The word “hostages” appeared in the Arkansas Gazette 1,221 times in 1980 — an atypical number for a newspaper that had used the word, on average, 191 times a year in the decade before. Also unusually frequent in 1980 was the word “embassy.”
In Iran, a mob inspired by the Ayatollah Khomeini had trapped 52 Americans in the U.S. Embassy at Tehran since Nov. 4, 1979, with President Jimmy Carter unable to secure their release. As this crisis dragged into its fifth month, elsewhere in the world, leftist Colombian guerrillas took 16 hostages in the Dominican Embassy at Bogota, including a U.S. ambassador. And then some Cubans drove through the gates of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana.
First, there were six Cubans, then 25. Then 750. They sought escape from Fidel Castro’s Communist regime. Annoyed that the Peruvians didn’t spit them out, Castro announced that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba should go to that embassy.
In short order, 10,000 Cubans jammed themselves into the compound.
A humanitarian crisis developed. Castro, embarrassed, announced that everybody could leave Cuba for the United States, including prisoners, and he would help them go. Throngs were ferried to the port of Mariel and loaded onto an armada of little boats bound for Florida.
As recounted in The Education of Ernie Dumas by Ernest Dumas, who that year was an associate editor of the Arkansas Gazette, Carter wanted to put these migrants in vacant military sites. His 1976 Arkansas campaign chairman, Gov. Bill Clinton, agreed to reopen Fort Chaffee, an old Army post near Fort Smith whose wooden barracks had housed Vietnamese refugees in 1975.
According to the Central Arkansas Library System Encyclopedia of Arkansas, 19,048 Cubans were transported to Fort Chaffee between May 9 and 18. Guards were told not to use violence to keep them in place. They were not prisoners.
“Packed into the unairconditioned barracks, the Cubans soon became rebellious, broke out of the compound, and roamed down the road to the nearby town of Barling, terrifying the residents,” Dumas writes. The Cubans were herded back inside.
As reported on this Page 1 of the June 2, 1980, Gazette, thousands of Cubans rioted in the fort June 1. As four buildings burned, refugees donned white armbands made of rags and helped put out the fires. Counting five guards, 62 people reported minor injuries.
Carter promised not to send Arkansas any more refugees. But he broke that promise in August, as hurricane season loomed over a tent camp in Florida and migrants rioted at other relocation centers.
Roughly 25,000 Cubans stayed at Chaffee on their way to new lives in the United States, the encyclopedia says.
As for the guerrillas in Colombia, Castro saved a bit of face when, 61 days into their siege, they agreed to free their hostages in exchange for asylum — in Cuba.
— Celia Storey
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