Winds of change hit Cuba’s Mariel port
Site of massive exodus in 1980s now free trade zone project
Author: Andrea Torres, Local10.com Reporter, firstname.lastname@example.org
Hatzel Vela, Reporter, hvela@Local10.com
Published On: Oct 29 2015 06:42:25 PM EDT
Roberto Damas’ beloved island was in the hands of Fidel Castro’s
revolution, and after spending years as a political prisoner, he fled to
Miami in one of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson’s “freedom flights.”
Castro closed businesses and confiscated private property. Damas, 77,
was among an estimated quarter million Cubans, whom the U.S. welcomed as
political refugees by 1974. Leaving his family behind haunted him.
In the 1980s, Castro was allowing Cubans to leave the island. To help
rescue relatives, Damas and a few other families came up with $45,000 to
rent a 65-foot boat. They departed from Key West and arrived at the Port
of Mariel, west of Havana.
“I claimed 80 relatives,” Damas said, but only three made it out. “Our
boat was big. It was called ‘The Hurricane.'”
Officials made him wait for 11 days in the port. It was torture, he
said. After paying off officers, he was able to rescue his brother,
Carlos Damas, his sister-in-law, Consuelo Damas, and his niece Ileana.
There were at least 150 others in the boat, he said. They departed from
Felicia Vasquez Hernandez said the port was full of sadness, because
many knew that the families were not going to go back. There was also
fear about the dangers of crossing the Florida Straits.
Damas’ boat was not the only crowded vessel. Castro also deported common
criminals. Nancy Lima Diaz said she remembers there were hundreds of
boats. The exodus of about 125,000 between April and October 1980 became
known as the Mariel boat lift.
A lot has changed since Damas rescued his brother from Cuba’s Mariel
Harbor, now known as the $1 billion Mariel free trade zone project.
Castro handed over power to his brother, Raul Castro, and resigned in
2008. Container shipping was transferred from Havana to Mariel, though
the capital still receives fuel tankers.
Brazil helped to finance $682 million and Brazil’s Odebrecht engineering
group got a contract. The Mariel dredging project has a target depth of
59 feet to welcome mega-ships coming from the Panama Canal and the
Nicaragua canal project.
But with Odebrecht’s CEO, Marcelo Odebrecht, jailed in Brazil over
corruption and money laundering, the project may be facing
complications. Former president Luz Inacio Lula da Silva was accused of
lobbying for the company in Cuba, but he denies allegations and has not
been charged, Brazilian magazine Epoca reported.
President Barack Obama eased economic restrictions, despite a trade
embargo that remains in place under U.S. law. This upset Damas, who
hasn’t been back to Cuba since he rescued his brother in Mariel.
Damas, who lives in Miami-Dade County, has children and grandchildren
who were born and raised in the United States. He also has relatives on
the island whom he hasn’t met.
“I am not going back there — not while Communism still exists,” Damas said.
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