A Carl Conley Tale: The “Scoop” on Mariel
Immigration is big news these days. Americans are divided over plans to allow illegal immigrants, mostly Merxican workers, who have entered into our country and have built lives here to remain legally. It is not an easy issue. On one hand we want to help everyone we can build better lives and on the other, some folks feel only the rich benefit from their presence since working class Americans resent the low wages that immigrants will readily accept.
Our story this week is about another type of immigration. Not one born of endless policy debate, but an exodus of people driven by the strong emotional ties of family. It’s also about how a Beach family - the Kiesels - played an unlooked for role in the liberations of 164 Cuban Americans during the Mariel Boat Lift of 1980.
“When Raul Jordan called me April 1980 I had no idea where his phone call would lead, said Deacon “Scoop” Kiesel when we started discussing how he and his son “Scoop Jr.” became involved in the adventure of a lifetime.
Scoop Kiesel, Jr. had owned and operated the “Coral Reef” a 68’ shrimp boat that he had purchased new in 1975. His primary areas of operation were Gulf Waters ranging from Texas to the Tortugas. Scoop Jr. came by his captaincy the old fashioned way – by “following in the family footsteps.”
Uncles Hilbert, George, as well as Scoop Sr., who is well known locally as the Deacon of the Church of Ascension, started building a shrimp fleet based out of Matanzas Harbor. In the 1950’s as one of the recognized pioneers chasing the elusive pink gold from Estero Island, the Kiesels operational docks were located underneath the sky bridge near the Dixie Fish docks.
“Deacon Kiesel said, “I was called by Raul Jordan, because even though he had been naturalized as an American, he was Cuban, and had family members still on the Cuban isle living under Castro’s newly empowered communistic government. Kiesel and Jordan had been friends since 1960. They were both long time members of the St. Vincent De Paul Society, a charitable arm of the Catholic Church.
The Mariel Boat Lift was already underway, and tens of thousands of Cubans had already made their way to America by embarking from Cuban waters on high speed power boats, sailboats, trawlers, you name it - if it floated, the backers of the Boat Lift tried to press it into service. They felt time was of the essence, and knowing the fickle nature of both Castro and the Carter Administration on this issue they were probably right.
Scoop’s boat was in Key West unloading at Singelton’s Fish House when his dad and Paul had their fateful conversation. “He (Raul) wanted to know if Scoop would go to Cuba and bring back his relatives,” said Kiesel remembering. Other relatives in Miami, and across the country, probably well-heeled ones, were interested in getting their loved ones into America. Scoop remembers one story well, “A Cuban from California, who had been able to leave Cuba with his uncle as a baby, had a picture of his mother. He couldn’t remember any details about her, but he certainly felt the ancient bonds of family, and was ready to go to any length to reunite with her. He went with us and did, in fact, find his mother.”
At this point I was getting ahead of the story, because Scoop and his dad were not sure they even wanted to get involved. Granted they were moved by the humanitarian concerns, not to mention the Deacon’s friendship with Jordan. However, readers who recall this period will remember the uncertainty of the laws and policies governing a United States vessel engaged in transporting non-citizens into America, particularly Cubans with whom our relations had been anything but normal. Scoop had to worry about these issues, as well as protecting his vessel. “Going into foreign waters, my insurance coverage was voided, which left me with the very real risk of losing everything. I was also afraid that when I got there Castro wouldn’t let me leave.”
However, after weighing the whole situation Scoop took the high road of adventure and decided to undertake the trip. To balance the picture, Scoop told me that, “there was money involved since the relatives had all agreed to pay upfront. I think when all was said and done, I cleared, perhaps, 20 thousand and when you balance that against what I would have made shrimping it certainly wasn’t just the money.”
Everyone who sponsored a relative in Cuba was basically required to make the trip. Deacon Kiesel said “the respective governments wanted to make sure that sponsors did in fact exist both to insure only family members left, and that they would have a place to stay once they arrived.
“We waited at the docks in Key West and prepped the boat while we waited for the sponsors to fly in from around the country. We also continued to explore all the legal parameters surrounding the trip. This was to prove fortuitous, because if we hadn’t, later events may have resulted in the loss of our boat and the imposition of incredible fines”. Their fears were well founded, and if not for the research and thorough preparation, the U.S. government may have succeeded in attaching the boat for “trafficking in illegal aliens.” (Take a look at the fine by the U.S. Department of Justice given to Scoop when he reentered and you’ll see, while not psychic, the Kiesels were certainly farsighted.)
Eventually all the sponsors were on board and the “Coral Reef” embarked for Key West. The trip taken under a full moon and flat seas was uneventful except for the number of boats that were on the sea-lane going to Cuba. Scoop recalls this sight vividly. “It looked like Estero Boulevard during tourist season. I’d never seen anything like it.”
“We arrived off the Port of Mariel about 8 in the morning. Our first sight of Cuba was the gunboat that boarded the “Coral Reef” and checked us for contraband, particularly guns. They wanted the boats papers and focused on the list that contained the names of the Cubans we had come to get.”
“Everything checked out and they told us we’d be notified when we could enter Mariel bay. We stood by on anchor until that evening when they came back and told us to enter the harbor.
