement.

LESHAW: All right. Let's go back down.

BRANTLEY: When the men on the roof took over the prison in Talladega, they'd asked the FBI if Gary Leshaw could be one of the mediators. And they'd asked because Leshaw had represented many of them for years in their attempts to get released.

LESHAW: If you were on that list to be deported and you were still in custody, you ended up in Talladega. When I was at Talladega, that's how I spent my Saturdays every other - at least every other weekend. We got a bunch of volunteers from Atlanta, drove to Talladega, talked to clients.

BRANTLEY: Lawyers and volunteers for the Atlanta Legal Aid Society had represented hundreds of these Cuban clients.

LESHAW: There was some sympathy for the situation they were in. I mean, people who had been following it knew that these people were being indefinitely detained. They're not being held because they're charged with a crime. You can't just keep these people in jail until they die.

BRANTLEY: The legal defense from dozens of attorneys for hundreds of clients generates an enormous amount of paperwork. And those records are now sitting in this room in the basement - the entire legal history, basically the entire saga of what brought those men from Cuba to the roof of the prison in Talladega.

LESHAW: Maybe it's easier to scan. There's a lot. There's all kinds of crap here.


GRACE: There's a whole wall of legal boxes stacked one atop the other. We pull one out to take a look.

LESHAW: See; some of this stuff - like, you see Cuban files, attorney records. That's mixed between the asylum issue and the indefinite detention. Attorney notes, attorney correspondence - there's some stuff...

GRACE: If the men on the roof were gone, if the Earth really had swallowed them, we knew when we first saw this room that the search for them ought to start here.

LESHAW: I don't know what all these are pictures of.


LESHAW: That's one of the guys. That's the guy who was No. 12. These are guys who were killed in prison. Software, floppy disk, Cuban files - what can you do with floppy disks these days?

GRACE: We'd end up spending a lot of time scanning the files in the basement of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society.

LESHAW: Cuba files, Cuban files, government records, one of three, Department of Justice...

GRACE: Ooh - prison box, two of two, Cuban detainee index, list of deported detainees.

LESHAW: That sounds promising - handwritten notes from Carlos someone in Talladega.

BRANTLEY: Three...

GRACE: We decided to scan everything here, to turn every last page. And by the time it was all over, we created a searchable database of 23,940 pages. And this database filled with names, dates, details, case numbers - it would become a guide to our reporting for years to come.


BRANTLEY: We'll return to Gary Leshaw, to these files in the basement of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. But today we're going to go back to the very beginning. The plight of the men on the roof didn't start when they arrived in Talladega, and it didn't start when the government made a secret list of their names in 1984. And it didn't start when legal aid began representing them. Instead, it started in the spring of 1980 with one of the largest refugee crises in American history.


BRANTLEY: From NPR, this is WHITE LIES. I'm Chip Brantley.

GRACE: And I'm Andrew Beck Grace.

MIRTA OJITO: Knowing that my parents always wanted to leave Cuba was just something I grew up with. I don't remember a moment when anybody told me. It didn't have to be said. It was just there in the background or sometimes even in the foreground of our lives.

GRACE: That's Mirta Ojito. She's a journalist and writer living in Miami, but she was born in Havana in 1964.

OJITO: Both my father and my mother were from the countryside. Both had very little education - sixth grade from rural schools. He drove a truck, and my mother worked at home. She was a seamstress. He was a well-read man. Well, both were very good readers, but particularly my father had the idea that there was another way to live.

GRACE: Five years before Mirta was born, Fidel Castro had come to power at the end of the Cuban Revolution, a long and dramatic guerrilla war against Cuba's corrupt dictator. And early on, Castro signaled his allegiance to the Soviet Union. This was peak Cold War, when the U.S. and the Soviets were competing for influence all over the globe. But up until this point, most of that had happened far away from the U.S. Now, just 90 miles from Florida, Cuba was poised to become the United States' communist neighbor, the Soviet Union's only ally in the Western Hemisphere.

OJITO: Though he never particularly liked the previous regime, he felt he had a degree of personal freedom that had been taken away from him. And it was that personal freedom that he really needed in his life and that he was willing to sacrifice everything and leave Cuba to obtain again.

