Published: 30-09-2011, 07:18

Cuban immigrants

Significance: The overwhelming majority of Cubans who have immigrated into the United States have settled in Florida, whose political, economic, and cultural life they have transformed. The first wave of Cuban refugees used the state as a base to oppose the Cuban government. The refugees of the 1960’s brought Cuban customs to Florida as well as virulently anticommunist beliefs. The sheer volume of the last wave of Cubans during the 1980’s exacerbated already tense racial relations with African American communities, especially in Miami, who felt politically and economically marginalized.

Cuban immigration waves have tended to follow periods of political repression in Cuba. Most Cuban immigrants have settled in Florida, a state only ninety miles from the coast of Cuba. By the year 2008, more than 1.24 million Cuban Americans were living in the United States, mostly in South Florida, where the population of Miami was about one-third Cuban. Many of these Cubans have viewed themselves as political exiles, rather than immigrants, hoping eventually to return to their island homeland after its communist regime falls from power. The large number of Cubans in South Florida, particularly in Miami’s “Little Havana,” has allowed them to preserve their culture and customs to a degree rare for immigrant groups.

Nineteenth Century Immigration

The tradition of Cuban political exiles coming to the United States began during the nineteenth century, when Spain still ruled the island. The first exiles arrived in 1823. Many of them hoped that the United States would annex Cuba, and they supported a failed Cuban revolt against Spain in 1867. During the 1890’s, the exiled Cuban nationalist leader José Martí organized a second revolt and sought the support of thousands of fellow Cuban exiles in New York and Florida. During the Spanish- AmericanWar of 1898, exiles fought on the American side but opposed the Platt Amendment of 1902 that afterward turned Cuba into a protectorate of the United States. After Cuba finally won its full independence, its government became an oppressive dictatorship. During the late 1920’s, Cuban exiles opposed to the government used Miami as a base to plot its overthrow in favor of democratic government.

Castro and Immigration

In 1959, a communist movement led by Fidel Castro overthrew the government of Fulgencio Batista to take power in Cuba. Castro immediately nationalized businesses and large land holdings, while attacking potential political opponents among the wealthy, entrepreneurs, and Batista supporters. Cubans who did not unconditionally support Castro appeared in media portrayals as enemies of the revolution. As Cubans had often done during past periods of political trouble, many sought temporary exile in the United States. However, unlike the past wave, this group of immigrants benefited from the political atmosphere in the United States fostered by ColdWar. Both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations enthusiastically supported Castro’s enemies as anticommunist freedom fighters.

Profile of Cuban immigrants

Country of origin Cuba
Primary language Spanish
Primary region of U.S. settlement South Florida
Earliest significant arrivals 1823
Peak immigration period Late nineteenth century, 1960’s, 1980’s
Twenty-first century legal residents* 245,864 (30,733 per year)

*Immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status in the United States.

Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008.

Between 1959 and 1962, 119,922 Cubans arrived in the United States. These people were primarily of Cuba’s elite: executives and owners of firms, big merchants, sugar mill owners, cattlemen, representatives of foreign companies, and professionals. They used whatever means were necessary to get out of Cuba. The most fortunate among them obtained U.S. immigrant, student, and tourist visas; others entered the United States indirectly, through countries such as Canada, where they applied for U.S. visas. About 14,000 unaccompanied minors arrived in the United States in 1960 and 1961 alone through a clandestine U.S. program code-named “Operation Pedro Pan.” After 1961, Castro permitted emigrants to take only five dollars with them, while requiring them to surrender all other property to his government.

Settling in the United States

Although thousands of Cuban immigrants arrived in the United States nearly destitute, they were not without resources. Many were already familiar with the United States, which they had often visited for business or pleasure before the Cuban Revolution. Some also had business or personal contacts in the country to help them adjust. In addition, since Cuban culture itself was highly Americanized before 1960, the American way of life was not altogether alien to them. Moreover, as exiles fleeing a common enemy, they arrived with a strong sense of solidarity. In South Florida, where the bulk of exiles waited for Castro’s overthrow, those who had arrived earlier tried to ease the shock of the newcomers by advising them on matters such as securing U.S. social security cards, enrolling children in schools, and enlisting in the federally funded Cuban Refugee Program, which provided free medical care and food. The exiles themselves helped one another find jobs and living quarters.

Immigration from Cuba, 1920-2008

Immigration from Cuba, 1920-2008
Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2008. Figures include only immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status.

The U.S. government attempted to relocate the newcomers throughout the country. The stated objective of the government’s resettlement efforts was to lighten the financial burden that the exiles presented to South Florida’s strained social institutions. The federal government may have also feared the social and political implications of having a large, increasingly frustrated, and heavily armed exile population concentrated in Miami. In any case, after the exiles realized that Castro’s government would not soon fall, many began to take advantage of resettlement assistance offered through the Cuban Refugee Program. Many wound up in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Boston, andWashington, D.C. They brought conservative political views and quickly established cultural organizations. Meanwhile, a four-square-mile area in Miami’s southwest section attracted so many Cubans that it garnered the nickname of Little Havana. The area would become the heart of the exile community and act as a magnet to future Cuban immigrants.

Later Immigration Waves

The third wave of Cuban immigration began after the fall of 1965, when Castro announced that all Cubans with relatives living in the United States would be allowed to leave through the port of Camarioca. He invited exiles to come to Cuba by sea to collect their relatives, as commercial flights between Cuba and the United States had been discontinued in the wake of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Hundreds of Miamians accepted Castro’s offer. Within only a few weeks, about 5,000 Cubans left Cuba. Because of the chaotic nature of this exodus, Cuba and the United States negotiated a plan for a more orderly departure through a program the U.S. government dubbed the “Freedom Airlift.” These flights continued until 1973, when Castro unilaterally stopped them. By that time, 247,726 more Cubans had entered the United States. This immigrant wave comprised mostly small merchants, craftsmen, skilled and semiskilled workers, and relatives of middle-class Cubans who had immigrated during the early 1960’s.

