Puerto Ricans’ flight from natural disaster is drawing parallels to the 1980 Cuban Mariel boat lift to South Florida but this is a flawed comparison. The Puerto Rican evacuation is no Mariel.
Aside from the obvious differences of sovereignty – Cuba is independent and Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States – the two population movements are different in small and significant ways.
But first, the similarities.The recent Puerto Rican migration is most like the Mariel boat lift in the audacity of its numbers: 125,000 Cubans fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba over a six-month period from April to October 1980 via the port of Mariel west of Havana, braving the shark-infested Straits of Florida often on rickety boats.
Cubans were escaping a failed economy – no jobs, no housing – just as Puerto Ricans are running away with little but their clothes from the near total collapse of Puerto Rico – no economy, no infrastructure (electricity, water), no schools, no medical care, damaged roads and housing.
But there the comparison ends.
Puerto Rico – Mariel Comparison
For the Puerto Rican migration to Florida is more intense, currently at over 143,000-strong in just over a month. It is also more dispersed, with Puerto Ricans arriving all over the state, not just South Florida, as happened under Mariel. More Puerto Ricans are on the way, as post-hurricane conditions on the island defy improvement and people no longer tolerate the wait for normal.
Back in April 1980, Cubans crashed the gates of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana and took refuge inside, followed by thousands of others in a matter of days. Weeks later, Castro opened the port of Mariel, stating anybody who wanted to leave could do so – a first.
In contrast, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has clung to Puerto Ricans for dear life, understanding full well the dire financial and demographic implications of a continuing stream of people abandoning economically-troubled Puerto Rico for the states.
He grossly overestimated his and his cabinet’s ability to grapple with the disaster and rapidly improve conditions on the ground. In an irresponsible move, Rosselló took over 40 days following Hurricane María to request federal temporary housing assistance (known as TSA) for the worse-impacted island residents, perhaps fearing that TSA would throw open the migration floodgates.
It’s High Tide
But he couldn’t turn back the tide. About 100,000 Puerto Ricans are expected in Florida by year’s end – on top of the more than 143,000 who have already arrived, according to Gov. Rick Scott’s office. In fact, this week the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offered to airlift Puerto Ricans off the island to New York, Florida and elsewhere. And the Center for Puerto Rican studies in New York estimates between 114,000 and 213,000 residents may leave the island each year in the hurricane aftermath, with Florida a primary destination.