1994 Balseros Crisis

1994 Balseros Crisis

Megan Allen, December 2014

Imagine an event that had the ability to change Cuban immigration policy in the United States within a matter of months; an event that caused chaos, deaths, political confusion, and more. The event that caused all of this was called the 1994 Balseros Crisis, which was when tens of thousands of Cubans escaped their country to live in the United States in a short period of time. Cubans had been seeking economic asylum in the United States since the 1950’s, but the number of Cuban immigrants bombarding Florida’s coast in the year of 1994 reached crisis proportions. Many Cuban citizens wished to achieve citizenship in the US by traveling through the shark invested ocean waters on makeshift rafts to Florida’s coast. The rafts rode by Cubans were called balsas, thus came the term balseros for the people who traveled on the balsas to Florida. The relevance of the 1994 Balseros Crisis to American citizenship is that it shows how ideal American citizenship is because so many people risked their lives for it, not just in the Ellis Island period, but in our own time. This crisis was so intense that it managed to change US immigration policy for Cubans, which ended the special treatment of Cuban immigrants, therefore…diminishing America’s reputation as a welcoming land of opportunity.

The influx of Cubans to the US was a protest against the decades-old regime enforced by their president, Fidel Castro. At first, the United States Coast Guard rescued all balseros who were found at sea and brought them to the United States to obtain citizenship. Fidel Castro then accused the US of encouraging Cubans to flee their country, so to retaliate; he allowed balseros to leave the island legally. About 37,000 people left in rickety boats in the month of August, 1994, to cross the shark-infested Florida Straits.

Cuba’s gross economic product declined 35% between 1989 and 1993 following the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the massive subsidies and guaranteed trade Cuba depended on for decades. Also in 1993, Castro announced one of the worst sugar harvests in many years. [1] According to Tom Gjelten, who made a trip to Cuba during the balseros crisis, Cuba was losing almost five billion dollars in subsidies in the years before they had just recently been cut off from receiving them. Working levels had also diminished to points that hadn’t been seen in decades. [2] For example of how bad matters were, with widespread food shortages and electricity outages, in early August 1994, several thousands of people spontaneously rioted (known as the Maleconazo) in the country’s capital, Havana. [3] For an even better idea of the condition of the country at this time, Gjelten visited a fifth-grade classroom where a teacher was leading a discussion about the balseros. A ten-year-old girl named Anita had a compelling response as to why people were opting to leave Cuba on balsas. She said:

“The balseros say they are going because the police won’t let them live in peace, and because they don’t earn enough to buy what they need to eat and because when they’re sick and have to go to the hospital, the buses aren’t running and they die along the way. People get upset because nothing is available in our country.” [4]

This is a response that perfectly portrayed why people were yearning to find economic asylum in the United States. The balseros were mostly middle and upper class. The balseros Gjelten interviewed were from all backgrounds, which included doctors, teachers, engineers, and Communist Party members. This shows that quite literally everyone in the country, no matter their background, were seeking asylum somewhere else due to the severe economic conditions.

Most of the balsas had a dangerous, undeveloped design, which lead to an unknown number of Cubans not being able to make the journey to Florida and unfortunately dying along the way. Gjelten describes them as, “heavy wooden planks bolted to oil drums or lashed to big inner tubes, with chucks of Styrofoam wedges in the open spaces.” [5] Cubans were so set about getting away from their country that they were willing to die for the cause.

Before policy changes after the Balseros Crisis, the US Coast Guard rescued Cubans found at sea and brought most of them back to the US for citizenship. Things were much different for citizens of other countries who wanted to gain US citizenship. Others had to first receive visas so they could legally go to the US to become a citizen.

Fidel Castro was amazed by the US officials’ welcome to all Cuban refugees including balseros and even those who had hijacked ferry boats from Havana to reach Miami. Violence was used in each of the hijackings, and, in one case, a Cuban policeman was killed. [6] Castro said himself:

“The reception rafters were being given in July and early August 1994 was ‘specially warm…(even)after stealing boats, using violence, endangering the lives of people who did not wish to emigrate, and even committing murder.” [7]

From January to July in 1994, the USCG rescued 4,731 rafters. [8] Out of growing frustration, on August 5, 1994 Castro announced over internationally televised news that Cuba could no longer afford to be ‘the guardian of the North Americans’ coasts if Washington continued to ‘strangle the faltering Cuban Economy’ by welcoming Cubans with open arms. He also threatened, “Either the US take serious measures to guard their coasts, or we will stop putting obstacles in the way of people who want to leave the country, and we will stop putting obstacles in the way of people in the US who want to come look for their relatives here.” [9] Fidel Castro then privately authorized the Cuban Coast Guard to let any balseros leave Cuba legally on August 12th, and did not publicly announce that the borders were open until the 20th of August. [10]

The beginning of August was the official beginning of the Balseros Crisis. Over a 4 week period from August to September, about 37,000 desperate Cubans traveled the sea on their balsas in hopes of reaching Florida. Large crowds showed up on the beach in the afternoons and evenings to watch the balseros take off for the journey across the ocean. Vendors sold snacks and drinks, and the policemen and plainclothes state security guards observed and did not interfere. Fidel Castro instructed the Cuban Coast Guard not to interfere with the balseros, no matter what condition the rafts were in. [11] A couple thousand balseros were being rescued at sea per day, for example, on August 23rd, 2,886 rafters were rescued. Between August 13th-25th, 13,084 balseros were rescued. [12] In just the month of August alone, the USCG intercepted 21,300 balseros at sea. [13]