In 1978, the Cuban government began discussions with Cuban exiles over the fates of political prisoners in Cuba. The government agreed to release 3,600 of its prisoners and to promote reunification of families by allowing Cubans living in the United States to visit their families on the island. These visits led to a fourth wave of Cuban immigration. In 1980, a chaotic flotilla of Miamians began sailing to the Cuban port of Mariel to bring their families to the United States in what became known as the “Mariel boatlift.” The sailors were forced to carry everyone whom Cuban officials put aboard their boats, including people regarded as social undesirables: prisoners who had committed nonpolitical crimes, mental patients, and homosexuals. However, contrary to popular perceptions in the United States, most of the people who came to the United States in the boatlift were not criminals. The majority were young, working-class men from the mainstream of Cuban society. A significant number of intellectuals were also among these immigrants, some of whom lacked legal immigrant status and consequently spent years in detention in the United States.

End of the Cold War

The end of the Soviet Union’s economic aid to Cuba in 1989 combined with the U.S. trade embargo to produce another wave of immigrants seeking better economic conditions. This final wave of Cuban immigration began in 1989 and continued into the early twenty-first century. These new arrivals became known as balseros because they traveled on makeshift rafts or balsas. Castro initially opposed this immigration. However, in 1994, in an apparent effort to reduce domestic political tensions or to force the United States to negotiate an immigration agreement, Castro reversed his threedecade- old policy of arresting people who tried to escape the island by sea. He announced that Cubans would be allowed to leave in small vessels and makeshift rafts if they wished to go to the United States. U.S. president Bill Clinton’s administration subsequently negotiated an agreement with Cuba to halt this exodus. The accord suspended the preferential treatment that had been given to Cubans since 1959. No longer would they be treated as refugees from a communist state. Additionally, the U.S. Coast Guard was ordered to send all balseros to the U.S. Navy Base in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The rafters faced the prospect of being detained indefinitely at Guantanamo if they would not voluntarily return home. Cuban exiles reacted angrily to this change in policy with demonstrations throughout South Florida. Meanwhile, Guantanamo’s detainee population reached 32,000 men, women, and children. Most of these undocumented immigrants were young and without resources.

In 1995, the Clinton administration allowed Guantanamo detainees to qualify for entrance into the United States. However, Cubans wishing to immigrate had to follow the same procedures as immigrants from other countries. They were no longer to receive preferential treatment and would be limited to 20,000 visas per year.With the end of the Cold War, immigrants from communist countries no longer mandated special treatment. Meanwhile, Cubans—including Elián González, who became a cause célèbre in the United States—continued to pile onto rafts in the hope of reaching Florida. Cuban exile organizations, such as Brothers to the Rescue, sent planes near or into Cuban airspace in search of rafters. In 1996, the Cuban air force shot down two of the exile planes, sparking an international crisis with the United States. Clinton retaliated by tightening the embargo on Cuba, but his administration’s policy on Cuban immigration remained unchanged.

Cuban Life in the United States

Cuban Americans have made remarkable progress in adjusting to life in the United States. The 1959 wave of immigrants, who were well above average in educational background and business skills, established an economic and cultural base that would ease the adjustment of later immigrants. However, the successes of the Cubans led to friction with African Americans, many of whom felt politically marginalized and shut out of economic advancement. This friction resulted in 1980 in a riot in the Overtown district of Miami that had a 50- percent unemployment rate among African Americans. The riot was triggered by an incident of police brutality but reflected deep anger at persistent police mistreatment and well as neglect of the black community by Miami’s predominantly Cuban American political leaders. In the aftermath of the riot, little changed despite promises to fix the underlying causes of the revolt. The Cuban immigrants and their descendants have remained a powerful political and cultural force within South Florida.

Caryn E. Neumann

Further Reading

  • De los Angeles Torres, Maria. In the Land of Mirrors: Cuban Exile Politics in the United States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. Examines the politics of Cuban exiles during the twentieth century, including a focus on the period after the end of the Cold War. 
  • Fernandez, Alfredo A. Adrift: The Cuban Raft People. Houston: Arte Público Press, 2000. Discusses Cuban refugees, including Elián González, who traveled on rafts to reach U.S. soil during the 1990’s. 
  • Gonzalez-Pando, Miguel. The Cuban Americans. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Historical examination of Cuban Americans during the twentieth century with a focus on the post- 1959 years. 
  • Landis, Jacquelyn, ed. The Cubans. Farmington, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2005. Collection of essays on early Cuban exiles, political unrest and later waves of immigration, the refugee crisis, and the accomplishments of Cuban Americans. 
  • Ojito, Mirta. Finding Manana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. Contains accounts from people who participated in the 1980 exodus from Cuba. 
  • Pedraza, Silvia. Political Disaffection in Cuba’s Revolution and Exodus. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Superb historical study of the role of politics in prompting Cuban immigration. 
  • Perez-Firmat, Gustavo. Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban- American Way. Austin: University of Texas, 1994. Explores how tradition and interpretations of tradition have influenced the identities of Cuban Americans. 

See also: Florida; Florida illegal immigration suit; Freedom Airlift; González case; History of immigration after 1891; Latin American immigrants; Little Havana; Mariel boatlift; Miami.