Explain what the "one-and-a-half generation" of Cuban-Americans
A professor at Florida International University, where he founded the Cuban
Research Institute, he was born in Cuba and came to the US with his parents in
1960 when he was eleven. Perez belongs to the so-called "1.5 generation" of Cubans
who arrived in the US as children or adolescents.
...We were not the adults who came from Cuba. We aren't the first generation,
because those are our parents. But we're not the second generation either,
because we were not only born in Cuba, but we have a memory a childhood in
Cuba. So we call ourselves the "one-and-a-half."
How do you differ from other Cubans in America?
We differ in terms of the moment that defined us--that is, the moment we left
Cuba--the whole confrontation that was taking place with the Cuban government
and that whole struggle of the early 1960s. We've always considered ourselves
a younger, newer generation.
Where does the generation stand politically?
It's curious, because there's been a number of my contemporaries who spent
almost all of their lives in Miami that pretty much follow a lot of the
principal ideas of the Cuban exile community.
Whereas, somebody like me who left Miami for a considerable period of time and
got an academic degree, have perhaps a different sort of development. I think
a critical differentiating factor in my generation ideologically is whether or
not you spent all your life in Miami, or if you spent a lot of your life,
particularly your formative years, outside of Miami.
Living outside of Miami exposes you to the fact that there is a different
world out there with different ideas about Cuba. There are those of us who
left Cuba when we were children in the early 1960s, then entered college in the
United States at the time of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War era.
So we were exposed to a lot of ideas that were rather counter to the very
conservative ideas of our parents' generation.
Miami is conservative.
Miami is, in many ways, an exile community. And exile communities, let's say,
do not exactly have an objective viewpoint of the homeland they came from.
Exile communities tend to always be in opposition to the government of the
country that they left, and are always in effect trying to regain the homeland.
The Cuban revolution was embraced by the American left for a long time and by
the left all over the world, since it was a socialist revolution. And, of
course, that has put Cuban exiles essentially on the right. It has made them
conservative. I think the more basic dynamic that's going on is that they are
very much in opposition to that government. It's incredible that, in the past
40 years, that sort of exile ideology of regaining the homeland still persists,
and it's still a driving force in Miami.
How realistic is it?
Part of the reason that the exile ideology has remained frozen and unchanged is
because it's not just unchanged in Miami, but essentially the entire context
of Cuba is unchanged. The relationship between the US and Cuba hasn't changed
in 40 years. So the Cuban exile community also has remained frozen in time.
What really brought in optimism among Cubans that they would soon regain the
homeland, that the Castro government would fall, were the changes in Europe at
the beginning of the 1990s. A lot of people here in Miami in 1989-1990 were
saying, "In a few months, we'll be back. In a few months, we can travel to
Cuba." And I think they haven't quite understood the nature of the Cuban
Can you give an overview of the past decades?
I think you can divide the last 40 years exactly into two phases in terms of
what's driving US policy towards Cuba. From 1961 to 1980, what was in place
was a traditional Cold War sort of ideology of US foreign policy that defined
certain governments as being enemies or hostile to the interests of the US.
. . . By the 1980s, however, you have the creation of powerful interests within
the Cuban-American community, or at least interests that were able to
articulate the position of the Cuban exile community in Washington, especially
the Cuban-American National Foundation. Also there were friendly
administrations in Washington, of Reagan and Bush, which were viewed as being
sort of close to the position of Cuban exiles.
Starting in the 1980s, Cuban exiles take a protagonist role, if you will, a
leading role in formulating US policy towards Cuba. Before 1980, there had
been actors. They had been agents of the US policy towards Cuba, as epitomized
by the Bay of Pigs. But in the 1980s and 1990s, in the absence of anyone else
caring about Cuban policy in the United States, Cuban exiles became the
principle actors in US-Cuba policy. And I think have, to a very large extent
,remained to this day.
Elián's case seemed to turn into a metaphor for something bigger. . .