GRACE: Mirta's parents were denied a visa from the Cuban government shortly after the revolution because her father was still of military age. But throughout the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Cubans who were wealthy and connected enough to get off the island did so. And to encourage Cubans to come to the U.S., President Johnson signed the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966. The new law meant that the U.S. would treat Cuban immigrants differently than those from other countries, granting them - among other things - a much faster road to a green card. Basically, if you could get to the U.S., you could stay. One of Mirta's uncles got out in 1971. But Castro, seeing so much of Cuba's professional class leaving for the U.S., clamped down on the exodus. In 1972, he ended the program known as the Freedom Flights, which over the course of seven years had brought 300,000 Cubans to the U.S. Castro called all those who had left or who wished to leave enemies of the revolution - gusanos, or worms.


OJITO: But the '70s in Cuba - I would say from 1972 to 1979, Cuba was truly an island, perhaps for the first time in its history. No one was leaving, and no one was coming in, except certain people from the Soviet bloc. We were isolated from the world - no communications, no magazines, no radio, no TV and no tourists.

BRANTLEY: But then in the summer of 1979, with the Cuban economy in freefall, Castro desperately needed an influx of tourist dollars, so he did what seemed unthinkable at the time. He agreed to let Cuban exiles in the U.S. back to the island to visit family. Among these visitors were some of Mirta's family, including that uncle they hadn't seen in eight years.

OJITO: These people that for years and years we have been taught to hate. They have been called gusanos - worms - because they have left Cuba and they have, quote-unquote, "betrayed" the revolution, which was akin of betraying Cuba. And all of a sudden, they return as butterflies rather than worms, and I understood that we have been lied to.


BRANTLEY: The exiled Cubans brought stories with them, stories of vast, always stocked grocery stores and car loans and Disney World. The picture was not entirely rosy. They'd all worked hard in the U.S., and they missed their island and their families and friends. But the life they described of freedom and mobility was like a dream to Mirta and her family. And in addition to their stories, they brought Jordache jeans and new sneakers and lipstick and other tangible things that spoke to the possibility of a prosperous life in America.

OJITO: I do remember that they brought me a very nice suit - I think it was wine-colored - and a beautiful pair of shoes, also wine-colored, high-heeled, that I wore one day and just felt like I was on top of the world with that outfit. But really, the worst thing that's happened in this process, it's not the lack of material things, maybe not even lack of personal freedoms; I think it's been family separation. There is not one single family that has not been touched in one way or another by separation. And so many people grew even more disenchanted with the revolution and the things that we have been told. And they wanted some of what the relatives had, but they wanted it in the United States.

BRANTLEY: By the early months of 1980, more than 100,000 exiles have visited family in Cuba. On the island, there's growing unrest about the struggling economy, the tightening of food rations, the restrictions on personal freedom. Many Cubans have had enough. The only legal way for Cubans to get off the island is to get a visa, but that's virtually impossible. Some Cubans have been stealing boats to take to Florida, so the harbors have become heavily patrolled. Others have taken to breaking into foreign embassies to claim political asylum, and it's worked, at least well enough that most of the embassies have become fortified by this point.


GRACE: On the afternoon of April 1, 1980, a group of Cubans commandeers a city bus in Havana. In the days before, they'd scouted the embassies and discovered that the Peruvian Embassy seemed to have fewer Cuban guards out front, and it sat on a corner of two wide thoroughfares, plenty of road for a driver to build up speed as he approached the gates. The bus and its passengers speed toward the embassy, and the driver aims for the front gates. The Cuban guards begin shooting at the bus, which sideswipes a tree, crashes through the gates and comes to a stop. Just the front part of the bus has made it through the gates, so the driver opens only the front door, and then he climbs down the steps and collapses on the ground. Even though his body is still in central Havana, legally speaking he is now in Peru.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: In Havana today, the strange story of the embassy of Peru continued...

BRANTLEY: During the incident, a Cuban guard is shot and killed in the crossfire. But Peru, citing international law, agrees to grant everyone on the bus asylum, which infuriates Castro. And so to retaliate, he removes all the Cuban guards from the Peruvian Embassy and announces that anyone who wants asylum can have it.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: It all began last Friday when Cuban guards and barricades were removed from the embassy, at first a trickle of people and then a torrent. The Cuban government calls them common delinquents, anti-social vagrants and bums but said they were free to leave Cuba. When this news...

BRANTLEY: Castro figures that only a handful of people will try to leave, enough to burden the Peruvian officials but not so many that anyone would notice. But within days, with 10,000 people crowded on the embassy lawn and diminishing food and water, it has become a humanitarian disaster and an international embarrassment.

