Stories of Cuban immigration to the United States have sprawled the front pages of American newspapers for nearly 75 years. Just last year, Time Magazine published the heart-wrenching narrative of an eighty-one-year-old woman’s recent journey from Cuba, to Guyana, to Brazil; through Bolivia, across the border, and over Peruvian mountains; to Ecuador, on horseback into Colombia, and to the dense jungles of Panama; with a “coyote” in Costa Rica, on a Nicaraguan hike, and on foot by Honduran river; through Guatemala, Mexico, and finally, Texas. This journey is treacherous, unforgiving, and strikingly common; it is one of many pathways that have delivered more than 1.4 million Cubans to the United States. Like most journeys, this migration is deeply political. As today’s Cubans flee an oppressive political and economic situation, anti-communism underpins their uniquely generous reception by the United States government. However, Cuban immigration began before the 1959 revolution, continued through it, and persisted after it. The manifold and diverse stories of Cuban immigration deserve empowerment, not only for their insightful politics but their foundations in humankind. The history of Cuban migration is a lengthy, living present continually revitalized by the diaspora. It is not confined to one period, event, or political proclivity.
Cuban Immigration Pre-Revolution – The Era of Cooperation
It is difficult to comprehend a geopolitical order in which the Cuban and American governments share peace. The US embargo on Cuba’s economy represents the longest sanctions regime in history. It is a symbol of hostility between the United States and Cuba, difficult to dismiss given its conception of a challenging humanitarian crisis.
Nonetheless, Cuban immigration to the United States began in an era of bilateral economic and political cooperation under capitalism.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, laborers moved freely between Florida and Cuba, facilitating fruitful trade in sugar, tobacco, and coffee. Key West and Ybor City hosted Cuban enclaves, misted with tobacco’s warm and herbaceous scent. Between 50,000 and 100,000 Cubans traveled between the nations annually, some finding permanent homes in the United States. A Cuban-American cosmopolitan lifestyle thus flourished, evidenced by a genre of folklife and music enjoyed across borders.
Meanwhile, the Cuban government began instituting increasingly repressive policies on the island. Political opposition leaders sought refuge in the United States in growing volumes. In 1952, full-blown political disarray sprouted with the military coup of General Fulgencio Batista. Batista seized control of the island, uprooting Carlos Prios’ government and preventing the impending election of leftist-nationalist Robert Agramonte. The Batista regime used Cold War-era fears to justify its open and subversive political interference, posturing itself as a necessary savior of the Cuban people from communism. The United States was profoundly entrenched in the grips of political McCarthyism, and its robust support enlivened the Batista regime’s intense political domineering. His harsh rule prodded political resistance, and opponents and dissidents were continually threatened, tortured, and driven into exile. Again, Cuban nationals sought political refuge in the United States. Many also permanently left Cuba for economic reasons such as the Great Depression, volatile sugar prices, and exploitative farming contracts. The class order of this wave of migrants was varied; wealthy elites who could afford to leave Cuba and settle elsewhere constituted a large portion of the population, while proletarians and peasants also attempted to flee Batista’s dismal military dictatorship.
By 1958, the Cuban population officially registered in the United States reached approximately 125,000, including descendants of original migrants. Many returned to their island nation on the eve of Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, with less than half—about 50,000—remaining in the United States.
Upon Revolution – A Period of Uncertain Strife
Cuban immigration to the United States greatly increased amidst and after Fidel Castro’s 1959 communist revolution. His and Che Guevara’s guerilla forces induced Batista’s flight from the island, and Castro—alongside his student, worker, and professional supporters—paraded into Havana to claim victory. The revolutionary leadership took control of the Cuban government and launched a series of land reforms. The regime seized large, privately-owned estates for popular redistribution and institutionalized a sweeping nationalization program, transferring privately-owned companies into government hands.
For Cubans, the revolution produced mixed outcomes. The poorest strata of the Cuban population generally benefited from Castro’s programs. As the government provided subsidized housing, cheaper electricity, and free education and health services, many Cubans embraced increasingly comfortable lifestyles. Homelessness on the island drastically decreased, and educational achievement rates skyrocketed. Simultaneously, the government was particularly repressive of political opposition, as its upholders were seen as maintaining capitalist interests in Cuba.
In the decades to follow, diverse assemblages of Cubans made their way to the United States, with thousands trying and failing. Once the new Cuban government allied with the Soviet Union, the US and Cuba became open enemies. Prospective emigrants, therefore, found themselves prone to the forces of international politics. As relations between Cuba and the United States improved and deteriorated, the door of emigration synchronously opened and closed. Cubans thus arrived in the United States in fairly distinct waves.
Revolutionary Times and Beyond
Initially, an elite class of Cubans emigrated to the United States as political refugees. Many of those fleeing were supporters of the Batista regime, some of whom were society’s wealthiest members. The latter feared political and economic repression via land seizures and wealth redistribution. More than 200,000 Cubans had fled by 1962 when air flights between the two nations were suspended. On February 3rd, 1962, then United States President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 3447, an embargo upon all trade between the United States, its allies, and Cuba. The Kennedy administration cited the island’s “alignment with communism” as its motivation for the blockade. This sanctions regime induced shortages of food, clean water, medicine, and other necessities; the decree, therefore, encouraged migration for survival. The class composition of Cuban immigrants to the United States then grew decreasingly homogeneous.
