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[Research Reports] Human Mobility and Economic Statecraft: The Case of the Mariel Crisis

Hideaki Kami (Associate Professor, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, The University of Tokyo)
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Research Group on 'Economy-Security Linkages' FY2021-# 3

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.

International relations scholars and experts have increasingly focused on economic sanctions, retaliatory tariffs, investment regulations, and other types of "economic statecraft" in diplomacy, through which "a state seeks to exert influence over another through economic means to pursue its own strategic goals." This excerpt focuses on human mobility and the international conflicts surrounding it to explore how one country may exert economic, political, and diplomatic pressure on another country through the strategic use of the movement of people. The history of U.S.-Cuban relations, particularly the case of the 1980 Mariel crisis, may prove instructive for anyone interested to study human mobility from this angle.

Among the most influential works on the intimate relationship between human mobility and national security is Kelly Greenhill's award-winning monograph Weapons of Mass Migration. By threatening to cause a mass migration crisis, it argues, a small and cash-strapped country like Cuba could forcefully draw some foreign policy concessions from more powerful and richer countries like the United States. Since the end of World War II, such engineered migration diplomacy has occurred with considerable frequency, and, according to the author, over 70 percent of those cases proved successful.

Greenhill's work suggests that the United States, supposedly the most powerful country, proved to be the most vulnerable to this type of threat. The issue of immigration is politically divisive, readily perceived by voters as the choice between "let them in" or not, and likely to place enormous pressure on policymakers, especially those elected through democratic processes.

In addition to this "political cost," policymakers, especially those in countries that take pride in the protection of human rights and compliance with international law, may face "hypocrisy costs." Once overwhelmed by the scale of a migration crisis, they grow reluctant to accept all people in need of help as refugees. The inevitable contradiction between words and deeds emerges, provoking a backlash from humanitarian and human rights groups. With no end to the controversy in sight, policymakers may prefer to give in to threats and end the crisis.

The history of US-Cuban relations is important because the author presents it as a model case. Migration crises took place in 1965, 1980, and 1994. Cuba's supreme leader Fidel Castro employed coercive migration diplomacy and seized extraordinary foreign policy gains all three times. The most shocking was the second, the Mariel crisis. In just six months from April to October 1980, 125,000 Cubans chaotically entered the United States. According to Greenhill, Castro caused the immigration crisis, amplified the political and hypocrisy costs to Carter, and succeeded in blackmailing him.

In light of historical research, especially from the perspective of Cubans, however, this interpretation is one-sided and highly problematic. In Havana's view, the United States, not Cuba, was the first to use human mobility as a political tool. As exemplified by the CIA-led invasion of the Bay of Pigs, the US government had been encouraging Cuba-to-US emigration to overthrow the revolutionary regime since 1959. The immediate origin of the Mariel crisis, moreover, was the release of political prisoners--those involved in secret operations by the CIA--and the reunification of Cuban families through the approval of mass travel by emigrants to Cuba, both of which Castro decided to allow as concessions to the Carter administration. Eager to seek normalization of diplomatic relations in the context of détente, the State Department suggested Carter consider the partial lifting of the US economic embargo in response to these human rights concessions.

Yet, because the geopolitical environment surrounding the United States and Cuba had changed drastically, Carter strengthened rather than eased the embargo. From September 1978, Castro had repeatedly urged Carter to expedite the admission of former political prisoners, but his administration prioritized admitting tens of thousands of Indochinese refugees. As the number of Cubans wishing to leave the country increased, a series of naval hijackings occurred. When ten thousand asylum seekers rushed to the Peruvian embassy in Havana, Carter, a Cold War warrior, could not resist presenting the incident as a prime example of the failure of Cuba's communist society. Feeling betrayed, Castro decided to retaliate. The result was the Mariel crisis.

The history of US-Cuban relations thus suggests that both Cuba and the United States linked human mobility with diplomacy. In other words, the Mariel crisis emerged and developed as a battle of diplomacy against the backdrop of the intensified Cold War--with the fate of thousands of people involved. The whole event was not simply about the Cuban government creating problems for the United States. The crisis had a diplomatic aspect in the sense that US and Cuban officials pursued what they considered the best interests of each nation.

On the consequences of the crisis, Greenhill's treatise notes that Carter encountered two sets of problems: political costs and hypocrisy costs. Added to these should be the economic burden, multiplied by the sheer number of migrants and the massive scale of administrative confusion. In the case of the United States, the federal government often managed immigration policies regardless of the financial capacity of the states that had to deal with the burden, which could result in gross negligence in crisis response. The quagmire of confusion in the front-line states explains why public support for Carter evaporated so quickly during the Mariel crisis.

The biggest issue for Carter was none of these, however. It was the question of when and how he should negotiate with Castro, the only person who could end the crisis. Analysis of the US historical records show that he and his advisers spent months weighing how much diplomatic cost they could pay in the larger geostrategic context, the global Cold War. Carter tried to turn the crisis into more of Castro's problem and minimize the costs he had to pay, but the confrontation developed with various costs mounting on Carter's end rather than Castro's.

Carter admitted defeat. The US president asked Castro to end the crisis with a promise of opening talks on US-Cuba relations as a whole after winning his reelection. The battle ended in favor of Cuba rather than the United States. The Mariel crisis reveals that the dispute over migration is not only about differences in political systems or compliance with international law, but also how to manage political, economic, and hypocrisy costs at home and how to contain the impact on diplomatic strategy on a larger horizon.

(This article generally follows the argument of a paper published in Japanese under the same title on August 16, 2021, but contains some modifications.)

< Reference >

Aja Díaz, Antonio. Al cruzar las fronteras. Havana: Molinos Trade S.A., 2009.

Arboleya, Jesús. Cuba y los cubanoamericanos: El fenómeno migratorio cubano. Havana: Fondo Editorial Casa de las Américas, 2013.

Greenhill, Kelly M. Weapons of Mass Migration: Forced Displacement, Coercion, and Foreign Policy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010.

Kami, Hideaki. Diplomacy Meets Migration: US Relations with Cuba during the Cold War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Ramírez Cañedo, Elier, and Esteban Morales Domínguez. De la confrontación a los intentos de la "normalización": La política de los Estados Unidos hacia Cuba. 2da edición ampliada. Havana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 2014.