GRACE: The story of Cuba after the revolution and the story of this moment in particular is as much a story about Miami as it is about Havana. In the 20 years since the revolution, nearly three quarters of a million Cubans have come to the U.S., with the biggest group of them in Miami. And Cubans have thrived there. Many city and business leaders are Cuban, and the exile community is a growing force in national politics. So when the crisis at the Peruvian embassy starts to unfold, the Cubans in Miami are ready to act.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: It was one of the biggest demonstrations in Miami's history. Thousands of Cuban exiles filled the streets to show their support for the Cubans at the Peruvian embassy in Havana. They also showed their hatred for Cuban President Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Spanish).

NAPOLEON VILABOA: You have to remember I know Castro. I have a very good relation with him.

GRACE: We're at a nondescript ranch-style house in a neighborhood full of them in a suburb 45 minutes south of Miami. The house belongs to a man in his early 80s. He's wearing an undershirt and a cardigan. And with his white beard and his round belly, he looks a little bit like an off-duty Santa Claus. This man we've come to visit - he has the impressive, improbable name of Napoleon Vilaboa.

VILABOA: Because, for example, I was one of the founder of the 26 of July movement, when...

GRACE: Napoleon has had quite a life. Born in Cuba, he fought for the revolution, then became disenchanted not with Castro so much but with Castro's turn to communism, which he hated. So he joined the U.S.-trained forces to fight in the Bay of Pigs. After that mission's spectacular failure, he became an outspoken member of the Cuban exile community in Miami. Napoleon was part of the so-called Committee of 75, which had negotiated with Castro to allow those visits from Cuban exiles in the U.S., like Mirta's uncle, whose family had brought her that wine-colored suit. For Castro, these visits were a much-needed jolt to the Cuban economy. But as Napoleon remembers it, allowing the exiles to visit was Castro's biggest miscalculation.

VILABOA: He always wanted to be in power. That's all. But the only time he made a mistake in this is the visitor of the Cuban exiles because the only way to maintain his regime is to don't permit nobody to come. It's like North Korea. That's all. That's all. You close. That's all. Nobody go out. Nobody go in. That's all.

BRANTLEY: Nobody goes out. Nobody comes in. That's how Cuba had been for years. But then the exiles returned with their stories and their photos of their cars and their houses. And these visits began to erode many Cubans' faith in the revolution, contributing to the drama at the Peruvian embassy, which is getting more embarrassing for Castro with every passing day. Watching it all unfold, Napoleon thinks about those visits with the Cuban exiles. And then he gets an idea.


BRANTLEY: This is a story Napoleon tells about what happens next. Even though he'd been exiled from Cuba after the Bay of Pigs, in 1980, he still has many friends in the Cuban government, including one of Castro's closest advisers. He explains his idea to the adviser, who then takes it to Castro. The next day, Napoleon is in Havana waiting for an audience with the Cuban leader. When it's finally time to meet, Napoleon is escorted to a private floor in the Riviera Hotel and offered a scotch. When Fidel arrives, Napoleon stands to shake the comandante's hand. Castro hugs him instead.


GRACE: Here's what Napoleon says he tells Castro. The exiles in the U.S. want nothing more than to be reunited with their Cuban relatives. What if they were allowed to come down by boat and bring back some family members if they also brought some of the refugees from the embassy? Castro is desperate to resolve the situation at the Peruvian embassy, so he agrees to a one-for-one deal. For every embassy refugee taken from the port of Mariel, he will allow one family member to leave. That means Napoleon will have to drum up enough support in the Cuban exile community to transport more than 20,000 people by boat.


DIANA GONZALEZ: Cuba, the Bay of Mariel, 25 miles west of Havana. This morning, nearly 200 Cubans were being loaded onto four boats bound for Florida. This news comes from Napoleon Vilaboa, one of the first Cuban exiles from Miami to arrive at Mariel. The trip from Mariel to Key West takes about 10 hours. Officials fear some of the boats are not large enough to handle the trip across the rough waters of the Florida Straits. But the legal and safety issues are being overlooked by these people. The important thing, they say, is to get their relatives out before Castro changes his mind. Diana Gonzalez.


GRACE: This is the beginning of what will soon be known as the Mariel boatlift. And as Napoleon leads the first fleet of boats across the Florida Straits, word is already trapped throughout the exile community. If you can get a boat to Mariel Harbor, you just might be able to bring your family to freedom.


BUD NAVARRO: And there's no violence attached to Key West's history. It's always been a real easygoing, multi, you know, ethnic, multi-sexual, multi-whatever kind of melting pot of a town because it's a little island wracked by hurricanes and fires. It's an all-wooden town, so it's burned down more than a few times.