“I’ll never forget that day because when I pulled the anchor we lost it and since I didn’t have a spare I had to raft up with another boat from North Carolina. We sat on the back of his boat drank a few Pilsner Urquell’s (Czechoslovakian beer) and watched the pot boats (cigarette cruisers) raise hell in the Bay all night. It was like Carnival in Rio, the atmosphere was so festive and emotionally charged.
When I woke up all my Cuban sponsors were gone except for two who said they would never set foot on Cuban soil again.”
For the next 18-20 days Scoop watched the show and waited. During this period the U.S. government acting on changes in the Carter Administration, reversed its open arm policy and ordered all U.S. boats to return empty. Scoop remembers that while Carter may have declared a change in direction the reality of the movement was underway, and like many governmental directives, was unworkable. Scoop remembered one story; “The Cuban sponsors were committed to getting their relatives out of the country. Another Captain from Fort Myers Beach, who tried to obey Carter’s regulations, had a knife put to his throat and was persuaded to fulfill the promises he had made to the sponsors on board his vessel.
Not only were the Cuban-Americans upset, Castro, angered by changed American policies, emptied his jails and mental institutions and decided that every American boat present would be filled to capacity and beyond. Forced at gunpoint by Cuban soldiers few Captains ventured any arguments and as far as Scoop remembers “none left empty.”
Groaning under over capacity loads and beset by foul weather, the Coral Reef made for Key West with 164 Cubans on board instead of the twenty originally sponsored. “Fortunately the trip back only took thirteen hours since I had a ship load of sick and upchucking Cubans who had absolutely no sea legs.”
We arrived in Key West at Truman Annex where the Immigration Department had set up the processing for the returns. Captain Scoop, who, up until this point “felt like the great liberator”, was promptly handcuffed and shackled and delivered into the bowels of a Key West jail for transporting illegal aliens in violation of U.S. law.
Scoop recalled, “The next day I was released on my own recognizance and I promptly set sail for Fort Myers. Unfortunately I couldn’t go fishing for 2-3 months. The entire legal mechanism that emerged to handle the Mariel Boat Lift was unprecedented and, accordingly, operated at less than the typical snails pace that so characterizes the Federal Court system. Magistrates and judges scrambled to sift through the individual cases, but to Scoop, it wasn’t legal principles that concerned him, it was his livelihood and the future of his finances.
You see, in an attempt to amortize the wheels of justice, the Immigration Service levied a $164,000.00 fine on Scoop – a thousand for each Cuban on board.
You may recall, earlier in this article, I mentioned the research the Kiesels had undertook while waiting for the Cuban sponsors. This work now paid off in spades. With diligence and dogged persistence, Scoop was able to convince a Federal Magistrate that he had not intentionally broken any laws. He successfully argued that he had actually went for the Cubans in furtherance of what the U.S. government had professed was their expressed aim.
“Give us your huddled masses yearning to be free”. The Deacon reminded me that under the banner of these famous words from the Statue of Liberty, President Carter had fueled the imagination and passions of free-loving Americans everywhere. While many went to Cuba for money, the sense of helping others attain freedom from the totalitarianism that Castro had imposed on Cuba was a major motivating factor.
Recognizing that our country had already betrayed Cuban confidences in the Bay of Pigs operation, many people, including Scoop, went for deeply personal reasons. “We wanted to help an old family friend”, said Scoop simply. When faced with the very real and personal dilemma of lending a helping hand, the Kiesels probably did what the rest of us would – they reached out to do what they could.
When we’re talking about policies most of us want restrictions on immigration, but when we are talking about individuals that we know, who can say no. And the number of these personal decisions may well, in the end, determine who gets into America regardless of what politicians may want. Today - Our world is different than the world of the 18th and 19th centuries. Borders are more obscure, globalization is on everyone’s lips, social pressures are greater, third world people watch videos of Richard Gere driving a Mercedes – they see our world through rose colored glasses, but part of what they see is real. We are not starving – we are strong and relatively free and we do have resources. However, they are finite and if we open our borders without restriction, we’ll exhaust our natural advantages and we’ll be in the same boat as the rest of the world.
But we can’t turn our backs friend and at the same time bring families together who had been torn apart by politics.
“I don’t feel we have concrete answers so perhaps Scoop sums it up best when he says, “It took us until 1984 to dig out from this mess”. I don’t regret going, but I hope that our country learns something from experience.”
Our country is facing great issues today involving the continued migration of people from countries economically challenged. They are seeking the same thing we are – good jobs, health care and a chance to live out their lives with as much freedom as any country can give citizens.
For every grain of sand on our Beach one of us has a story, but for sheer adventure and international intrigue it would be hard to top this one.
Regardless how these issues resolve, the incredible journey that Scoop took to Cuba in 1980 is inspirational to all of us.
Carl Conley, Publisher
For 20 years, Mr Conley has chronicled the history of SW Florida and beyond. He still lives on Estero Island where he first met Scoop Kiesel. “Scoop used to call me the ‘ranconteur of Fort Myers Beach Island,” Conley remembers fondly. “He was a repository of knowledge about our area and I miss him.”