David Zurawik

TV talk missing 1980 Cuban context for Texas border crisis

I can't believe how much talk about the Texas border crisis I've heard on cable news the last two weeks without any mention of the Mariel boatlift of 1980.

This is textbook for what I mean about TV news -- from the network and cable level on down -- being hopelessly short on context and any sense of even recent American history.


No wonder we are such an addled nation that thinks everything that comes along is the biggest, newest, baddest or best thing ever. No wonder we are such an easily confused and jangled bunch.

Mariel is not only the context for what's happening on the Texas border, it's the predictor of what's to come as various government agencies get involved.


Here's some of the history.

Jimmy Carter, a weak Democratic president like Barack Obama, finds himself hoisted on his own petard of empty humanitarian rhetoric, when a flood of immigrants washes up on his southern border in 1980.

In Carter's case, it was refugees from Cuba, whom he initially called "refugees" from Fidel Castro's communism, as he welcomed them with "open arms."

Then, just as Obama often has to do, Carter quickly backtracked off the "refugees" language when he found out about all the rights that went with calling someone that.

But that was only the start of administrative ineptitude, as the number of Cuban emigres surged toward 125,000 in Florida -- and it was discovered that Castro had emptied his prisons and mental institutions and sent many of those Cubans to America.

I covered the fine, fine job done by FEMA and Health and Human Services as they sent the Cubans and Haitians from tent camps in Florida to military bases throughout the U.S. -- places like Ft. McCoy in the middle of nowhere in Wisconsin, Ft. Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania and Ft. Chaffee in Arkansas, where the young governor, Bill Clinton, had an actual riot on his hands over conditions in the camps.

I spent a year for the Detroit Free Press covering the Cuban emigres as they moved from the tents to the camps and, in some cases, into American society.

The military camps were a nightmare with children and adolescents routinely sexually abused by the hardcore predators and criminals in the mix. Imagine little kids without parents living side by side with convicted murderers. That was what we found in Ft. McCoy -- a World War Army training site with dirty, drafty barracks, barbed wire and endless mud.


And you know what FEMA, HHS and then the Department of Defense did in response: Tried to cover up the abuse and horrors, because it made the Carter administration look as inept as it actually was.

What happened last week to reporters and members of Congress who were denied access to the immigrants in Texas is exactly what happened to me and my reporting partner on this story time after time until senior aides to Carter finally met with us at the White House in response to our series of stories we wrote from the camps.

And what do you think happened in those meetings at the White House? Senior aides lied their butts off to us.

My head wanted to explode this weekend as group after group of Washington pundits on TV talked about the crisis and various possible outcomes without any sense of the historical precedent that can both tell you how over its head the Obama administration already is on this crisis and how lame the actions being contemplated by HHS, FEMA and DOD are.

Really, just because the administration is clueless on this crisis, the press doesn't have to be as well. Let's do our homework. Let's try for journalistic competence if nothing else.

The Mariel boatlift ended in October 1980. It was the last nail in the coffin of Carter's failed presidency. He was voted out of office a month later.


We used to be better at helping Americans understand such crises and who did and didn't measure up to the challenge. And that made the nation less vulnerable to the empty rhetoric of the merchants of phony hope and change.