HAVANA TIMES — El Mariel is a typical bay on Cuba’s northern coast. Its point of entry is a considerably wide canal that can be crossed by large vessels. Today, the Cuban government has laid its bets on this place and the island looks to it as the hope of a more prosperous future.
Possibly the most important business center in the country has been set in motion at El Mariel. The port is connected to Havana via the Panamericana highway, which borders the island’s northern coast.
It is equipped with a dock and a container terminal, as well as shipyards for vessels of different sizes. A cement factory and power station are based there. New piers, warehouses, highways and railway lines are also under construction. The Mariel Special Development Zone (ZEDM) Regulations Office has already started operations. This office will receive and process applications from foreign investors interested in joining the project.
In short, El Mariel has become a platform for attracting foreign capital, impelling economic development, substituting imports, increasing exports, creating jobs and accessing modern technologies.
Availing itself of the enthusiasm generated by the prospects of Latin American integration, the government evinces its political savvy and demonstrates its ability to find patrons, something it has done very well for years and which has allowed it to remain afloat more than once.
This massive project is being implemented by Brazil’s Odebrecht construction company and has a budget of 682 million dollars, invested by Brazil’s National Economic and Social Development Bank.
El Mariel, however, has been an important part of the Cuban economy since well before the start of this project. This has to do with something of an ironic twist of history. We shouldn’t forget that family remittances are one of the pillars of Cuba’s precarious domestic economy and El Mariel was the stage of one of the largest exoduses in Cuban history.
The port never enjoyed more attention that it did between April 15 and October 31 of 1980, when the “Mariel Exodus” took place. It was a mass migration of Cubans that left for the United States from this port, on the ships of relatives and friends who came to look for them.
The Mariel Exodus lasted six months. During this time, more than 125,000 Cubans left the country on vessels arriving from US coasts.
According to data compiled by the Immigration and Foreign Affairs Bureau, this exodus was far larger than the one that took place in Camariocas in 1965, when around 30 thousand Cubans also left in masse for the United States.
Those who left the island from the Mariel port are known in Cuba as “marielitos.” The men and women of all ages who emigrated then have worked for these past 34 years to support their families and friends in Cuba. The money they send has sustained and continues to sustain the family economies of many.
Because of the inflow of foreign capital ensured by the Mariel Special Development Zone and the many dollars sent by those who once set sail from this bay (then referred to as “lumpens” and “scum”), the importance of the Mariel port is undeniable.
The Mariel port, to a greater or lesser extent and in highly different ways, would seem destined to be a pillar of Cuba’s economy. These are the ironies of history.