Between 1965 and 1973, a few flights resumed from Varadero Beach in Cuba, and 300,000 Cubans seized the opportunity to emigrate via the “Freedom Flights.” Many of these migrants expressed hopeful sentiments of return, convinced that the Castro regime would soon be overthrown. This wave was increasingly populated by ordinary, working-class Cubans who suffered from the nation’s economic deterioration and political instability. The immigrants of these first two phases were welcomed to the United States with open arms; the Cold War was reaching its peak, and Cubans were received by many as refugees from an unfortunate, dictatorial regime. Cuban-American homes in Florida intimately embraced the arrival of their family members. Policy-makers and local activists soon institutionalized these sentiments through the Cuban Refugee Center in Miami, which offered medical and financial aid to new arrivals.
As flights continued, the American government strove to welcome new arrivals. In 1966, the U.S. Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act, creating an open path to permanent residency for any Cuban who had lived in the States for a year. This policy offered a promising opportunity seldom afforded to migrant groups past. Debate persists, however, on the faithfulness of the United States’ apparent humanitarianism towards Cuban immigrants. Many analysts suggest that the Cuban population represented a mere playing ground for American and Soviet Cold-War diplomacy—a body politic upon which each side could express their battle for hegemony. On the other hand, a variety of Western researchers assert that the U.S. government held altruistic intentions in service of a prospering, diverse Cuban national community.
As time passed and Cuban immigration to the United States persisted, their treatment by American citizenry and government fluctuated. In 1980, the Castro government decreed that any Cuban who wanted to leave the country could do so freely. The leadership opened the port city of Mariel, and within days, a massive procession of private yachts, merchant ships, and fishing boats arrived to bring Cubans to Florida. Over the following six months, more than 125,000 Cubans made landfall in the United States. These immigrants were less affluent than their predecessors, and a few thousand had been incarcerated or institutionalized on the island. As a result, many constituents of this wave were stigmatized in the United States as socially, criminally, and economically undesirable. The reputation of Mariel
Cubans wasn’t helped by the movie Scarface, which recounts the story of Cuban refugee Tony Montana (Al Pacino), who arrives penniless in Miami during the Mariel boatlift and becomes a powerful and extremely homicidal drug lord. Thousands more were confined in temporary shelters or federal prisons. These conditions did not exactly discourage hopeful migrants to come.
From the 1980s onward, immigration patterns from Cuba continued to change. While the United States previously welcomed all immigrants from Cuba as political refugees, the “wet foot, dry foot” policy uprooted these policies by allowing only immigrants who made it onto U.S. soil to stay. U.S. immigration turned away those caught at sea. Although this maneuver did represent a tightening of policy, it still afforded extensive privileges to Cuban immigrants. Even with these lesser protections, many Cubans still took great risks to escape the island’s dismal economic downturns, continually accelerated by the United States embargo. They often fled by sea, chancing death by drowning, exposure, or natural conditions to traverse the 90-mile crossing. Many rode on flimsy, homemade vessels, including inner tubes, converted cars, and plywood rafts.
One most notable story follows Elian Gonzalez, now a young man from Cárdenas, Cuba. In 1999, Gonzalez fled Cuba with his mother and her husband, who unfortunately died en-route to “Little Havana” in Miami, Cuba. Five-year-old Gonzalez was found nearly ashore in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, nestled in an inner tube’s crevice. Two fishermen found him and reluctantly brought him to the US Coast Guard, in fear that he might be repatriated to Cuba since he had not yet reached land. Fortunately, he was taken for much needed medical attention, after which a years-long custody battle between his family in Cuba and the United States ensued. Gonsalez represents a symbol of the Cuban exile population, most notably concerning its affective changes induced by “wet foot, dry foot.”
Given these dangerous circumstances, the United States and Cuba facilitated a return agreement by the end of the 1990s. The accord stipulated that the States would return any boats arriving in the country to disincentivize the perilous trek. Cuba remained steadfast in their reception of attempted migrants without punishment. As time progressed into the twenty-first century, few Cubans successfully reached the United States.
State of Cuban Immigration to the United States Today
Today, many Cubans continue to flee a downtrodden economy and political apparatus. Cubans often begin their journey by seeking the U.S. borders in South, Central, and North America. Guyana was and continues to be a frequent starting point, as it is historically the only country in continental South America where Cubans are admitted without a visa. Nicaragua also recently lifted visa requirements for Cuban nationals, opening a new and shorter path to the United States. This route allows Cubans to avoid traversing the infamous Darien Gap, a dense and dangerous jungle that connects Colombia and Panama. Other migrants arrive in the United States by crossing the Mona Channel that separates the Dominican Republic from Puerto Rico, the latter being a United States colony. Migrants make the hazardous journey using rickety fishing boats called “Yolas” and set foot on Isla de Mola. Once on land, US Coast Guard Patrol picks up the migrants and transfers them to Aguadilla for immigration processing. No matter their entry point, crossing the South, Central, and North Americas is not for the faint of heart. Cubans are forced into the hands of traffickers to confront the jungles, navigate conflict zones ruled by guerillas, and endure the aggravation and setbacks of continual exploitation by corrupt, exploitative individuals.