BRANTLEY: That's Bud Navarro. He's lived in Key West since the mid-1970s and sees himself as a kind of expat from the mainland. It's unclear exactly what Bud does for a living. But he's a raconteur who writes books about local legends and his memories of the nearly 50 years he's been in the southernmost point of the U.S.

NAVARRO: When we got here, the whole town was broke down, cheap and chipped gray. The whole town was just chipped wooden houses and were all gray. You'll see a few of them here and there. And the reason they were gray, which is now a color you may not use to paint a house, is because everybody stole their paint from the Navy base. (Laughter) So all the houses were painted battleship gray.


BRANTLEY: Bud remembers early April of 1980, when the first boats led by Napoleon were crossing back from Mariel with Cuban refugees.

NAVARRO: The night before the official announcement hit the news, we were taking a break from a restaurant up the street. And suddenly, we hear cars honking, people waving Cuban flags going all crazy all over town. And they had received shortwave transmissions from their Cuban relatives that Fidel was letting grandma, essentially, come, you know? So suddenly, there's a number of Miami Cubans coming down with suitcases loaded with money. And the idea is they're coming down here to charter a boat to take them over to pick up grandma.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Here at Marathon, about 14 boats - from rickety 21-footers to a new, turbo-powered Carrera - awaited clearance to sail from U.S. customs.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I'm going to pick up some relatives for my mother.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: How long has it been since you've seen these relatives?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I've never seen my - the ones I'm going to pick up. I have to bring someone with me that can verify that that's them. We got letters. And when we get there, we give them the names. And hopefully, they'll come with us, you know? I don't know. I might go there and not even bring nothing back, but I'll bring somebody back.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Some of these people have waited more than 20 years to be reunited with their families.

BRANTLEY: A curious detail of U.S. immigration policy at the time was that any Cuban national who made it to U.S. territorial waters could take advantage of the Cuban Adjustment Act, the 1966 law that gave Cubans special immigration status. So in the first few days of the boatlift, Cuban exiles from all over the country descend on South Florida, looking to hire any captain with any boat to make the trip. It's a bonanza. Bud remembers legendary Key West treasure hunter Mel Fisher negotiating deals between captains and Cubans searching for boats.

NAVARRO: There was a restaurant called the Fourth of July on White Street. That whole neighborhood was very Cuban. And so Mel is standing on a table. And he's got all these Miami Cubans with suitcases full of money on one side of the room. And he's got all of these local boat captains on the other side of the room. And they're just matching them up. And people are getting, really, a lot of money to do this.

GAIL MILLER: We'd been fishing, but we - not with a great deal of success. And the captain was bored. He listened to the radio. We were listening. And Castro invited any Americans that wanted to come get their families to come and get them.

GRACE: When the news breaks about Mariel, Gail Miller is a first mate on a fishing boat based out of Long Island that spends winters and early spring down in the Florida Keys.

MILLER: So we pulled the anchor, went in, drove down to Garrison Bight, found a gentleman who was all dressed up in a silk suit with shiny shoes. And he, like many others, had left the job at lunchtime, picked up a bag full of money and drove to Key West and negotiated with us a deal to take him to Mariel.

MARSHALL SOLOMON: It was a beautiful day. The waves were very minimal, beautiful, indigo blue waters, clear skies, sunny. It was just a great crossing.

GRACE: Marshall Solomon is 34 years old in 1980. Working out of Fort Lauderdale, he's hired by eight Cuban Americans to captain a 40-foot sportfishing boat to Mariel. They plan to bring back close to 30 family members. This will make the boat nearly overloaded. So to make room for everyone and to protect the boat, Marshall and the boat's owners strip it of all of its furnishings.

SOLOMON: When we got to Mariel, which was late in the day, actually, towards dusk, we were met by Cuban gunboats - black, foul-looking, old boats, sinister-looking things that came up alongside of us with searchlights and bullhorns and instructions in Spanish. I had no expectations that it was as large an area as it turned out to be, a huge - I mean, probably three miles or so by a mile wide, and just thousands of boats in there. I mean, it was just unbelievable. At night, it was just lit up like a Christmas tree of boats out on the water.


GRACE: A week into the boatlift, when Marshall leaves from Mariel, more than a thousand boats have already made the journey. And the harbor itself has been transformed from a sleepy industrial port to a teeming city on the water.

SOLOMON: It was basically just thousands of small boats, all anchored helter-skelter around the bay and people carrying on. I mean, you could hear radios and laughing and singing. And, you know, it was like old home week or something, like you had a giant Cuban reunion (laughter).


