Freedom Airlift

2011-11-30 10:38:54

The Event: U.S.-supported airlift of more than 260,000 Cuban emigrants to the United States

Date: December, 1965-April, 1973

Location: Cuba and United States

Significance: The airlift of hundreds of thousands of Cuban migrants to the United States increased the size and political strength of the Cuban American community while furthering the Cold War foreign policy goals of the United States.

Relations between Cuba and the United States soured after the 1959 Cuban revolution created a communist government headed by Fidel Castro. The failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the tense Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962, worsened relations so badly that the administration of U.S. president John F. Kennedy severed diplomatic ties with Cuba and led an international effort to isolate Cuba politically and economically. The United States also opened its borders to refugees from Cuban communism, offering Cubans preferential immigration options that made immigration easier for them than for other Latin Americans. Many of the Cubans who then came to the United States were well-educated members of the professional classes who hoped the communist government would soon fall so they could return home.

By the mid-1960’s, Cuba’s economic isolation had created hard times that led to rising public discontent. In the autumn of 1965, Castro announced a new emigration policy, opening the port of Camarioca to Cubans living in the United States who wished to retrieve their relatives by boat. As Cubans flocked to the port to leave their island nation, the United States and Cuba entered negotiations to manage the migration in an orderly fashion. The Cuban government opened a six-month period during which its citizens, with the exception of political prisoners and draft-age men, could register for emigration. Beginning on December 1, 1965, the United States organized and funded a massive airlift of Cubans to the United States, offering flights to Miami twice a day, five days a week. The resulting airlift continued until the spring of 1973, transporting more than 260,000 Cubans to the United States.


Policy makers in the United States hoped that the mass exodus would accomplish three ColdWar goals:

  • drain talent and expertise from Cuba, disrupting social conditions and weakening Castro’s regime 
  • symbolize the dysfunction of communism, as hundreds of thousands of Cubans demonstrated their preference for the political and economic conditions in the United States 
  • emphasize alternatives to Cuban communism, thereby potentially promoting active resistance to Castro within Cuba 

In practice, the effects of the airlift were somewhat more complex. Many members of Cuba’s professional classes did leave their homeland. However, over time, the majority of emigrants tended to come from poorer and less well-educated backgrounds. The “brain drain” in Cuba did occur to some extent, but the airlift also reduced political pressures on Castro within Cuba, as dissidents and opponents to Castro’s revolution were free to leave.

By the early 1970’s, attitudes toward the airlift had shifted. Some members of the U.S. Congress opposed footing the bill for such an expensive operation, a position that hardened as the new immigrants were increasingly seen as requiring extensive social and economic support after they arrived in the United States. At the same time, a thaw in U.S. relations with the Soviet Union contributed to a softening of some hard-line attitudes toward Cuba. Meanwhile, within Cuba itself, nearly all original registrants for the boatlift and airlift were gone, and outgoing flights continued only intermittently until the airlift officially ended on April 6, 1973. The next major migration from Cuba to the United States would not occur until the Mariel boatlift of 1980. It would prove to be a shorterterm, less expensive, and more politically unpopular operation.

Sarah Bridger

Further Reading

  • Arboleya, Jesus. Havana-Miami: The U.S.-Cuba Migration Conflict. Melbourne,Vic.: Ocean Press, 1996. 
  • Colomer, Josep M. “Exit, Voice, and Hostility in Cuba.” International Migration Review 34, no. 2 (Summer, 2000): 423-442. 
  • García, María Cristina. Havana USA: Cuban Exiles and Cuban Americans in South Florida, 1959-1994. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. 
  • Pedraza, Silvia. Political Disaffection in Cuba’s Revolution and Exodus. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 

See also: “Brain drain”; Congress, U.S.; Cuban immigrants; González case; Little Havana; Mariel boatlift; Miami; Push-pull factors; Transportation of immigrants; Welfare and social services.