It was May 1980. The annual session of the Florida Legislature was wrapping up and on this day, most of the members were back in their legislative districts getting ready for their re-election campaigns.
Susan was joining me for lunch at one of our Capitol favorites, Andrews Downtown. The owner, Andy Reiss, a former constituent of mine from Miami, came up to us to say, Senator, you and Susan have to try the pastrami today ... it is terrific. After ordering two hearty sandwiches, we were interrupted by an aide to Gov. Bob Graham: Senator, the governor needs to see you right away in his office now, Senator.
Salivating over the pastrami sandwich, I asked the aide, Can I come over after I finish lunch? The aide said no, the governor said it was life and death now, seriously.
I suggested Susan join me in the walk across the street to the governors corner office on the ground floor in the 22-story Capitol. Upon our arrival in the foyer, the governors receptionist said, Go on in, Senator, he is waiting for you. On entering the governors office, we heard a loud resonating voice on the speaker phone that I quickly recognized as the ranking member of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Dante Fascell, D-Miami.
Because of multimember districts, my Senate district closely approximated the congressmans district, so I had a close working relationship with him and easily recognized his voice. He was also quite a role model for my political career -- I really admired his record and career in public service.
Sitting on the sofa in the governors office was another wonderful friend and colleague, State Rep. Joe Allen, D-Key West. Joe was a lifelong resident of Monroe County and a beloved local government representative in Key West for dozens of years. He knew the Keys better than almost anyone, and I was sure glad he was in the room, given what was about to unfold.
There were aides of Gov. Graham in his office when Susan and I arrived, but he motioned for them to leave and closed his door, leaving just the four of us in the room along with the bellowing voice on the speaker phone. The next words I heard were Fascells, and they were chilling, saying, Bob, the president is waiting to hear from us ... the straits are full of small boats headed for Key West. It was the beginning of the historic Mariel Boat Lift.
A little background: When President Jimmy Carter took office, he quietly began reaching out to Cuban officials to lower the tensions between the U.S. and Cuba, only 90 miles apart, separated by the Atlantic Ocean. He authorized favored refugee status for Cubans who wanted to come to America. Cuban President Fidel Castro was reportedly tiring of the constant cry of Cubans to reunite with their families in Miami, thanks to President John F. Kennedys Cuban Airlift of the 1960s.
Without any advance notice, apparently Castro authorized any Cubans wanting to leave the island from the Mariel boat docks to do so. Word spread like a wildfire out of control, both in Cuba and in Miami. Small boats of every size and kind were launched into the water at Mariel, with Cubans diving in them and holding onto anything they could. Boats were even being launched from the Keys by family and friends of the Cubans, trying to navigate the high seas to land in Cuba to rescue the exiles.
But then Castro, sensing a weakened presidency in America, fired a salvo remembered forever. He opened the Cuban prisons and health facilities, directing that those occupying individuals be taken to the Mariel boat docks immediately. In total, more than 125,000 Cubans made the trip across the ocean to Key West during the crises.
Back to the governors office: As our meeting was occurring, the ocean passageway between Cuba and Key West had hundreds of little boats sputtering with men, women and children hanging on for dear life. With such calamity, rumors were that the going rate to make the trip was $10,000 and opportunists saw the chance to make some quick money. It was chaos times a million.
Because Florida was solely affected, President Carter was seeking the advice and counsel of Gov. Graham and Floridas congressional delegation. As it turned out, Graham, Fascell, Allen, Susan and yours truly were all who could be rustled up for the president, at that particular time. The conference call went on for hours, and every imaginable suggestion and strategy was discussed.
Somehow, we all got through that day and the many, many emotional days thereafter. There were major political casualties from the Mariel Boat Lift -- especially as a result of Castros dumping of his less desirables on our shores. President Carter was perceived as weak after the incident, and lost his re-election bid to President Reagan. Then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton lost his re-election bid after opening state facilities to house the exiled Cubans.
As with all experiences, time has healed the negative memories of the Mariel Boat Lift, but it will never be forgotten.
Robert W. McKnight served in the Florida Senate and House of Representatives during the 1970s and 1980s. He has written two books on Florida politics, available at Amazon.com; and now provides regular political commentary trademarked as The Golden Age Quorum Call in the Tallahassee Democrat and Facing Florida, a public affairs television program airing on ABC, CBS and FOX stations. He can be reached at email@example.com.