MILLER: Oh, we thought, go there, get them, come back. But there were 4,000 boats there. And Mariel is like your hand. And each finger is another part of the harbor. There was a boat full of militiamen, Cuban militiamen. And they would go from boat to boat. And they would spend some time talking to the people on the boats that had arrived from the West about who they wanted, where they lived, what's their phone number, how do we get them. And they would connect the names with the number that they gave that boat. And then you would hear them sometimes going through the harbor, calling for the name of a boat that they were looking for.

GRACE: Marshall expects to be gone no longer than a week. But one week turns into two and then three. But he stays. And as they wait with all those other boats, he becomes more and more aware of the significance of what is happening.

SOLOMON: I mean, you get so close to these people. You know, you become so involved in their struggle. There was just no help for them if we didn't help them. I put myself in that position of, what would I do to get my brother out or my father, my mother? You know, what - how far would I go? And, you know, the answer to that is simply, you'd go to the whatever it took. You do whatever you had to do. And that's what it became.


OJITO: There was an announcement in the paper saying that there were boats headed our way. And so my father immediately went to call his brother. And when he called, he was told that his brother had already left in a boat. My mother then went to get her sister, who lived in a sort of faraway neighborhood. And then, when I woke up the next day, I woke up with my mother and my aunt crying at the foot of my bed because supposedly, we were leaving Cuba that day, that very day.

BRANTLEY: Castro's announcement that anyone who wanted to leave could do so breaks something loose in Cuba. Families who have resigned themselves to the idea of never being allowed to leave are now presented with an extraordinary opportunity. All around the island, in hushed conversations, people discuss their options. Mirta and her family don't up leaving the day she awakens with her mother and aunt crying at the foot of her bed, but they do begin a process. And that changes everything about their lives.

OJITO: The months of Mariel were extremely difficult in Cuba. I'm not going to say we had the beginning of a civil war, but at times, it seemed like it. The government instigated so-called acts of repudiation. So the moment that it became known that you were leaving the country through the Mariel boatlift, a brigade of neighbors or maybe co-workers or just people, random people, would descend on your house, and they began yelling and throwing tomatoes or eggs and calling you names and harassing you. In some cases, it got physical; it got violent.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: There has been violence in Cuba against Cubans trying to leave the country, and there was more today. At the U.S. Interests Section offices in Havana, 1,500 Cubans trying to get visas were attacked by Cuban security officers in gangland style. The security men pounded the Cubans with clubs and chains.

BRANTLEY: Castro enlists the government-organized neighborhood watch groups - officially called the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution - to ramp up their surveillance and intimidation efforts and to commit these so-called acts of repudiation.


BILL MCLAUGHLIN: The people of Cuba are marching again in a kind of political carnival.

BRANTLEY: And there are government-sponsored marches, too. NBC News gets a reporter into Havana to cover it all.


MCLAUGHLIN: It has always been an article of faith of the Cuban Revolution that the threat to Cuba is foreign - specifically the United States. Now the regime is doing its best to ignore a new and frightening possibility - that the real threat to Cuba is inside Cuba itself. Inside the minds of thousands of Cubans who have grown up with the revolution. Bill McLaughlin, NBC News.

OJITO: Those days, from the time I heard we were living to the time when I actually left, were very, very tense because we had to pretend that we were not leaving, or we would also be victims of an act of repudiation. The day that I thought I was leaving, I called my friend Kathy, and I asked her to do my hair. Now, I never, ever did my hair. So when I called her, she knew something was up. She knew there was no party, or she would have gone, too. So it had to be something different.

But she never asked. She washed my hair in the sink, put the rollers on, fixed my hair really pretty, and then went home and never once asked me why I wanted my hair done, which, to me, is really very telling about Cuba then, where good friends, people who've known each other since they were kids - our parents knew each other, and we were neighbors, too - can't be honest, can't really say something as huge as, you know, I'm leaving Cuba, possibly today. So I didn't tell anybody.

ARIEL GIL: People were just afraid. I mean, people knew that something was happening 'cause my generation had never experienced an upheaval such as that one. We felt it was just civil war.

GRACE: In 1980, Ariel Gil is 19 years old. He's gifted with languages. He had just been hired as a Russian interpreter at the Ministry of Exterior Trade when, like practically every male of military age, he's drafted to fight in Angola, in a war he wasn't even sure he believed in. Since the mid-1970s, Castro has been sending thousands of troops to Africa as part of Soviet-backed military operations. Ariel remembers vividly seeing the first caskets coming back from Angola.

