Cuba and the Cuban emigration
Díaz-Canel calls on US Cubans to join the struggle for a better world
On September 22, 2023, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel met with representatives of the Cuban-American community in New York City. Díaz-Canel invited them to participate in the IV Conference on “The Nation and Emigration” in Havana on November 18-19 of this year.
The relations between the Cuban Revolutionary Government and the Cuban emigration have been evolving toward cooperation since 1978, following two previous decades of hostility.
Cuban emigration, 1959 to 1976
From a political vantage point that takes as given the need to defend the neocolonial world-system and to preserve U.S. hegemony, the American power elite was compelled in the early 1960s to confront and destroy the Cuban Revolution, inasmuch as it was and is in essence an anti-neocolonial revolution, seeking to defend the sovereignty of the Cuban nation.
As a dimension of this foreign policy objective, the U.S. administration sought to stimulate Cuban emigration through the indiscriminate application of the “political refugee” category for immigrants to the USA proceeding from Cuba. The first emigrants following the triumph of the Revolution could reasonably be considered political refugees, since many had been tied to the Batista dictatorship. But they soon were joined by nearly the entirety of the national oligarchy and the rest of the more privileged sectors, who in fact were not politically persecuted in Cuba. To the contrary, they were entreated to join the revolutionary project, lending their enterprises and their skills and services to the development of the Cuban economy in the new revolutionary stage. The U.S. portrayal of these second wave emigrants as political refugees had evident advantages from the point of view of political propaganda, but it is a fundamentally false portrayal, clearly inconsistent with empirical evidence and the historical record.
In addition to its propaganda value, the stimulation of Cuban emigration functioned to deprive the Cuban revolution of qualified personnel, needed for the functioning of the Cuban economy. The great majority of Cuban emigrants to the United States during the period 1959 to 1962 were owners of landed estates and industries, businesspersons, merchants, technicians, professionals, and state employees. The percentages of these employment categories in the Cuban emigration were approximately three times their proportion of the population of Cuba.
Furthermore, the Cuban emigration functioned to provide a social base for the Cuban counterrevolutionary movement in the United States. In 1962 alone, a special unit of the CIA created approximately fifty-five legitimate companies in Florida that supported covert counterrevolutionary activities in Cuba. During the early 1960s, the CIA directly and indirectly financed and supplied counterrevolutionary groups in Miami that were engaging in counterrevolutionary activities in Cuba, including sabotage of the Cuban energy, transportation, and production infrastructure. The injection of such resources by the CIA was a pillar of the economic development of the Cuban-American community in Miami.
The preferential treatment that Cuban immigrants received in an economically developed society like the United States facilitated continued Cuban emigration to the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, both legal and illegal, representing the especially privileged sector of white Cuban society. And the favorable treatment of Cuban immigrants in the United States facilitated their material success in their new country.
By the 1970s, however, the evident failure of the Cuban counterrevolution to cause the fall of the Revolution led to a decline in its credibility and influence in U.S. society. This set the stage for rapprochement between Cuba and the Cuban emigration, which ultimately led the Revolution to the formulation of an alternative role of the émigré community in relation to Cuba.
In 1978, Fidel initiated a process of rapprochement with the Cuban community in the United States. On September 6 of that year, at a press conference with journalists tied to the Cuban community in the United States, nearly all of Cuban origin, Fidel invited representatives of the Cuban émigré community to direct dialogue with the Cuban Revolutionary Government, regardless of their ideological orientation. The invitation was extended to all who were disposed to work seriously toward the solution of problems that affect the relations between the Cuban government and the Cuban community in the United States.
The first conversations, which took place in Havana on November 20-21, 1978, included seventy-five representatives of the Cuban community in the United States, with the participation of a Cuban government delegation that included Fidel, seven other high officials of the Cuban government, and the President of the Cuban Institute of Friendship among Peoples. A follow-up meeting was held on December 8, with 140 participants from the Cuban community in the United States. The Cuban-American delegation arrived with a number of proposals, including dual citizenship, many of which have been implemented over the years.
The 1978 dialogue provoked a split within the Cuban émigré community between, on the one hand, those who favored the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuban governments and the continuation of the dialogue between the Cuban government and the Cuban emigration; and on the other hand, those who favored a continuation of the status quo of hostility toward the Cuban Revolutionary Government. The Cuban-American Right attacked the defenders of dialogue; some were dismissed from their positions of employment, and others were victims of violence. During the period, 68% of the activities of anti-Cuban terrorist groups occurred within the territory of the United States.