The Elián case tugged at a lot of very deep themes and very underlying
themes here the Cuban exile community. First, obviously, is the struggle
against Castro. And the very fact that Castro wanted the child back was enough
for the Cuban exile community or the leaders here to say, "Well, you can't have
At another level, a basis of this community is that life in this country, in
exile, was preferable to living in Cuba. The Castro government has turned Cuba
into a hell, according to the way the exiles view it. And if you have that
perception, then you want to try to prevent people from going back against
And the exiles were devastated the way it ended.
Overall, I think Cuban-Americans, particularly those who've been active in the
struggle against Castro, have sort of been spoiled a little bit by the US
government. That is, almost everything the Cuban exiles have asked for in
terms of US policy towards Cuba they have gotten. For example, there's Radio
Martí and TV Martí--a radio and television station that transmits
to Cuba and is paid for by US taxpayers. We want the Torricelli bill passed,
which strengthens the embargo. We want the Helms-Burton bill passed, which
strengthens the embargo. All those things the US government has given to the
Cubans, in part, I think, because most Americans don't care about US-Cuba
policy, and therefore they're ready to give that to Cuban exiles.
But to say that we also want this child who has the surviving natural parent in
Cuba to stay here because we say so, because we say that he's better off here
instead of being reunited with his only natural, remaining parent. . . . That,
apparently, was something that the US was unwilling to do, both in terms of
public opinion and in terms of the federal government. Many Cuban-Americans
were absolutely in shock that this was not granted to them, as many things have
been granted. And they were in shock that people apparently did not understand
what they were talking about. In many ways, it is the Cuban-American community
that did not understand they were really asking for something very
unreasonable. For them, it made every sense in terms of the struggle against
This was a very poor battle for them to pick. It was one that, from the
beginning, that they were going to lose. But what happens is that this
community frequently does not have the ability for self-criticism and for
looking at itself and saying, "Wait a minute, we shouldn't be doing this.
Let's not be carried by emotion on this."
Do they know what freedom is?
There's been a real problem, sometimes , in the political behavior of
Cuban-Americans, or at least it appears a problem to many. On the one hand,
many Cubans espouse democracy, and they say they're here because they want
democracy. But then, in many ways, they act here in the United States in ways
that are very anti-democratic.
One of the basic concepts that's missing a bit--and it's true also of the
generation in Cuba--is that there's been a very long tradition in Cuban
political culture to view democracy as the rule of the majority. Certainly
Fidel Castro believes he speaks for a majority and that he has a moral cause,
just like many leaders in the Cuban exile community believe that they speak for
a majority sentiment in the Cuban exile community. They believe that gives
them the right to assert their rights over a minority, without realizing that
the real secret to a democracy is not so much majority rule as it is the
respect of the rights of the political minorities and the respect of the right
of dissenting views. And that is the one aspect of democracy that we seem to
be missing, both in Cuba and in Miami.
And anybody who deals with Castro is evil.
In order to understand some of the dynamics of the Cuban community here and how
it functions politically, you have to understand that, in many ways, it's like
a small town. The community is economically very strong. It generates a lot
of employment, and it generates a lot of business for itself, for its members.
And one of the things that you don't want to do is be ostracized on the basis
of your political ideology because you disagree with some of the basic tenets
of the community.
Some of the basic tenets have to do with anti-Castroism, which is at the very
heart of the community. And, of course, the ability of the Cuban community to
ostracize people depends a little bit upon what they do. If you're a lawyer or
you own a store or you depend upon the community for your business, you are
much more likely to be cautious of being labeled a communist or a Castro
sympathizer than if you're somebody like me, who has tenure at a university.
More and more people are challenging the tradition of the Cuban exile
community, in part because it's become a bit outdated. What's happened, to
some extent, with US policy towards Cuba and of the view supported by many in
the Cuban exile community of hostility and isolation is that it's become an
exhausted model. That model presumably was going to bring some fruit in the
early 1990s with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but again, it hasn't happened.
The Elián case focused a lot of attention on the Cuban situation and a
lot of Americans started asking, "Why don't we change this policy?"
Elián was a spark?
