Mariel Boatlift Revisited

It is fun to watch the left react to Trump’s suggestion that he might send migrants and asylum seekers to “sanctuary cities,” but their outrage may conceal the panic of the political fallout if Trump goes through with it, as he should.

Anyone remember the Mariel Boatlift in 1980? That’s when Fidel Castro declared that anyone who wanted to emigrate to the United States was free to do so within a narrow window of time. Within days, 125,000 Cubans were en route to the U.S. Just where did that rickety fleet come from on such short notice? No one seemed to be curious about that, though even slow learners eventually figured out that Castro used this “humanitarian” gesture to offload a lot of criminals, mentally ill persons, and other Cubans he wanted very much to be rid of. Which means the Cuban government was organized in advance for this “spontaneous” moment. As Harold Rood liked to say,” Nothing happens for no good reason.”

But that’s not the real fun part. Jimmy Carter sent a large number of the Mariel refugees to  camps in Arkansas, where public unhappiness contributed to the defeat of Gov. Bill Clinton in November that year. The Washington Post recalled this a few years ago:

The Forgotten Story of How Refugees Almost Ended Bill Clinton’s Career

The scene would later remind one witness of the Vietnam War.

“Plumes of smoke billowed high into the illuminated night sky from barracks that had been set afire,” David Maraniss wrote in The Washington Post. “Flames still flickered from a charred guardhouse. Whoops and fierce cries of defiance echoed across the camp. Shotgun-toting civilians in pickup trucks loomed a mile or so beyond the gate. The mood was tense and chaotic.”

But this wasn’t Vietnam — or Iraq in the wake of an Islamic State attack. This was Fort Chaffee, a military installation in Arkansas, on June 1, 1980, when refugees from Fidel Castro’s Cuba rioted. The refugees had been sent there at the behest of President Jimmy Carter over the vociferous objections of an Arkansas governor with quite a political future: Bill Clinton. . .

“The Fort Chaffee story is largely forgotten by the general public, but it’s a good bet that some governors haven’t forgotten its political lessons,” David A. Graham wrote at the Atlantic. . .

This part of the story may be my favorite detail:

First, Clinton suggested the refugees be screened on an aircraft carrier off of the Florida coast. Eidenburg said that didn’t make sense, because there was no place to put those refugees the United States wouldn’t accept.

“Sure there is,” Clinton replied, as recounted in his memoir “My Life.” “We still have a base at Guantanamo, don’t we? And there must be a gate in the fence that divides it from Cuba. Take them to Guantanamo, open the door, and march them back into Cuba.”

I think Trump should come out and say he’s decided to take advice on this matter from Bill Clinton. And then pass the popcorn.