There were several factors in the late 1970s that gave rise to a political environment favorable to dialogue. First, there had emerged a left-wing current of thought within the Cuban-American community, formed by: a remnant of the pre-1959 anti-Batista struggle, centered in New York; and Cuban youth influenced by radical currents of thought among U.S. youth in the 1960s who rejected the anti-revolutionary ideas of the Cuban émigré generation.
Secondly, the Carter administration was moving to a de-escalation of the conflict between the USA and Cuba, which included the opening of diplomatic “interest sections” in Havana and Washington. In spite of differing understandings of the meaning and structures of democracy as well as opposed conceptions with respect to Cuba’s right as a sovereign nation to formulate its own foreign policy, the two nations were moving toward the normalization of relations. U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance declared that the United States was disposed to negotiate with Cuba, without establishing previous conditions. At the same time, the Carter administration was proactive in attempting to establish relations with a sector of the Cuban-American bourgeoisie that had an economic interest in normal relations with Cuba and would be oriented to support a policy of peaceful coexistence with Cuba.
The new Cuban emigration
A significant change in the characteristics of migrants from Cuba occurred after 1980. Around the middle of 1979, taking advantage of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba by some Latin American nations, Cubans interested in migration began to penetrate by force the embassies of those countries, especially those of Venezuela and Peru, with the intention of receiving political asylum, which immediately was granted. The position adopted by the Cuban government was that these persons were not politically persecuted, and they would be able to emigrate normally if those governments would grant the appropriate visas, and therefore their use of force to attain asylum was incompatible with the actual situation. This was consistent with Cuba’s longstanding position that migration should be legal, orderly, and regulated. However, the governments involved were not disposed to cooperate, preferring to convert the affair into a political show to damage the image of the Cuban Revolution. Cuban authorities, therefore, decided to suspend legal authorization of exit visas, announcing on April 20, 1980, the opening of the port of Mariel for all those who desired to leave. For the next six months, 125,000 Cubans went to the United States on boats they had contracted, which had come from Miami to pick them up. It was the largest migratory wave in Cuban history.
The Mariel emigrants were viewed in Cuba, by both the people and the government, as anti-social, lumpen, and dissident elements that had abandoned their country. And they were treated as criminals by the government of the United States, interned in special centers where they were processed. At the same time, they were considered by the majority of the Cuban community in the USA, according to one depiction, as “a band of delinquents, blacks, and homosexuals sent by Fidel Castro to damage the prestige of the Cuban émigré community.” They were characterized by the U.S. press as the most despicable group of immigrants ever to arrive to the United States in the history of the country.
The negative image of the Mariel immigrants has been shown by scientific investigation to have been an exaggeration. Only 16% had criminal antecedents in Cuba, and in most cases, it was for illegal departure from the country or for economic activities that were not illegal in the United States and later would not be illegal in Cuba. They were much more representative of Cuban society than were the emigrants of 1960s and 1970s, with respect to employment and race.
The Mariel boat lift stimulated the Reagan Administration, in spite of its strong hostility to the Cuban Revolution, to arrive to a migratory agreement with the Cuban government. In the Migratory Agreement of 1984, the U.S. government agreed to admit up to 20,000 immigrants per year. The agreement was for the most part not implemented, as a result of a lack of commitment by the U.S. government. The events of Mariel had provoked a popular fear in the United States of a massive and uncontrolled immigration of Cubans, which led to more selective measures of admission. Requirements for potential migrants were difficult to satisfy, such that 80% of the solicitudes were rejected, and only 7,482 persons were able to migrate legally between 1985 and 1990.
The economic crisis of the early 1990s in Cuba, resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc, provoked another migratory wave. The majority were relatively young white males with a high educational level, motivated by personal aspirations that could not be satisfied in Cuba, given the economic crisis of the country. A study by the Center for Studies of Alternative Policies of the University of Havana showed that the majority of the emigrants of the early 1990s did not consider the North American system as the ideal model of society; rather, they viewed Cuban society before the economic crisis as ideal.