I think the Cuban exiles have had a lot of influence on US policy towards Cuba
in the past, because nobody cares in the US; nobody has Cuba on their radar
screen. It's possible that most of the chief executives of the Fortune 500
companies would want to change policy towards Cuba and allow commerce with
Cuba. But if they had 30 minutes with the president of the United States,
they're not going to talk about Cuba. And so there hasn't been a real
concerted effort on the part of those people who would favor a lifting of the
embargo and new relations started with Cuba.
Whereas for Cuban-Americans, that's their priority. They have lobby
organizations. They have a committed congressional group of three
Cuban-American congressmen who make that their priority. And so they
represent a very dynamic force in favor of keeping US policy. On the other
side, you don't have anybody with a lot of weight committed in this country to
change US-Cuba policy, and therefore it hasn't changed.
Was Elián a spark for the exhausted?
The impact of Elián has really been a little bit contradictory. On the
one hand, the events swirling around Elián have served in many ways to
strengthen the hard-liners in Cuba and in Miami. A lot of people in Havana and
Miami have been mobilized around the drama of this little boy.
On the other hand, it's also brought to the attention of the world--the larger
world outside the hard-liners of Havana and Miami--the fact that this policy is
now 40 years old. It hasn't worked. It's a relationship that belongs in the
Cold War, and it ought to be changed.
The exiles are sure they're right on this issue.
The inability of Cubans in the United States, and especially in Miami, to see
that this whole Elián case has been very bad for their cause is due to
an absence of means for self-criticism. The local press plays a great deal to
the interests and the views of the Cuban-American community. That's true of
the largest newspapers in this city, and it is true of the local television
stations. Nobody really challenges in many ways what the Cubans are doing.
You see that in the national press, but not in the local press.
The Spanish language radio stations have a tremendous function for reinforcing
an exile ideology, and for really whipping people up to do things, and
encouraging people to do things that are really quite unreasonable. The
Spanish language radio stations function as the gossips in the town square.
Nobody really knows them and nobody listens to them directly, but nobody wants
to incur their wrath. Nobody wants to be vilified by them, because when they
start a rumor it spreads through the entire town.
Why do the exiles view themselves as exiles and not as immigrants?
It's very important to the image of Cuban-Americans to see themselves and for
others to see them as exiles, not as immigrants. The term "immigrant" to them
denotes the notion of people who come in search of economic opportunities.
Cubans, despite what may be the reality, do have this ideology that they came
here because they were in a sense driven out, impelled to leave by a government
and by a political system. Therefore they view themselves as exiles. It has
nothing to do with whether they will actually go back and live. It has to do
with the fact that you need to triumph over the government that compelled you
to leave the country and is the source of all this suffering, et cetera.
Part of the emotion that you see among many Cuban exiles is that this is a
highly personalized sort of conflict. If you talk to Cuban exiles about Cuba,
instead of using terms like "the communist system" or "the government" or
anything like, that they're more likely to say "Fidel Castro," It's a very
personalized conflict that even finds its way into the laws that the US has
written and enacted, which have in part been written by Cuban exiles. The
Helms-Burton bill actually says that a precondition for improving US relations
with Cuba is that Fidel Castro and Raoul Castro, by first name and last names,
have to be out of there.
. . . Emotion is, in many ways, a driving force. It sometimes keeps people--as
the Elián case pointed out--from seeing things rationally, or
pragmatically. You could make the argument to many people here in Miami that
the embargo is helpful to Fidel Castro. It keeps him isolated. It enables him
to blame others for his troubles. But people here wouldn't be interested in
that. The embargo cannot be understood as a rational, pragmatic measure to
overthrow the Cuban government. It has to be understood in emotional terms.
If you lift the embargo, for many Cuban exiles, it means Fidel will have won.
And isn't it the same with the Elián case?
Absolutely. From the beginning, it was evident that it was a no-win situation
for Cuban-Americans, and a win-win situation for Castro. Yet the Cuban exiles
in Miami plunged right into it and gave Fidel Castro this victory.
How do you explain this 40-year conflict between Cubans--the hardliners on
both sides of the Florida straits, here in Miami and there in Cuba.
