Freedom Flights

Freedom Flights (known in Spanish as Los vuelos de la libertad) transported Cubans to Miami twice daily, five times per week from 1965 to 1973. Its budget was about $12 million and it brought an estimated 300,000 refugees, making it the ‘largest airborne refugee operation in American history.’ The Freedom Flights were an important and unusual chapter of cooperation in the history of Cuban-American foreign relations, which is otherwise characterized by mutual distrust. The program changed the racial makeup of Miami and fueled the growth of the Cuban-American enclave there. Widespread poverty and political corruption led to the 1959 Cuban Revolution, which caused the beginning of massive Cuban-American immigration. Those factors combined to create in Cuba an atmosphere that was, according to scholar Aviva Chomsky, ‘ripe for revolution,’ which Castro exploited to gain power. In the immediate wake of the revolution, emigration was mostly a small group of wealthy pro-Batista elites. When Castro’s policies began to take shape, a large wave of disillusioned immigrants crashed on South Florida’s beaches. A chaotic episode of this wave of immigration, the Camarioca boatlift in 1965, led to unusual cooperation between the Cuban and American governments, the enactment of the Freedom Flights program. On September 28, Castro announced that dissidents could leave through the port of Camarioca, in the province of Matanzas. The chaotic scene of thousands of boats dangerously attempting to traverse the Florida Straits and enter the safety of American soil illegally prompted action by the United States, whose Coast Guard found itself overwhelmed. In addition to that practical interest, the United States also reaffirmed its ideological commitment to fighting oppression by the establishment of a legal, safe, and orderly avenue of immigration. President Lyndon B. Johnson declared in a speech in front of the Statue of Liberty, ‘I declare this afternoon to the people of Cuba that those who seek refuge here in America will find it…. Our tradition as an asylum for the oppressed is going to be upheld.’ For its part, the Cuban government was receptive to establishing a safe and orderly program, as the sight of thousands of citizens risking their lives to leave the country reflected poorly on the Castro administration. … The two countries engaged in unusually mutual negotiations despite Cuba’s anti-American sentiment and the US ideological opposition to communism. The negotiations resulted in the creation of the Freedom Flights program. The first Freedom Flight took place on December 1, 1965. …”
Freedom Tower – Miami, Florida
A photograph of Cuban refugees arriving in Miami on a Freedom Flight.

Cuban refugees onboard the first Freedom Flight arrive at Miami International Airport on Dec. 1, 1965 to a sea of relatives and reporters awaiting the arrival of the historic flight.

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