The great majority of the Cuban emigrants in the early 1990s entered the United States illegally. Between 1991 and July 1993, the United States received 12,808 illegal Cuban immigrants, while only 3,794 entered with legal documentation. At the same time, between January 1990 and July 1994, Cuba impeded the illegal departure from the country of 37,801 persons.
In the context of the economic crisis in Cuba, the migratory pressure was provoking conflict between the Cuban government and would-be illegal emigrants. In the summer of 1994, the continuous hijacking of vessels with losses of human life in some cases as well as the breakout of altercations in Havana led the Cuban government to decide on August 12 to eliminate the restrictions on illegal departures. As a result, 36,000 persons launched homemade boats toward the United States, confident that they would be rescued at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard, as had occurred up to that time. In response to the situation, the Clinton administration announced that it would impede the boatpeople from entering U.S. territory, thus breaking the exceptional migratory policy of stimulating illegal emigration, which the United States had maintained with respect to Cuba for thirty-five years. The administration announced that the boatpeople would be detained in U.S. military bases, and they would not receive the special benefits that had been applied to Cuban migrants, such as being granted the right to political asylum. In a few days, more than 30,000 Cuban emigrants were detained in U.S. military bases in Guantanamo and Panama.
On September 9, 1994, the Clinton Administration signed the first migratory agreement between the United States and Cuba that sought specifically to control illegal migration. In the agreement, the U.S. government committed to conceding a minimum of 20,000 visas annually, while the Cuban government promised to control the illegal migratory flow from its coasts toward the United States. A second agreement signed on May 2, 1995, concerned the 30,000 boatpeople detained in virtual concentration camps in U.S. territory. The agreement allowed for: the gradual admission into the United States of those confined in Guantanamo; the return to Cuba, after that moment, of illegal migrants captured in the high seas; and the suspension of the practice of granting automatic asylum to those who manage to arrive by sea to U.S. territory. For its part, the Cuban government agreed to receive those returned without taking judicial measures against them. Under the migratory accords, the U.S. government granted 95,360 visas from 1995 to 1999, and 128,000 during the first decade of twenty-first century. Some 92.9% of the immigrants were white, significantly higher than their percentages in the Cuban population. And the level of education of the migrants was higher. Many of the migrants during this period gave high priority to the maintenance of relations with their families in Cuba.
Under the Trump and Biden administrations, the pressure toward illegal and legal emigration from Cuba has increased, due to several factors. First, Trump and Biden have intensified the blockade, and especially important has been the implementation of measures related to the absurd inclusion of Cuba on a politically motivated list of countries that supposedly sponsor terrorism, enabling the U.S. government to block Cuban economic and financial transactions with companies and banks in third countries. Secondly, the Covid pandemic has significantly reduced international tourism, which has become Cuba’s principal industry. These dynamics have created a shortage of goods in relation to demand, giving rise to high inflation. These phenomena occur in the context of the multidimensional crisis of the capitalist world-economy and neocolonial world-system.
Díaz-Canel calls on the Cuban emigration to defend the sovereignty of Cuba
The characteristics of Cuban emigration since 1980—principally an economically-motivated migration—have led to an increase in the social and ideological diversity of the Cuban-American community. Meanwhile, Cuba has persisted in its revolutionary road, not only consolidating its revolution, but also emerging as a paradigmatic nation, pointing the direction to a possible alternative road for humanity, presently suffering the effects of a profound multidimensional crisis and the decadence of the hegemonic imperialist power. These evolving dynamics with respect to Cuba, the neocolonial world-system, and the Cuban-American community create the possibility of a new role for the Cuban-American community.
The possibilities of a new relation between the Cuban Revolution and the Cuban émigré community have been expressing themselves during the past decade. And they were addressed by Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel in an interchange with representatives of the Cuban emigration in New York City, held on September 22 at the headquarters of the Cuban Permanent Mission to the United Nations, where the Cuban President was traveling to address the UN General Assembly.