The governor of Florida particularly was not too happy about the crisis situation. Lawton Chilies (the governor of Florida) believed the “flow of refugees would blossom into a flood”, and he demanded that the federal government take action by publicly announcing:

“Well, I think your numbers showed that we’ve had 2,200 [Cuban Asylum seekers] already this year. But the interesting thing is this month. The interesting thing is 565 yesterday, 360 today. As we speak, they are still getting off the boat down there [in Key West]. I think we might well have 500 again today. Florida could die from a thousand small cuts and that’s what Castro is doing to us. This is an emergency down here. We know that, all the citizens of Florida know that and we’re waiting for the administration to know that.” [14]

Since the proportions of Cubans going into the United States went from manageable to a crisis situation, the Clinton Administration was forced to do something about it quickly. The Clinton Administration had a couple of responses. First, on August 19, 1994, Clinton reversed the present immigration policy for Cubans, announcing that any Cuban rafter picked up in the future would not be allowed to enter the US and would be detained at a “safe-haven” on the US Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Secondly, the balseros who had already successfully made it to Miami before the announcement would be allowed to stay in the country. [15]

By early September, the US and Cuba made agreements to stop the overflow of Cubans from entering the US. A co-operation agreement was signed in early September to drastically decrease the number of balseros traveling to Florida. The agreement was that America would accept 20,000 immigrants from Cuba per year as long as Cuba agreed to put a stop to the illegal immigration by sea. [16] While 20,000 was now the minimum, the inclusion of special refugee admittances and direct relatives of US citizens made 27,845 the new maximum per year. Also, Cubans were promised that the thousands of those who were already on the immigration waiting list would be issued visas immediately. [17] Castro agreed to encourage Cubans to stay “using mainly persuasive means” and promised not to punish those who would be returning. The US agreed to send the 25,000 Cubans at Guantanamo Bay back to Cuba so they could apply for visas, just like everybody else. [18] The new US policy also stated that rafters found at sea would be returned back to Cuba, but those who made it on to US soil were usually granted citizenship. [19]

An article published in mid-September, 1994, described how the word of this deal spread in Cuba:

Word of the deal spread fast in Cuba. Radio Marti, which broadcasts American propaganda, reminded Cubans every 15 minutes that no more boat people would be let into the United States. Cuban police and plain-clothes thugs from the interior ministry, who had been watching people on the beach and done nothing to stop them, began to arrest newcomers. [20]

America and Cuba both stuck to their word, putting an abrupt end to the Balseros Crisis by the middle of September. Without warning, the 1994 Balseros Crisis led to a shift in US policy of Cuban immigration. The new immigration policy after the crisis was the beginning to the end of a three-decade long policy of welcoming all Cubans into the US. Cubans were finally then treated like other groups trying to enter and gain citizenship in the US. [21] They now had to obtain a visa and wait in line like everyone else, instead of cheating the system and arriving to American on their own terms. This diminished America’s reputation as a welcoming land of opportunity for many people.


1. Greenhill, K.M. 2002. “Engineered Migration and the Use of Refugees as Political Weapons: A Case Study of the 1994 Cuban Balseros Crisis.” International Migration 40, no. 4: 39-74.
2. Gjelten, Tom. 2009. “CUBAN DAYS: The Inscrutable Nation.” World Affairs 172, no. 1: 11-23.
3. Greenhill,Engineered Migration, 2002.
4. Gjelten, Cuban Days, 2009.
5. Gjelten, Cuban Days, 2009.
6. Greenhill, Engineered Migration, 2002.
7. Greenhill, Engineered Migration, 2002.
8. Henken, Ted. 2005. “Balseros, Boteros, and El Bombo: Post-1994 Cuban Immigration to the United States and the Persistence of Special Treatment.” Latino Studies 3, no. 3: 393-416.
9. Greenhill, Engineered Migration, 2002.
10. Greenhill, Engineered Migration, 2002.
11. Gjelten, Cuban Days, 2009.
12. Greenhill, Engineered Migration, 2002.
13. Henken, Balseros, Boteros, and El Bombo,2005.
14. Greenhill, Engineered Migration, 2002.
15. Henken, Balseros, Boteros, and El Bombo,2005.
16. 1994. “Beached.” Economist 332, no. 7881: 43. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed October 9, 2014).
17. Henken, Balseros, Boteros, and El Bombo, 2005.
18. Henken, Balseros, Boteros, and El Bombo, 2005.
19 Henken, Balseros, Boteros, and El Bombo, 2005.
20. Beached, 1994.
21. Greenhill, Engineered Migration, 2002.

Further Reading

Padgett, Tim. 2014 “Cuban Rafters Still Attempt Difficult Journey To The U.S.” http://www.npr.org/2014/09/02/345158245/cuban-rafters-still-attempt-difficult-journey-to-the-u-s

Gonzalez, Ivet. 2014. “Cuba’s Balsero Crisis Still an Open Wound, 20 Years On” http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/08/cubas-balsero-crisis-still-an-open-wound-20-years-on/

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