BEGINNING ON APRIL 20, 1980, thousands of Cuban emigrants began sailing in hundreds of small boats from Cuba, to seek greater freedom in Florida. Among them were significant numbers of what the Castro regime labeled “social misfits,” including people with criminal backgrounds and with records of mental hospitalization. The refugees’ major crime, however, seems to have been their desire to leave Cuba for the United States, as shown by the high number of refugees given immediate entry upon their arrival. At the end of a rather chaotic and highly controversial relocation process, Victor H. Palmieri, U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs for President Carter, indicated in a memo that 119,252 emigrants had sailed in small boats from the port city of Mariel, some twenty miles from Havana. By the end of the boatlift on September 29, 1980, the media had reported that out of 124,779 refugees, 121,000 had been released to family, friends, or sponsors (Preston, 1980).
One “social misfit” group expelled from their country were gays and lesbians. Among them was the renowned novelist, short-story writer, poet and playwright Reinaldo Arenas (1943– 1990). He was released within one day, perhaps because he was sponsored by an aunt who was living in Miami. He was lucky; many other single gays who arrived without families in the U.S. were held in relocation centers and released only after gay associations served as sponsors.