GIL: I do recall, for instance, Carlos Armanades, who was my age, and we basically completed our elementary school together. He died in Angola. He was one of the first from my town that was drafted to Angola, and he was killed. And I attended his funeral. His coffin was draped, you know, with a Cuban flag, and it was an open casket. Here is Carlos. His body is definitely in a box. And I'm young. I'm his age. I said, well, it could have been me, could have been any of us.

GRACE: So for Ariel Gil, in the barracks east of Havana, the idea that he might be able to finally get off the island and avoid the horrors of fighting in Angola feels like the answer to a prayer.

GIL: The only way you could get out of the army was by medical discharge. So I concocted a plan. Whenever they asked us to go to sleep, they would see me walking around. And I said, well, what do you want me to do? I can't sleep. I would constantly go into the infirmary. And the doctor would say, we're busy. We can't see you. I said, well, I don't care because I'm not moving from here until you see me because I said, I haven't slept in 12 days. So I was making myself sick. I had rings around my eyes. I lost an enormous amount of weight. I was creating a case, justifying the medical discharge.

GRACE: And finally, it works. He receives a medical discharge, moves back in with his parents and begins making arrangements to leave on the boatlift.


GIL: I told mom - I said, listen, you cannot tell anyone. And I said, you know, I'm not going to have neighbors break our home that dad worked so hard to build. And so this is my plan. I didn't even bother to tell my dad because I knew it was going to break his heart. So once it was, you know, cemented and a sure thing, that's when I gathered my brothers, my parents, my sister-in-law, in our tiny, little living room. And I told them.


GIL: I said, well, this is my plan. And it's a matter of time now when immigration knocks on the door and gets me out to go to Mariel. My dad was silent. He didn't say a word. I could see his eyes welling up with tears, but he didn't say a word. And my mom, of course, had no choice because she already knew that if she cried, I would stay in Cuba.

GRACE: Do you remember that? - that kind of last, you know, leaving to go to your friend's house knowing that this is kind of it and not knowing necessarily what's going to happen to you and if you're going to see your family again and what that was like for you?

GIL: Wow. Wow. I'm saying wow because I had never stopped to think about leaving the house, not until now. I would like to describe to you - of course, we're on the phone. We're not face-to-face here. But I'd like to describe to you all the details, and I can't. For instance, when you asked the question, I had to stop and think, well, I do recall waking up that morning, taking a quick shower, brushing my teeth and just pretty much getting ready. I remember I was sitting in my bed - a twin bed. Mom, of course, brewed some coffee. And I remember she brought it to me. And she said, well, I'm worried. I said, of course, you are. But nothing is going to happen. Dad was not in the house. And that's it. And I just zoomed out of the house. I don't remember hugging my mom. I guess I was so desperate to leave, I didn't look back.


OJITO: So it was May 7 when the police arrived. And there was a knock on the door. And I was home getting ready for school. I was having lunch. I was having a sandwich - an egg sandwich and a yogurt. I mean, I knew that somebody was already coming upstairs because I heard. And I knew that one of them was the downstairs neighbor, who happened to be also the president of the watchdog committee. My mother and I were home. And we opened the door. And this man just read our names - all of our names. And then he said, there's a boat waiting for you. Get everybody. And my mother got immediately very flustered. She said, my husband is not here. My other daughter's in school. And he said, well, you need to go get them.

And so I got dressed. And I went back to - went outside to a terrace. And I saw my mother come back. And she was faint with emotion. I remember her knees buckled. I saw her. And then I got a little bit nervous. But I - you know, she was OK. She came upstairs. And I stood in the terrace just kind of waiting and saying goodbye to - mental goodbye to my neighborhood but also my childhood, my life in Cuba. The idea was that I was never going to go back.


GRACE: Here's how it would work. The Cuban authorities would come for you. Maybe there would be a neighborhood watch group there to throw eggs and attack you and call you and your family worms and scum. And then you'd board a bus to make the 35-mile trip to Mariel. There, a wait in an old army barracks nicknamed El Mosquito. Whatever you've taken with you from your home is at risk of being confiscated. Wedding rings are taken. Most refugees leave Cuba with only the clothes on their backs. The wait in El Mosquito can be relatively quick, or it can take weeks. That's what happened to Ariel, who realized later he turned 20 waiting in the camp. And then often without much warning, your name is called, and you're boarding a boat overcrowded with strangers. It's likely you've never been aboard a boat. But soon, you're exiting the harbor and heading toward the open water of the Florida Straits, leaving the island - the only place you've ever known - behind you.


