Cuban Exiles in America
Fidel Castro called them gusanos ("worms"), escoria ("trash"), and more recently, "the Miami Mafia." Of all the aspects of the Cuban Revolution, none has had a greater impact on America than the immigration of over one million Cubans to the United States. Settling mostly in Miami, but also elsewhere, Cuban Americans have created a wealthy, successful, politically influential immigrant society. As wave upon wave of immigrants rebuilt their lives after the traumatic experience of the revolution, they recreated and reinterpreted Cuban culture in a new homeland, blazing a path that led to the transformation of Miami into a Latin American city. Along with other Latinos — immigrants and U.S. born — they have brought a Latin flavor to American shores.
Dreams of the Exiled
"Calle Ocho," Little Havana, the epicenter of the Cuban exile community, was built on strong Cuban coffee, Cuban food, Cuban music and Cuban business sense. But mostly it was built on politics — on the burning desire of a people to recapture what they remembered as "a lost paradise." "The dream of return, the dream of revenge, the dream of settling scores and turning back the clock has held a significant proportion of the diaspora in its thrall for nearly five decades. The impact of these sentiments has been felt in U.S. politics and policy — logically during the Cold War, but also for more than a decade since its conclusion," writes Latin American expert Mark Falcoff.
Since the triumph of Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959, there has been a steady influx of Cubans into the United States, punctuated by four significant waves: 1959-1962; 1965-1974; 1980; and 1993-5. Each wave has reached deeper into the layers of Cuban society, from the wealthy in the 1960s to the dwellers of Havana's squalid inner city neighborhoods in the 1990s.
The First Arrivals
The Cubans who came to Miami in 1959 were supporters of the ousted Batista government. Soon they were joined by increasing numbers of wealthy Cubans whose property had been confiscated by the Cuban government: executives of U.S. companies and well-established professionals, including many doctors. Most did not expect exile to last long, but thought Cuba would soon be liberated -- first placing their hopes on the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and later on the certainty that the United States would never allow the consolidation of a Communist government ninety miles away from their shores.
Many of these pioneers left Cuba with nothing and had to begin anew. Sugar mill owners became gas station attendants; professional women took jobs as maids. Told many times over, their story has by now become an epic. Character loans, dispensed by the Republican Bank, and especially by a Cuban banker named Luis Botifoll, allowed Cubans to start small businesses. Applying the entrepreneurial skills brought from their native Cuba, and taking advantage of the growing Cuban population in Miami, little by little they created the Miami success story for which Cuban Americans have become known.
There was a dark side to this story. As the Cuban exiles fought Castro's repressive regime from abroad, many committed acts of terrorism. There were illegal incursions into Cuba, assassinations, bombs, and plots -- some involving the U.S. government, such as Operation Mongoose. The burglars who broke into the Democratic headquarters at Washington, D.C.'s Watergate complex were Cuban Americans. The terrorist who placed the bomb that killed Chile's ambassador to the United States, Orlando Letelier, was Cuban American. But the most shocking act committed by Cuban Americans took place in 1976, when Orlando Bosch and Luis Carriles Posada placed a bomb aboard a Cuban civilian airliner, killing dozens of innocent victims including young athletes returning from abroad.
By the early 1980s Cuban Americans began to try new strategies. Organized behind the powerful Cuban American National Foundation, led by a successful builder named Jorge Más Canosa, they became a strong lobbying force in Washington and, for the next two decades played an instrumental role in the formulation of U.S. policy toward Fidel Castro's Cuba. Even after the end of the Cold War, the Cuban American Foundation succeeded in maintaining, and even tightening, the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.
The Second Wave: Freedom Flights
By the mid to late 1960s, a swell of discontent rose in Cuba, fed by economic hardship along with the erosion and virtual disappearance of political freedoms. In particular, when Castro closed down some 55,000 small businesses in 1968, virtually eliminating all private property, more Cubans turned against the revolution. It was now the turn of the middle- and lower-middle classes, and skilled laborers. As pressure mounted, Castro opened the port of Camarioca. Relatives from Miami came to collect those left behind in Cuba. Within weeks President Lyndon Johnson inaugurated the so-called "freedom flights." By 1974, a quarter of a million Cubans had been welcomed into the United States. A small portion of the refugees arrived indirectly through countries such as Spain and Mexico.
The Third Wave: Mariel Boatlift
Between April and September 1980, 125,000 Cubans arrived in Florida from the port of El Mariel, in a dramatic boatlift that had longstanding repercussions for the United States and for Castro's image. It all began when a bus crashed through the gates of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana. Two guards were wounded as they shot each other, and Fidel Castro, in a fit of anger, removed the security post from the embassy entrance. "Bad mistake," recalled the chief of the newly opened U.S. Interest Section in Havana, Wayne Smith, "because within hours there were 10,000 Cubans inside the embassy and thousands more on the way." Embarrassed, the Cuban government called the refugees escoria: "trash." Castro decided to open the port of El Mariel to anyone who wanted to leave Cuba.
Changing Refugee Demographics
A flotilla assembled by Cuban Americans left Miami and anchored at the port of El Mariel. As the constant influx of exiles arrived in Florida everyone noticed the difference between these refugees and those who had come before. Of the newcomers, 71% were blue collar workers -- the very people in whose name the revolution had been made. Castro also sent the U.S. a group of criminals and mentally ill individuals. The Cuban American community in Miami, just emerging as an important economic and political force, would have to contend with its new image; criminals, uneducated Cubans, and non-whites had now joined their ranks. But the one most embarrassed was Fidel Castro himself. "Mariel was a shame because not only Cuba's upper class immigrated, but ordinary workers immigrated. Many young people who had grown up under the revolution immigrated as well," said Professor Jorge Domínguez. "But Mariel was also a shame because the regime showed its ugly side to the international community when it deported common criminals to the United States, committing an act of aggression not only against the 'imperialist U.S. government,' but against the American people."
A Fourth Wave: Balseros
The Soviet Union's 1991 collapse took the bottom out of an already ailing Cuban economy. Within three years the economy shrunk by 40%. For the first time there were riots in Havana. To release pressure, Fidel Castro declared once more that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba could go. For some time, balseros ("rafters") washed up along the coast of Florida aboard every conceivable thing -- truck tires, wooden rafts, anything that would float. As they left Cuban shores by the tens of thousands, they made an unforgettable spectacle.
Regulating the Flow
Since then there has been an effort to once again regulate Cuban migration to the United States. Castro promised not to encourage irregular departures from Cuba, and the U.S. agreed to grant visas to 20,000 Cubans per year. Whether these accords will survive the collapse of the Cuban regime, or any change of government in Cuba, is major concern among U.S. officials as the government looks toward managing a transition in Cuba. The fear in everyone's mind is another Mariel.
Originally published in 2005.