Twentieth Anniversary of the Cuban Rafter Crisis

by Maria R. Estorino Dooling, Cuban Heritage Collection


Cuban rafters rescued at sea. Courtesy of the Seventh Coast Guard District

In all of 1993, the U.S. Coast Guard rescued 3,656 Cubans at sea. By July 1994, over 4,700 Cubans had risked their lives to escape the island. Between June 4 and August 4 of that same year, Cubans trying to flee the island had made seven attempts to hijack ferries and other vessels in the Bay of Havana. On Friday, August 5, 1994, thousands of Cubans gathered along Havana’s Malecon after rumors raged through the city that a fleet of boats was coming from Miami to pick up any Cuban who wanted to leave the island. By the end of the month, over 21,000 Cubans of all ages had set out to sea in rafts and boats headed for the United States in what became the largest exodus from Cuba since the Mariel boatlift of 1980. During the Cuban rafter crisis, over 32,000 Cubans left from all parts of the island. The impact of the exodus can be seen in everything from the United States’ “wet foot, dry foot” policy for Cuban migrants, to the Elian Gonzalez affair, to the changing social and cultural fabric of the Cuban community in South Florida.

This August marks twenty years since the Cuban rafter crisis. The Cuban Heritage Collection is commemorating this anniversary with several programs and collaborations between August and October 2014, including:

  • Debut of the online exhibition, “Between Despair and Hope: Cuban Rafters at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, 1994-1996”
  • Re-launch of the website “The Cuban Rafter Phenomenon: A Unique Sea Exodus” (you can currently still view the original version here)
  • Presentation of the Guantanamo Public Memory Project exhibition at the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences Gallery in partnership with the Office of Civic and Community Engagement, September to October 2014
  • Collaboration on “Exodus: Alternate Documents” exhibition by Aluna Curatorial Collective at the Centro Cultural Español de Miami, September 11 to October 30, 2014


We will be sharing additional information about these programs and related events in the coming weeks. For research materials on the Cuban rafter crisis or to schedule a class visit to the Cuban Heritage Collection focusing on this topic, please contact us at

In Search of Freedom: Cuban Exiles and the Cuban Refugee Program

University of Miami Libraries Digital Collections and the Cuban Heritage Collection (CHC) have launched In Search of Freedom, a digital exhibit with forty-two photographs and publications illustrating the early years of the Cuban Refugee Program. Items were selected from Cuban Refugee Center Records, a large and significant CHC collection described in this Finding Aid.

The exhibit is arranged to contextualize the activities of the Cuban Refugee Program in the early 1960s through the initial years of its operation. The Program was created by the US Government to help manage the scale and impact of a large number of political exiles arriving in South Florida from Cuba in a relatively short period of time. Located in downtown Miami, Program facilities provided needed aid to individuals and families in the form of language classes, job training, child services, medical services, and food banks. In addition, the Cuban Refugee Program created the infrastructure and procedures required to accomplish the relocation / resettlement of clients to areas in the United States outside South Florida.

The Cuban Refugee Program closed in 1994, after more than three decades of providing assistance to many thousands of refugees.

In Search of Freedom

In Search of Freedom

The In Search of Freedom website was created using Omeka, an open source software platform, developed by the History and New Media Center, George Mason University, to enable cultural heritage institutions, scholars, archives and libraries to efficiently develop and manage digital narratives, exhibits, and collections.

AEON is a service of the University of Miami Libraries that allows researchers to submit requests for items at UM Libraries Special Collections, the Cuban Heritage Collection, and University Archives. Item descriptions for “In Search of Freedom” provide links to AEON, and visitors may request to view a copy of the original photograph or document at the Otto G. Richter Library, or request a digital reproduction of the original.

Additional images from the Cuban Refugee Center Records are available on the University of Miami Libraries Digital Collections website: Cuban Refugee Center Records. For more information, please contact the Cuban Heritage Collection at 305-284-4900 or

Records from Cuba’s Historic Ruston Academy

The Ruston Academy Records, digitized from holdings of the University of Miami Libraries Cuban Heritage Collection (CHC), contains materials related to the Ruston Academy, a bilingual American school founded in Havana, Cuba, in 1920. Opened in September 1920 by educator Hiram Ruston and his sister Martha Ruston, the Ruston Academy was considered the premier American school in Latin America. Originally focused on providing an English college-preparatory education for the children of American expatriates in Cuba, it quickly grew into a bilingual academy with a multinational student body.

In the 1940s, Ruston expanded to include an elementary school, business preparatory program, basic English classes for Cuban students, and a boarding school, with enrollment measuring at roughly 750 students. After Hiram Ruston’s death in 1946, teacher James Baker took over the school’s administration, and James and his wife Sibyl inherited ownership of the school following Hiram’s sister Martha’s death in 1951. Ruston Academy relocated to a larger campus in 1955. The school was closed down by the Castro government in 1961, its former location having been used as a public school, storage facility, homeless shelter, and military intelligence facility by the Cuban government.

University of Miami Digital Collections feature a full run of Ruston Academy yearbooks from 1940-1960; photographs of the school, teachers and students, and alumni events; several issues of the school newspaper The Rustonian; and ephemera such as theater programs, graduation programs, and promotional materials for student recruitment.

Ruston Academy World Cloud
For more information, please contact the Cuban Heritage Collection at 305-284-4900 or