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When crowds of Cubans began clamoring to leave, and Castro decided to let them go, he publicly berated them as criminals, derelicts and misfits. Cuban officials did their best to bear out such charges. Anyone boasting a prison record could get priority passage out of Cuba: indeed, some Cuban officials did a brisk business in selling forged prison papers.
There were without question a certain number of criminals among the latest refugees. Cuban Americans who had sailed to Mariel on Castro's pledge that they could pick up relatives there sometimes returned tearfully in boats carrying some young toughs, old winos and even prostitutes (Castro had long insisted that his nation had rid itself of such vice). Armed Castro soldiers marched prisoners directly from jails to the boats, forcing them aboard whether they wanted to go or not. The American crews similarly had no choice but to accept them.
Castro was not making the exodus easy for anyone except those on his list of preferred deportees. Many of the others were asked to pay the Cuban government back for their educations. Some paid $3,000. People owning homes could ask to leave, but when they vacated their houses, the buildings were seized by the government. If they could not get on a Florida-bound boat, they had no home to which they could return.
The large majority of refugees were not criminals or social outcasts.
Most were relatively young; a majority were men; most had blue-collar or clerical rather than professional backgrounds. One early survey counted almost a fourth as being under 21, while an overlapping fourth were women. Three-fourths claimed to have relatives in the U.S.
While they spoke of political oppression in Cuba, they often seemed even more concerned about the scarcity of jobs, food and clothing. They complained of the dreariness of life on the island. Neither poverty nor boredom, of course, met the legal requirements for entry into the U.S.; yet many of the refugees offered poignant reasons for their flight. Some examples:
Eugenio Gonzalez, 34, a trained computer programmer: "I refused to join any of the party organizations, so I worked as a laborer for under $50 a month in a coffee factory. When you apply for a better job you must have proof of revolutionary activities. When they fired me as a computer expert, I got so desperate I bought a rubber inner tube and I was going to float across to Florida. But I was afraid. My father believed in the revolution. Now he weeps."
Carlos E. Garcia, 21, an engineering student: "I was living in a two-room apartment with 14 people.
My three sisters had to sleep in one bed. I slept in the kitchen with four brothers. None of us had any money, and if we had, there was nothing to buy. I and my friends often talked secretly about leaving Cuba. The problem was how. We weren't ex-political prisoners, who could get out. We were just prisoners."
Libia Fernandez, 28, a schoolteacher:
"There is nothing in Cuba. You cannot express what you feel. The only ones who have a good social life are the Communist leaders. They have cars, nice houses. In the last couple of years there has been a lot of hunger, little clothing. Sometimes we don't get soap for three months."
Roberto Gonzalez Perez, 34, a singer: