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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: The relativity of weather

by Philip Martin | February 23, 2021 at 3:01 a.m.

By Saturday, the River Road was clear, and 34 degrees felt almost warm in the sun.

Four red-tailed hawks rode thermal updrafts in the empty northern sky, corkscrewing higher, scanning the snow below, waiting for a protein source to flinch. First wing to flap loses, I thought. A minute or so later when I turned away, the loser had yet to declare himself.

For the first time in a couple of days, we walked, the five of us, 12 legs and four, one of our familiar routes. No bicycles today, though Karen had seen one earlier. I had seen a walker--not even a runner--in T-shirt and nylon shorts.

I don't understand that, though I read a magazine article a year or so ago suggesting that the men--according to the piece, it was by and large men--who insist on wearing shorts in the cold are bizarrely invested in their "brand" as "the shorts guy." They were cold, but shorts are part of their identity.

Or maybe some people just don't feel the cold the same way I do. Maybe, like all perceived hardship, being cold is more relative than absolute. For me, most 34-degree days call for a puffy down jacket, but after flirting with zero for a couple of days, I can be comfortable in a lined flannel jacket and light gloves.

I remember interviewing some Cuban and Haitian refugees who came over in what is known as the Mariel Boatlift of 1980. It was in 1983 when I went to a resettlement camp in south Louisiana on a dreary fall day. It was gray and in the 60s and Manuel, one of the refugees I talked to, was shivering despite his heavy sweatshirt and CPO jacket. His teeth chattered as we talked.

The boatlift came about because Castro was under pressure in 1980, with both the Cuban economy and the island's infrastructure failing. There were food shortages, there were housing shortages. And there was political discontent.

On April 1, five Cubans drove a bus through a gate at the Peruvian embassy in Havana, hoping to receive political asylum. Cuban sentries fired on the bus, and one of them was killed in the crossfire. The man driving the bus, Hector Sanyustiz, was wounded twice.

While the Cubans demanded the asylum seekers be returned to stand trial for the murder of the sentry, the Peruvians refused to turn them over. In Havana, crowds marched in support of the government, throwing stones and eggs at the escoria --the "scum." Outside of Sanyustiz's hospital room, a mob called for him to face a firing squad. While he was under the protection of the Peruvians, he was in a Cuban hospital.

Then Castro abruptly withdrew his guards from the embassy on April 4--Good Friday--and by Easter Sunday more than 10,000 Cuban asylum seekers had crowded onto the grounds of the embassy. Other embassies also began to accept Cubans looking to escape the dictator.

Fine, Castro said. You wanna leave, then leave. He opened the port of Mariel, 25 miles west of Havana, to anyone wishing to go, so long as they could arrange for someone to pick them up. Cuban exiles in the U.S. hired private boats to make the crossing, to bring the refugees from Mariel to Key West.

After more than a month of negotiations, Sanyustiz and his family were also allowed to board a shrimp boat and make the crossing, under the condition that he not tell anyone who he was, or what his role had been in precipitating the exodus. (He didn't tell anyone except the FBI, who advised him to keep a low profile. He has.)

Most people, if they remember the Mariel boatlift at all, think of it as a scam Castro ran on naïve Jimmy Carter. They think the dictator took advantage of the situation to empty out his jails and mental hospitals, to send Cuban problems to the U.S. It probably didn't help that the 1983 movie "Scarface" stars Al Pacino as a Marielito who arrives in Miami penniless and becomes a merciless drug lord.

While there were no doubt what another former U.S. president would describe as "bad hombres" among the Cuban refugees--in 1985, Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel estimated there were between 16,000 and 20,000 "undesirables" among the 135,000 or so Marielitos who made the crossing and quoted some local Florida officials as characterizing Castro's actions as "an act of war"--many of these "criminals" were accused of minor offenses that under normal circumstances wouldn't have prevented them from entering the U.S. A lot of their crimes were rooted in their opposition to the Castro regime.

And despite Castro's rhetoric, not everyone was free to leave.

Manuel told me he wasn't eligible to leave because he was a fit young man who was scheduled to enter military service. But he had an uncle, a police officer, who declared him a "criminal" despite his lack of a criminal record. This allowed him to go to Mariel and wait to cross on an over-crowded fishing boat, one of about 1,700 vessels that made the crossing.

Officially, 27 people died trying to make the crossing; unofficially, the toll was likely in the hundreds, as Cubans tried on makeshift rafts and other less than seaworthy vessels. (An estimated 16,000 Cubans have died trying to sail to the U.S. since the communists took power in 1959.)

Howard Simons, then the managing editor of The Washington Post, read my story about Manuel and other refugees in that Louisiana camp and offered me a job. Not at the Post, but a newspaper in Alaska he owned a share in that was considered a kind of farm club for the Post.

I thought about it, and decided Alaska was too cold and too far away. I didn't feel the need to seek asylum.

More than 40 years on, most of the Marielitos have acclimated to American weather. A lot of them have clawed their way into the middle class or higher. They own businesses, pay taxes and many, like Sanyustiz, tend to vote Republican. Some of them no doubt shovel snow in cargo shorts.

It doesn't take that long to become American.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at and read his blog at


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