Beginning his address with the salutation “Beloved Compatriots,” the Cuban President reminded the Cuban émigré community that this November will mark 200 years since the arrival in New York City of Father Félix Varela, who was a teacher, writer, and philosopher, and above all, a Cuban patriot, who during that era of Spanish colonialism never vacillated in his determination to defend the idea of a Cuba fully free, independent, and sovereign. The Cuban President also referred to the Cuban writer Lisandro Pérez, who described the hard realities that Cuban émigré families confronted. And Pérez, he noted, pointed out the diversity of views among Cubans, between, on the one hand, those who believed that the solution to the problems of Cuba lay in annexation by the United States, and those, on the other hand, who were determined to defend the ideal of a free Cuba. And Díaz-Canel reported that Lisando described the important presence of José Martí, who traveled tirelessly in Cuban émigré communities in different cities in the United States, where he received the backing of persons and groups disposed to back the cause of independence. Díaz-Canel declared that Martí understood with clarity that the problems of Cuba had to be resolved among Cubans. Martí convinced and obtained resources from thousands of Cubans resident in the United States—in New York, Tampa, Key West, and other localities—but he never sought the participation of the government of the United States. In fact, Martí warned Cubans of the danger of placing the destiny of Cuba in the hands of that emerging, ambitious power.
Díaz-Canel also spoke of the purpose of the visit of the Cuban delegation to New York City, which was to speak before the General Assembly of the United Nations in representation of the Group of 77 plus China. He explained that the principal task of Cuba as President pro tempore of a group composed of 134 nations plus China is to lead the Group toward consensus and unity of political will in support of the sovereignty of all the nations of the Group, in spite of its political, ideological, and cultural diversity. In the context of this worldwide effort to construct consensus among the peoples based above all in the principle of respect for the independence and sovereignty of nations, the Cuban government, Díaz-Canel noted, meets with co-nationals in all countries where Cubans are found, seeking to share ideas, and calling upon them to preserve their sentiments of respect, commitment, and love toward the land where they or their parents and forebears were born, and to desire that their country be free, sovereign, independent, and prosperous, as Martí dreamed.
The Cuban President further noted that as Cuba faces difficulties, caused above all by the extraordinary impact of the deliberate policy of the United States to strangle the Cuban economy, Cuba has experienced many examples of patriotic support from Cubans residing abroad, with offerings of aid and donations with respect to the pandemic, the sad accidents in the Hotel Saratoga and the Supertankers of Matanzas, and the destruction caused by Hurricane Ian. Our compatriots, he observed, with their expressions of pain and support, are declaring themselves to be on the side of Cuba in its most difficult moments.
Díaz-Canel declared that this patriotic expression of support by compatriots in the exterior inspires us to continue to strengthen our ties with Cubans in the exterior. Cubans resident in the exterior are demonstrating that we ought not detour from the road toward a relation increasingly natural and constructive with those that were born in Cuba and have decided to settle in other countries, and also with the descendants of Cuban emigrants. Cuba therefore has convoked, in order to strengthen the continuous and irreversible ties between Cuba and her nationals abroad, the IV Conference on “The Nation and Emigration,” to be held in Havana on November 18-19 of this year. “We aspire to stimulate ties with the new generations of Cuban residents in the exterior, through the strengthening of the cultural and historic ties with their country and the country of their parents.”
The task is to attain, the Cuban president declared, an even better country, that protects and reinforces social justice, without foreign interference; that is able to count on the backing of all Cubans disposed to support their country, regardless of where they live, because they feel a part of the country, and because they want to contribute to its national honor and to reject any effort to denigrate or distort its culture and its traditions.
Díaz-Canel declared that his message is not intended for those who desire to convert Cuba into the fifty-first star of the American flag, because “Cuba has the right to construct and defend its own destiny.” Our message is unity and patriotism, and we are open to all who want to contribute, even when we have disagreements. “We have respect for Cuban emigrants. We are proud of you, and we look forward to your return, hoping simply that you respect and defend the soil that gave you birth and formed you with love.”
Arboleya, Jesús. 1997. La Contrarrevolución Cubana. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales.
Arboleya, Jesús. 2008. La Revolución del Otro Mundo: Un análisis histórico de la Revolución Cubana. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales.
Arboleya, Jesús. 2013. Cuba y los cubanoamericanos: El fenómeno migratorio cubano. La Habana: Fondo Editorial Casa de las Américas.
Castro, Fidel. 1978a. Entrevista de Fidel con un grupo de periodistas cubanos que escriban para la comunidad cubana en el exterior y varios periodistas norteamericanos. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales.
Castro, Fidel. 1978b. “Palabras del Comandante en Jefe, Fidel Castro Ruz, al finalizar la Segunda Reunión celebrada el 8 de diciembre de 1978 con miembros de la comunidad cubana en el exterior.” www.fidelcastro.cu
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