Fort Indiantown Gap (WHTM) – It was called the Mariel Boatlift.

After years of frosty relations with Cuba and its communist leader Fidel Castro, things began to thaw a bit in the late 1970s, during the administration of Jimmy Carter. In 1978 they settled the long-standing issue of their maritime border, Cuba relaxed restrictions on immigration, and the U.S. allowed Cuban Americans to send money to emigrating relatives. By 1979 tours were bringing Americans on one-week visits.

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But the Cuban economy was still stagnant, housing was an ongoing crisis, and the Castro government still quashed dissent. Things came to a head in December 1979, when asylum seekers started taking refuge in the Peruvian and Peruvian embassies.

By April 1980 there were 10,000 of them. International relief efforts began, and many countries offered asylum, including the United States, which offered to take 3,500 refugees.

Then on On April 20, 1980, the Cuban government announced that any Cubans wanting to emigrate to the U.S. were free to do so if they had someone to pick them up. They were to board boats at the port of Mariel, west of Havana. Cuban-Americans rushed to charter boats to bring their relatives to the States. The Mariel Boatlift had begun.

By the time it ended in October (by agreement of the American and Cuban governments) about 125,000 Cubans had crossed the Straits of Florida to the United States.

The U.S. Government scrambled to find places to keep all these people while they were processed by immigration officials. One of the places selected was Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County, which at the time it was a U.S. Army facility. It would be returned to the Pennsylvania National Guard in 1998.

On May 18 the first refugees arrived. The video that goes with this article contains stories on the day of the arrival and the day after when we got to talk to more of the refugees.

Not everything went smoothly at Indiantown Gap. Relief and joy at reaching the United States soon turned to frustration and anger at the sluggish pace of processing. It all boiled over on August 5, when some of the refugees rioted.

Eventually, though, the last of the more than 19,000 refugees at the Gap wended their way through the immigration system and had sponsors, and the processing center closed on October 16, 1980.