One way to look at what has happened in the last 40 years is ...the generation
that spawned the conflict 40 years ago is still in control in Havana, and still
in control in Miami. And because they are the same generation, from the same
place, the same culture, they have many similarities, including their view of
governance, their view of expression and their freedom of expression, their
view of political rights in many ways.
What, if anything, can change their views,?
There are two experiences that change Cuban-Americans in terms of their
political views. One is to have lived outside of Miami for an extended period
of time--being exposed to other views on Cuba and other views on the world.
The other thing that can change your views if you're Cuban-American is to go to
Cuba. Not because you come back thinking that the Castro government is great
or anything like that--on the contrary. Like anything else, when you view
reality firsthand, it's not black and white. You see that the reality is much
more complex. You see Cuba as a real place where real people live and try to
make their living and struggle in very difficult conditions. And you have a
better appreciation for what should be the policy.
In my classes among young Cuban-Americans born in this country, there is this
sort of view of Cuba that is mythological. What they hear about Cuba is from
what they hear at home. They hear about a place that used to be fabulous, that
now is forbidden and that people don't go to it.
Some people have told us the exiles feel guilty that they left.
I don't agree with that. I think that one of the characteristics of Cuban
exiles is that they have viewed exile favorably. And by favorably, I mean that
it is an important way of showing opposition to the government. For example,
there are any number of artists and people who leave Cuba now who haven't
denounced the Cuban government. They're not true exiles in that sense, and
they're criticized; they have not gone through, in a sense, a crossing of the
River Jordan, which exile represents.
This is different from other groups, I might add. For example, the Russian
émigrés from the Bolshevik revolution viewed exile as the worst
thing that could happen to them, and it was definitely to be avoided. Given
the conditions in Cuba or the way Cuban exiles see it, exile is viewed as
something that is desirable. There's a lot of questioning of people who live
in Cuba, who may have opportunity to leave, but don't leave. And so the only
way of really knowing if someone is against the government is if you've left.
So that is how Elián's father was viewed?
That's the way that Juan Miguel González has been viewed.
Elián's father has been so roundly criticized and vilified in the Cuban
exile community, because having had the opportunity to stay here, he is
choosing to go back to Cuba.
Why do they want him here?
Every person who chooses to leave--in a way that challenges Castro, especially
if they leave in a dramatic way--is received almost as a hero, because it's a
personal victory over Fidel Castro. All we have to see is what happens during
the rafter crisis. Cubans here in Miami welcome people escaping from Cuba.
The more dramatic, the better--in a helicopter, or in a hijacked plane, or in
When, as happened in 1980 and in 1994, Fidel Castro says, "Anybody that wants
to leave can leave. You can get on the rafts and leave." Then the Cuban exile
community says, "Oh no, now we don't want them. If Fidel wants them to leave
or if Fidel lets them leave, now we don't want them, because that's Castro's
For several reasons--some of them historical--the leadership of the Cuban
exile community has always been one that has greatly used emotion; the
emotional community to maintain a policy of hostility and isolation in terms of
Cuba. But even more than that, it's been always a message of anti-revolution.
Part of the inability of the Cuban exile community to really be an important
agent of change within Cuba has been that they have not recognized that a good
portion of the Cuban population has a historical commitment to that revolution
of 1959--even while they may want to change the current situation, while they
may feel that the current government is outdated and is exhausted What
happened is that this leadership here decided that it would make a message that
was not only anti-Castro, but anti-revolutionary. And I think that that
message has very limited utility in Cuba.
A lot of people in Cuba do not want a leadership to come from Miami, for
example, saying that they didn't like the process that started in 1959, because
a lot of Cubans now in Cuba profited from that process. The Cuban exile
leadership here has allowed the Cuban government to be the sole trustee of that
historical revolution, which many Cubans fundamentally support. And therefore,
that's part of the reason why I think the message of Cuban exiles is very faint
in Cuba, because most people in Cuba view them as people who want to return
Cuba to pre-1959. That's what the Castro government has told them, but the
behavior of Cuban-Americans has reinforced that view.