OJITO: I was downstairs making sandwiches for everybody because I wanted to keep busy. And then there was a woman downstairs who must have come in the boat because I don't think she was one of the group. I do remember that her name was Blanca. And she said, well, we're leaving Cuba now. You need to go upstairs and see Cuba for the last time. And so I ran upstairs, and I saw us leave, and you could see the outline of the island - all green. And as we were leaving and I stayed there staring until I couldn't see it anymore.


BRANTLEY: The boat captain, Marshall Solomon, ends up spending nearly a month waiting in the harbor. By the end, he's running out of food, and the Cuban authorities have jacked up the price of all the supplies in the harbor. He thought he'd leave with nearly 40 people aboard, which was already too many for the boat. But the number of Cubans who want to leave has far exceeded anyone's expectations. By the time Marshall leaves the harbor, Cuban officials have forced him to take aboard 77 people. And the weather is getting worse by the hour.

SOLOMON: Seas were rough. I had a lot of people onboard the vessel. I knew that all these people, for the most part, had never been on a boat before. And they weren't just going out for, you know, an afternoon cruise; they were going out into some vicious weather. We - a 40-foot boat, and we were getting waves that would spray up to the flybridge, which was, you know, 12 feet off the water's surface. And we were getting, you know, green water over the bow.

While we were crossing, a man was laying down in the cockpit floor and - which was, you know, basically had several inches of water streaming across it. And there must have been probably - I don't know - 30 of them in the cockpit area, maybe more. And he had obviously gotten seasick and, you know, become so ill he could no longer stand up. You know, through sign gestures, I basically asked the - those fellows that were standing by him to get him up and see if he was OK, or did we need to turn back, you know, if he was - if it was life-threatening or something like that. And he said something to me that kind of made - it's hard for me to even talk about this. But he got up, as sick as he was, and he was green sick as they talk about in seasickness, OK? And he struggled to his feet with the help of some other men there. And I said, do we need to go back? Do you need medical attention? And he said, no, no. Go America. Go America. Go freedom. And, you know, when you hear something like that, you - it puts it in perspective of what you've done and why you're doing it and how important it is.


BRANTLEY: And that's it, right? That's the kind of immigration story we like to hear. We're the beacon on the hill. It's Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Sometimes this kind of theater can be a good thing because in this case, we were living up to the story we tell about ourselves. And it's not theater but history to say that most of the people who came during the boatlift ended up embodying the kinds of stories we like to hear, the good kind of theater about immigration, stories of families reunited and American dreams attained.

Mirta and her family were received by relatives in Miami, where she learned English, finished school and eventually became an award-winning journalist. And Ariel, sponsored by his godmother in New York, became a language teacher at a university. But 125,000 Cuban refugees would make their way to the U.S. during the boatlift, 100,000 more than Vilaboa bargained for and that the United States initially expected. Strictly speaking, from the U.S. government's perspective, the whole thing was illegal. The men and women arriving had no formal entry papers to come into the country. And almost from the beginning of the boatlift, the U.S. government struggled to craft a coherent policy about what to do with all these people.

JACK WATSON: The numbers started exploding. And what had been just a trickle, originally, became a flood.

GRACE: Jack Watson was an adviser in Jimmy Carter's White House, tasked by the president with coordinating the response to the boatlift. The president himself had made no formal comments about what was happening in south Florida - that is, until Monday, May 5, 1980. According to the presidential daily log, President Carter got a haircut around 9:30, welcomed the visiting foreign secretary of the U.K. and met with Vice President Walter Mondale at the White House. In the evening, he played tennis with Rosalynn. And then the first family retired to the White House theater to watch Steve Martin in "The Jerk." But there's just one thing anyone will really remember about that day. It came in the Q&A session after a speech at the National League of Women Voters conference. By this point, the boatlift was leading nearly every newscast with images from Key West of Cuban refugees disembarking from overcrowded boats.

WATSON: I remember the day that President Carter was going to give a speech to some group in Washington, D.C. - the luncheon speech.

GRACE: It was the League of Women Voters.

WATSON: Yes. Thank you.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Delegates now have to remain seated until he arrives, and then you know it is protocol to stand when the president comes in.

