It was called the Freedom Flotilla. It's also known to history as the Mariel Boatlift.
Twenty five years ago, few in western Wisconsin paid much attention when 10,000 Cubans sought sanctuary in the Peruvian Embassy in Havana after Fidel Castro allowed some to leave his country.
Then thousands of Cubans wanted to leave their homeland, and President Carter welcomed them. The first of 125,000 Cubans began their four-month odyssey in overcrowded and often dilapidated boats, seeking freedom in the United States, 90 miles to the north.
More than 20,000 refugees packed resettlement camps in Florida, where hundreds of thousands of Cubans had settled after the 1959 revolution in which Castro took power.
Then, in less than a month, western Wisconsin residents found an international story descending on them. Federal officials announced as many as 15,000 Cuban refugees would come to Fort McCoy, a 60,000-acre military base between Sparta and Tomah.
Officials at Fort McCoy had only a few days to prepare 121 barracks, 40 mess halls, 15 administrative buildings and other facilities for the Cubans. Seven miles of 6-foot-tall chain link fence were put up around the perimeter of the refugee center.
About 1,000 military, federal government and support personnel arrived, and 850 civilians were hired to prepare and run the Fort McCoy refugee center.
It was 25 years ago today -May 29, 1980 - that Miguel Leon-Padron, a 19-year-old Cuban refugee, gave a thumbs-up sign as he entered the Fort McCoy Refugee Resettlement Center, one of the first 172 Cuban refugees to arrive about 11 a.m. that day at Fort McCoy.
He was barefoot, hungry and he wore his only possessions - a white shirt and blue jeans. He had come to America by boat, braving the stormy Straits of Florida.
"It was an important time in La Crosse's life," said Betty Gundersen, a former La Crosse County Board member whose family sponsored a Cuban refugee. "Fort McCoy was flooded with refugees, and it was chaotic summer."
Fort McCoy became a focal point when it was designated as the fourth refugee resettlement center established in the United States. And what went on at the 60,000-acre post made national and international news.
The six-month refugee resettlement project - from late May to early November - was a boon to the Coulee Region economy, a headache for federal and Fort McCoy officials and a hassle for area law enforcement agencies. Hundreds of summer jobs were created, especially students with Spanish language training. Millions of dollars were spent on food, supplies and other goods and services to support the refugee center.
Never before had Americans, much less the residents of western Wisconsin, confronted such an influx. Before the brief Wisconsin summer had passed, Coulee Region residents and refugees would share the pains and joys of birth, life and even death.
Together, they would experience the exhilaration of the new-found freedom as Cubans kissed the American soil and shouted "Viva, America." And together, they would learn of the frustration as freedom proved elusive for some Cubans.
"The summer of 1980 - a period that became known in the Coulee Region as when the Cubans came to Fort McCoy - was marked by excitement, frustration, intrigue, joy, fear, distrust, violence and hope," said Bill White, a retired reporter who helped cover the story for the La Crosse Tribune.
"It was an historic migration of oppressed people but was seen by many as an unwelcome intrusion." Little did Coulee Region residents know that almost 90 percent of the 14,360 refugees who arrived at Fort McCoy were not political prisoners but criminals and mental patients dumped in the United States by Castro. Inside the refugee compound were stabbings, homosexual assaults, fights, extortion and riots.
Gundersen said she decided to sponsor a refugee because her son, Sven, worked at a mess hall at Fort McCoy and told the family about the stabbings and poor conditions there.
"People and churches opened their arms as sponsors to the refugees, and some had bad experiences, but we didn't," Gundersen said.
"The refugee staying with us told us he was a criminal," she added.
"The Cubans were not like the refugees of Europe or even the Cubans from the 1950s, or the Hmong. Castro basically emptied the prisons."
Joe Heim, UW-La Crosse political science professor, said the mood of local citizens quickly switched from welcoming to mistrust.
"It didn't take long for people to realize Castro cleared out the jails and the mental institutions," Heim said. "Castro pulled the trick of the decade. He made us look inept and we fell for his trick."
John Medinger, former La Crosse mayor who was a member of the state Assembly in 1980, said the Cuban refugee situation was a disaster for Carter and the federal government.
"It was a big fiasco," Medinger said. "It caused a lot of problems, and it was a political nightmare."
Problems at the center
The Federal Emergency Management Agency originally had responsibility for the refugee center, then on July 15 transferred it to the State Department. The State Department tried to take control of the situation left by the emergency agency, but the refugee center never seemed to function smoothly with either department in charge.
That same day, July 15, two Cuban teenagers received help from sympathetic employees at the fort and escaped from the compound. The teens turned themselves in to late Monroe County Circuit Judge James Rice, and their story became international news.
"I remember the fear on the faces of the two employees who risked their jobs to take the two juveniles over the fence," Rice recalled several years ago. "They were so sympathetic to the terrorization of these juveniles."
The youths complained of harassment, homosexual abuse and thefts at the refugee center, so Rice placed them in protective custody. Under regulations, juveniles were only allowed to be placed with family members, but Rice won a compromise from federal authorities to allow minors to be placed in Wisconsin homes.
Crime - and murder
Crime rose dramatically in the La Crosse area after refugees were sponsored to area families. Kay Mann, a Spanish-speaking lawyer, handled 350 to 400 court cases involving about 200 different Cuban defendants.
But one crime brought international attention to the Coulee Region - the murder of a Cuban refugee sponsor. Cuban refugee Lene Cespedes-Torres was convicted of murdering his sponsor, Berniece Taylor, in her Tomah home on Sept. 13, 1980. The killing came amid a growing tide of community resentment and heightened tension at the fort as relocation began of the last 3,000 unsponsored Cubans.
The murder was the single event that made sponsorship of other Cuban refugees almost impossible in the Coulee Region, according to Paul Amberson, who had worked with a sponsorship agency, the United States Catholic Conference.
"It was a mess because the policy was not well thought out and planned," said Janet Jenkins, a former La Crosse lawyer who defended Cespedes-Torres.
"President Carter was well-intentioned and so good-hearted, but we were taken advantage of," she said. "Most of the refugees were criminals, and most have come and gone."
In all, 9,729 Cuban refugees were sponsored out of Fort McCoy and 3,234 were transferred to Fort Chaffee, Ark.. More than 1,000 refugees were sent to prisons.
Very few Cuban refugees settled in La Crosse. Most moved west and south, to major cities such as Los Angeles and Miami.
"It was a really interesting time, and if there is a lasting impact on La Crosse, maybe it helped with the process in working with the Hmong community" in its resettlement in the area more recently, Jenkins said.
The costs of the refugee program
* $21 million in federal funds spent on the Cuban refugee resettlement program at Fort McCoy, including $6 million in salaries.
* $600,000 in medical services at the two La Crosse hospitals.
* $258,000 in ambulance charges.
* $148,000 for rental of portable toilets.
*$1.8 million in bus transportation between Fort McCoy and La Crosse Municipal Airport .
* $224,000 in fencing around the compound.
* $423,000 in car rentals.
* $110,000 rental of office copiers and typewriters.
* $33,000 in baby-related items.
* $20,000 for movies in Spanish.
* $14,000 for plastic garbage bags.
* $8,000 for Spanish language Bibles.
* $3,200 for American flags for Fourth of July.