I was in Cuba in January of this year. Although it probably is the case that a
lot of the demonstrations on the streets in Cuba supporting the return of
Elián are probably contrived by the government, I think there is a
genuine feeling among people in Cuba that the child ought to be returned to his
father. It's actually very insulting to tell people that the child cannot come
back to live in a country where you live, and that somehow children in Cuba
cannot have any kind of happy life or a normal life. I think that's insulting.
A lot of people of different ideological persuasions are puzzled by the
position of the Miami relatives, by the position of the Cuban exile community.
This has genuinely allowed Fidel Castro, again, sort of another victory.
What about the notion that the child belongs to the state in Cuba?
What's been argued here in the Cuban exile community is that raising a child in
Cuba is very different from here, and that it's preferable for the child to
grow up here.
. . . Ultimately, the issue is that his father lives in Cuba. His surviving
natural parent lives in Cuba, and that's where the child should be. I don't
know if the Cuban exile community proposed to bring every child from Cuba here,
because certainly all those arguments could be made for the other children in
Cuba. And obviously that wouldn't be the case. In that sense, the INS has
been consistent. The INS never said the child has to go back to Cuba. The INS
has said, yes, the child may apply for asylum, yes, the child could be granted
asylum, but someone has to speak for him. And the person who speaks for him is
the natural surviving parent. It's very difficult for people across the US to
find the flaw in that logic. Only in Miami and among Cubans is that logic
questioned. People are saying, "No, the child essentially should stay here,
because we think this system is superior to the system in Cuba."
Politically, what is and what will be the effect of Elián?
I think the most important consequence of the Elián situation has been
a real loss of influence on the part of Cuban-Americans in influencing US
policy. A lot of the US has now, because of Elián, focused a bit on
Cuba and focused on the role that Cuban-Americans have had in formulating US
policy, and may be unwilling in the future to let US policy towards Cuba be
determined by Cuban exiles in Miami. Certainly if you look at editorials of
newspapers around the country, you can see that that's what they're saying:
"Why have we, in effect, let these people in Miami run US-Cuba policy?"
So the Elián case backfired?
From the beginning, Elián was a no-win situation for Cuban-Americans and
was a win-win situation for Castro. If the child was returned, he could say it
was a victory for the revolution. If the child was not returned, it was yet
another injustice of the Americans and of the Miami Mafia, as he calls them.
So it was always a win-win situation for Castro. But yet, Cuban-Americans
plunged headlong into this and did not think of these consequences.
What about the reactions of the other communities in the Miami area?
Many Cuban-Americans are saying the reason that we lost the struggle of
Elián is because the other communities don't understand us. What
Cuban-Americans don't understand is that a lot of other communities and
people in this country looked at this totally different than the way they did,
and found that the position of Cuban-Americans was unreasonable.
I don't think that it was a problem of lack of understanding. It was a
disagreement. And for most Americans, this was an issue of whether or not
we're going to keep a child here against the wishes of the surviving natural
parent. Many Cuban exiles had all these arguments against sending Elián
to Cuba because of the system in Cuba, et cetera. But a lot of Americans
didn't accept that argument, and many Cuban-Americans were shocked that there
hadn't been this sort of understanding.
People are devastated in this community. . . .
There is a lot of emotion here in this community. There's a lot of pain in
this community. There are people that have suffered a great deal as a result
of the entire Cuban process, people who've lost homes, and people who've lost
relatives. What frequently happens is that the Cuban community, as has been
demonstrated by the Elián case, acts emotionally. That's fine. . . .
But if you attempt to base your actions upon emotion, you're going to do
things that are irrational, and people are going to criticize you. What we're
seeing now is a backlash against Cuban-Americans, a backlash that doesn't take
much in this country to generate. There are a lot of prejudices and racism and
anti-immigration sentiments in this country, and it doesn't take a lot of
effort to stir those sentiments up.
home · analyses · interviews · timeline · discussion
video excerpt · links · readings · synopsis
tapes & transcripts · press · credits
frontline · wgbh · pbs online
web site copyright 1995-2013 WGBH educational foundation
top photo © afp/corbis