WATSON: That very morning, I had become informed, better than I had been the day before, of what was beginning to break. So I went into the president's office, before he went to the speech, and I said, Mr. President, be careful about what you say here. We - it's hard to tell how big this is going to be. It's hard to tell what we're - the full scope and dimension of what we're going to have to be dealing with. Take care not to overcommit.

GRACE: During his speech, Carter had avoided mentioning the boatlift. But then in the Q&A section afterward, a delegate asked a question about what exactly the federal government was planning to do about the thousands of Cuban refugees arriving every day.


JIMMY CARTER: We are the most generous nation on Earth in receiving refugees. And I feel very deeply that this commitment should be maintained. Ours is a country of refugees.

GRACE: The beginning of Carter's answer echoed that old American story about the country, about how the grandparents and great-grandparents of the very people sitting in the room listening to him speak had come from elsewhere to settle this country. Why should those coming from Cuba today be any different? He was leaning into the theater here, imploring his audience to welcome the stranger, to be empathetic to the plight of these migrants. And he was doing a pretty good job of not making any specific commitment toward the Cubans, at least until the very end.


CARTER: But we'll continue to provide an open heart and open arms to refugees seeking freedom from Communist domination and from economic deprivation brought about primarily by Fidel Castro and his government.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: President Carter said today that the United States will welcome Cuban refugees with an open heart and open arms. And they were taking him at his word.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: While President Carter says these refugees are welcome in the United States, it'll take more than words to unclog this traffic jam in Key West.

BRANTLEY: So you knew right away that that was going to be a problem?


BRANTLEY: And when did it become a problem?

WALSH: Almost immediately, almost immediately because the press was saying, well, the president's saying we welcome you all with open arms and open heart, while others in the government are saying we need to proceed with some caution here. One hundred thirty thousand, more or less, Cubans crossed our shores illegally. They were coming into the country without having gone through the procedures that are applicable to them. There were thousands of people who didn't have so much as a friend, much less a family member whom they could call or with whom they could stay. What do you do with those people? They get out of their boats, and they walk through the water onto the shore, and they're yours. What do you do with them?


BRANTLEY: For those like Mirta and Ariel, who already had family in the country, the process was straightforward. But for everyone else, those arriving with no connections in the U.S., with only the clothes on their backs, the government was scrambling to figure out what to do. And it was all about to get much more difficult. What for weeks had been cast as the Freedom Flotilla was in the national imagination becoming something much darker.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: These are sociopaths. They're not good citizens. They have no potential to be good citizens.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: A lot of them came from prison in Cuba.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: It'd be like if an invading army was dropped in here to rape, pillage and burn in our town.

MIMI WHITEFIELD: These rumors just sort of went crazy.


BRANTLEY: Those rumors - that's next time on WHITE LIES.


GRACE: If you want to hear our next episode now, before everyone else, sign up for Embedded Plus at or find the Embedded channel in Apple. It's a great way to support our work, and you'll get to listen to the entire season sponsor-free. That's

BRANTLEY: WHITE LIES is reported, written and produced by us and Connor Towne O'Neill. Liana Simstrom is our supervising producer. Annie Iezzi is our associate producer. Robert Little edits the show, with help from Bruce Auster, Keith Woods, Christopher Turpin and Kamala Kelkar. Our incredible score is composed and performed by Jeff T. Byrd.

GRACE: Emily Bogle is senior visual editor. Barbara van Woerkem is our fact-checker. We had production help from Pablo Arguelles. Our audio engineer is Maggie Luthar. Special thanks to Radiohead for the use of their song "The National Anthem," courtesy of XL Recordings and Warner Chappell music.

BRANTLEY: Archival tape in this episode comes from the "PBS NewsHour" Collection in the American Archive of Public Broadcasting. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Historical Library, NBC, ABC, CBS, Miami Dade College's Wolfson Archives and the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum.

GRACE: Special thanks to Steve Gottlieb and James Meeks at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Luis Hernandez from WLRN in Miami, Jane Woolridge and the Miami Herald, Jacqui Fulton and Wayne Smith. We also want to give a shout out to Mirta Ojito's excellent book about the Mariel boatlift. It's called "Finding Manana." Check it out.

BRANTLEY: We are so grateful for the work of Micah Ratner and NPR's legal team and Tony Cavin, NPR's standards and practices editor. Our project manager is Margaret Price. Irene Noguchi is the executive producer of NPR's Enterprise Storytelling Unit. And Anya Grundmann is NPR senior vice president for programming and audience development.


RADIOHEAD: (Singing) Everyone, everyone is so near. Everyone has got the fear. It's holding on. It's holding on.

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