The latest rendition of this journey has brought Cuban immigrants thousands of miles away from the island to reach the United States. Migrant groups now embark upon a seemingly impossible and surely dangerous pilgrimage through none other than the desolate Siberian steppes. Cubans board Havana-Moscow flights via Cubana de Aviación or Aeroflot Russian Airlines to arrive at Sheremetyevo International Airport. The Cubans are then received by guides, who house them in pre-reserved accommodations. They board a whaling ship and cross the Bering Strait to arrive in Alaska in the following days. The journey is about fifty-five miles, and the regional temperatures seldom surpass freezing; in the winter, it can get as cold as -65 Fahrenheit. What’s more, the journey costs 10,000-12,000 CUC per person.
These treks are dangerous, familiar, and shaped by United States policies. With the onset of the United-States Cuban thaw in 2014, the anticipation of the wet foot dry foot policy’s end led to increased numbers of Cuban immigrants. On January 12th, 2017, President Barack Obama announced the immediate cessation of the policy; since then, Cuban nationals who enter the United States without inspection have been subject to removal, regardless of whether they are intercepted at sea or on land. At the same time, the Cuban government has continued to accept the return of Cuban nationals. The journey has thus grown increasingly defined by high-risk, low-reward opportunities.
Given these strenuous and unstable migration conditions, Cuban populations have grown to capitalize on alternative methods of remaining in the United States. Quite recently, Cuban athletes defected to the United States amidst the World Sports Championships in Eugene, Oregon. Olympic bronze medal discus thrower, Yaimé Perez, abandoned the Cuban delegation while on a stop-over flight in Miami, only two days after 19-year-old javelin thrower, Yiselena Ballar, did the same. Yaimé Perez was followed by a physiotherapist accompanying the team, Carlos González. Cuban athletes have historically defected during global tours, although worsening economic and migration conditions explain the recent increase in defection. Powerful desperation shines through these stories, as diverse populations seek safer homes by any means necessary.
Can U.S. Policy Alleviate Irregular and Dangerous Migration Flows from the United States to the US?
The sixty-year United States embargo on Cuba has undoubtedly exacerbated the conditions under which Cubans feel forced to migrate. The onerous sanctions regime continually restricts Cuban access to necessities, including, but not limited to, food and medicine. In addition, Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism by the Trump administration creates further obstacles to receiving these goods. The policy has seriously curtailed remittances and travel to the island, historically the primary avenues through which United States families supported their loved ones.
Trump’s restrictions on the U.S. embassy in Havana also meant that the 20,000 visas allotted to Cubans went unused. Cubans seeking U.S. consular services were referred to the U.S. Embassy in Guyana, creating additional obstacles for those looking for legal migration pathways. Illegal immigration has thus increased, subjecting more Cubans to exploitation by smugglers and organized crime groups. Cubans appear to be at particular risk of extortion and kidnapping, as they are seen as beneficiaries to resourceful US families able to pay ransom.
The Biden administration should efficiently regularize consular services to alleviate these risks and minimize irregular migration flows from Cuba to the United States. The recent announcement of the US embassy’s revitalized provisions in Havana is a first step toward providing regular and reliable aid to those seeking emigration to the US. The government must also ensure that families can use The Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program to its fullest extent.
Beyond migration policies, the United States government might normalize relations between the two countries to mitigate the humanitarian and economic crisis that compels Cuban flight. The administration must lift U.S. sanctions that prevent food, medicine, and other assistance from reaching the Cuban people. The government must also remove restrictions on remittances. Additionally, the Biden leadership should dismiss Trump-era travel policies that render family reunification increasingly difficult and inhibit productive dialogue between people in Cuba and the United States. The United States government may then truly embrace the Cuban people as sovereign agents, not merely sites for political maneuvers’ imposition.
Cuban immigration to the United States follows a long, arduous journey from an era of binational cooperation to extended ideological antagonism. Cuban migrants seeking reprieve from a disabled political economy continue to risk their lives, separate from their families, and build homes abroad. The United States holds unique involvement in Cuban immigration history; whether in reciprocal relations with the Batista regime or full-fledged enmity with the Castro leadership, American policies have been uniquely open to Cuban immigration. As Cuban nationals’ livelihoods remain continually threatened by political, economic, and social repression, the United States must play an active role in facilitating their safe and stable journeys.
This political obligation will require compassionate economic and immigration policies. The US government must commit to respecting and empowering the agency of Cuban nationals. One day, the hope is that our newspapers will no longer receive myriad stories of the lives endangered by treacherous migration conditions.