Steve Melito: Fort Chaffee revisited



It was the summer of 1980 and Democrat Bill Clinton was in trouble. Monica Lewinsky was just 7 years old then, and the future president was still a decade away from a White House run. Bill Clinton’s political problems weren’t insurmountable, but the Arkansas governor needed to win re-election to sustain his (and Hillary’s) larger ambitions.

In the spring before the Reagan Revolution unfolded, Democratic President Jimmy Carter was also in political pain. Iranian "students" held American diplomats hostage in Tehran, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, and Cuba’s Fidel Castro hoodwinked America’s hapless leader. In that year of upheaval, a man named Hector Sanyustiz crashed a Havana bus into the Peruvian embassy.

When the embassy couldn’t accommodate the 10,000 other Cubans who would join Sanyustiz in seeking asylum, President Carter intervened. Initially, the U.S. agreed to accept up to 3,500 refugees. Cynically, Castro announced that American boats were welcome to call on the port of Mariel. Over the following weeks, Castro let thousands more "Marielitos" leave Cuba for Florida.

For his part, President Carter promised to greet all of the Mariel Boat Lift with open arms. The first refugees were processed at Eglin Air Force Base, but that facility was soon full. Carter, a Georgia native, then asked a fellow Southern Democrat, Governor Clinton, for assistance. Unwisely, Clinton agreed to help the man whose office he would later seek.

In May of 1980, nearly 20,000 Marielitos were transported from Florida to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. To residents of nearby Barling, a small town near the fort, the sudden growth of the state’s 11th largest city was overwhelming. There were rumors, not untrue, that the refugees included criminals and the insane. When Cubans began walking away from the fort, Clinton knew he was in trouble. In the last days of May, the governor deployed the National Guard to assist the Arkansas State Police. Guardsmen and officers halted 1,000 Marielitos on the highway to Barling, but over twice that many Cubans rioted on June 1.

Although there were no deaths, four government buildings were burned and 62 people were injured. While residents of Barling and surrounding towns armed themselves, Governor Clinton pleaded with the White House for relief. President Carter promised not to send any more Marielitos, and to expedite security screenings for violent criminals and the mentally ill. The refugees moved faster than the speed of government, however, and staged additional riots and hunger strikes.


This ugly but little-known chapter of immigration history continued into the fall of 1980. Fort Chaffee guards were indicted on charges on abuse, but none were convicted. Government workers were removed from their posts, however, after they used their authority to attempt to indoctrinate Marielitos into The Way, a religious cult.

Fortunately for Barling -- and for other communities across the country -- the Reagan Revolution rode into Washington D.C., and Little Rock. President’s Carter’s feckless foreign and domestic policies were swept aside. Some historians blame Governor Clinton’s defeat to Republican challenger Frank White on Ronald Reagan, but surely Jimmy Carter did more damage to his fellow Southern Democrat.

Today, as President Barack Obama falters in the Middle East, shows weakness to Vladimir Putin, and invites his own Mariel Boatlift, liberals and conservatives alike would do well to remember Fort Chaffee. Governor Deval Patrick isn’t running for re-election, but he just may saddle Democratic candidate Martha Coakley with her Fort Chaffee moment while he waits for applause from the national stage.

Attorney General Coakley, you may recall, once said that "it’s not illegal to be illegal in Massachusetts." The state’s chief law enforcement claims local roots, but she surely lacks the common sense of our Berkshire hills.

Come November, let’s end Coakley’s political career for good. Moreover, let’s send a message to Boston. It’s time to tell the Bay State’s one-party political hacks that we’ve had enough.

Steve Melito lives and owns a small business in Adams.


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