Napoleón Vilaboa, `father' of Mariel boatlift, speaks
The man who claims to have come up with the idea of the 1980 Mariel
boatlift comes forward -- and says no one was more damaged by the mass
exodus than he.
By JUAN O. TAMAYO
Napoleón Vilaboa insists that the Mariel boatlift was his idea, not
Fidel Castro's, that he was never a Cuban spy and that he plotted with
the late Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa and others to overthrow Castro. But that's
only one version of the murky tale of the Bay of Pigs veteran who played
a leading role in the exodus that brought 125,000 Cubans to freedom and
reunited thousands of families. Today, the 73-year-old South Florida
retiree who wears a Cuban flag pin on his lapel and has clear memories
of events even 60 years ago is proud of his status as ``The Father of
Mariel.'' ``I carried out my duty. My duty was to get those people out
of Cuba,'' Vilaboa told El Nuevo Herald during a lengthy interview last
Yet he acknowledged that his role in Mariel also brought him grief,
including the nine years he had to drop out of sight after the boatlift,
afraid for his life. ``The one guy most damaged by this was me,'' he
said. ``I have been defamed from both sides.'' Vilaboa first came under
suspicion as a Havana ``collaborator'' even before Mariel, said Sergio
Pinon, then a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigator who had
a spy in one of the Miami companies that chartered exile flights to Cuba.
Since 1978, Vilaboa, then a car salesman, had been a leading member of
the controversial group of exiles -- known as the Committee of 75 -- who
negotiated with the Castro government to release about 3,600 political
prisoners and allow exiles to return on family visits for the first time
since 1959. ``Even before Mariel, my guy told me that Napoleon was
putting something together for another Camarioca,'' said Pinon,
referring to the 1965 boatlift that brought 5,000 Cubans to U.S. shores.
On March 8, 1980 -- a month before more than 10,000 Cubans stormed the
Peruvian Embassy in the incident that sparked the boatlift -- Castro
himself publicly warned that he might launch ``another Camarioca'' if
Washington continued refusing to punish the wave of Cubans hijacking
airplanes and boats to Florida.
Pinon recalled that he warned state and federal officials that another
mass exodus was coming, ``but nobody believed me. Everybody thought I
Vilaboa flatly denied he was a Cuban agent and said he began thinking of
a boatlift when he was in Havana in early April 1980 for the
He said he was called to a meeting with an old friend -- René Rodríguez,
a Cuban representative in the talks and member of the Communist Party's
Central Committee -- that he had freed after Rodríguez was captured
during the Bay of Pigs invasion. Vilaboa and more than 1,000 Brigade
2506 members were themselves captured later and were released in 1962.
``René said, `What do you think can be done' '' about the 10,000 people
in the Peruvian embassy, Vilaboa recalled. ``Can the Cubans [in South
Florida] be encouraged to come to pick them up?'' Vilaboa said he told
Rodríguez that he doubted the exiles would pick up the embassy Cubans
but countered that exiles would take part in such an exodus if they
could also pick up their own relatives -- one refugee per one relative.
Shortly afterward, Castro came to his Havana hotel, listened to the idea
and said he would think it over, Vilaboa recalled. The answer came two
or three days after he returned to Miami, carried by Interior Ministry
Col. Tony de la Guardia.
``The Number One says yes, that the business will be through Mariel,''
de la Guardia told him, referring to Castro.
LED FIRST FLOTILLA
Vilaboa spread the word on Spanish-language radio broadcasts in Miami
that the port of Mariel was open, and on April 19 boarded the 41-foot
boat Ochún in Miami Beach and led the first flotilla of more than 40
vessels to Cuba. He returned after picking up a daughter and an aunt.
The Mariel boatlift was on.
But after the first arrivals received heroes' welcomes in Key West, an
angry Castro voided the one-for-one deal and opened the doors to a mass
exodus of 125,000 Cubans, including convicted criminals and the mentally
``He had to tarnish these people; he had said they were the dregs of
society and now he was going to make that a truth,'' Vilaboa said.
``They betrayed our agreement, too.'' But when the Mariel refugees began
settling in South Florida, it was Vilaboa who came under attack from
older exiles as a Castro stooge -- and worse.
The Rev. Manuel Espinosa, who had taken part in the talks for the
release of the political prisoners, revealed that he had been a Cuban
agent and accused dozens of others, including Vilaboa, of being Castro
spies. He died in 1987 of a heart attack at age 48.
For the next nine years Vilaboa kept a low profile, fearing for his
life. He had a house and a restaurant in Costa Rica, and stayed out of
the headlines when he was in Miami.
But in 1989 Cuban agents raided his Costa Rica house, he said, killing
his dogs, making off with his files and the manuscript of a novel he was
writing and leaving human excrement on his typewriter.
In July of that year he resurfaced in Miami, giving a seven-hour
interview to The Miami Herald that resulted in a 1,200-word story.
Vilaboa last week denied key parts of that story: that he had admitted
being a Cuban agent, receiving the honorary rank of lieutenant colonel
in Cuba's intelligence service and being paid $3,000 a month by Havana
during his stay in Costa Rica.
``No,'' he said last week when he was asked whether he had ever been a
Cuban agent. He was offered but rejected the rank of colonel, he added.
And Havana ``has never paid me a cent.''
Vilaboa insisted he's always been anti-communist and that all his
actions on Cuba have been driven by his efforts to promote an internal
coup or rebellion against Castro because all external attempts to topple
the communist system are doomed to failure.
When the Cuban agents raided his house in Costa Rica, he added, he was
plotting just such a coup with Interior Minister Jose Abrahantes, Army
Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, de la Guardia and René Rodríguez.
He warned Cuban officials that if he died, friends would release the
list of some 600 Cuban spies in the United States that he had gathered
from Cuban contacts like Abrahantes, Vilaboa said last week.
A QUIET RETIREMENT
Vilaboa, with deep blue eyes framed by white hair and beard, now lives a
life of quiet retirement with his wife, who arrived in the Mariel
boatlift, and attends a Mennonite church.
Other players in his story did not fare well at all. Ochoa and de la
Guardia were executed by Cuban firing squads in 1989, around the time
Vilaboa resurfaced in Miami. They were charged with drug trafficking,
though Ochoa was rumored to have been plotting against Castro.
Abrahantes died shortly afterward from a mysterious heart ailment while
serving a 20-year prison term for corruption, and René Rodríguez died in
Havana in 1990. The Cuban news media said he died ``suddenly'' but gave
no details, and Castro did not attend his funeral.
Today, Vilaboa says he's proud of the role he played in launching the
``I have to admit I did not think it would be as big as it was,'' he
said, ``but I'm glad I helped thousands of Cubans come to the U.S. to
live in freedom.''