Five Decades of Cuban Migration Waves to South Florida — by David Pereda

In these days when the United States and Cuba are in the process of reopening diplomatic relations after decades of political confrontations, Cuba, again, has become a popular topic in the media. Whether you are pro or against restoring relations, it cannot be ignored that the event marks a historical landmark in the love-hate relationship between the two countries. It’s been more that fifty-five years since Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista on January 1, 1959, initiating an onslaught of Cuban migratory waves that totally changed South Florida. While many of the participants in the first, and perhaps the most transcendental, migratory wave are now dead, the economic, political, and artistic impact of those early pioneers, and the ones who followed them, cannot be ignored. Political and business leaders, college presidents, well-known artists and entertainers, TV and film stars, and award-winning writers have emerged from within the melting pot of those waves. Two of the candidates for the next U. S. presidential election are Cuban Americans – and both of them, surprisingly to many, vehemently oppose the reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba. Whether we agree or disagree with them, I believe it would help to understand the thinking of the Cuban population in South Florida if we analyze the sequence and content of those historical migration waves.

According to immigration records, there are more than one million Cuban exiles living in the United States nowadays, most of them residing in South Florida. These exiles arrived in the United States in several distinct waves.

The first wave occurred after the Cuban revolution of 1959. Most of the exiles at the time were highly educated and many had money, properties and businesses already established in the United States. The majority of them arrived in Florida with the idea that the Castro government would not last long and their stay in the United States would be temporary. Mixed with that first wave, but independent of it, was a significant immigration wave that occurred between November 1960 and October 1962 when over 14,000 children, ages 6 to 17 were sent to the U.S. by their parents in “Operation Peter Pan” (Operación Pedro Pan). These children were taken out under the care of the Catholic Church and placed in foster homes throughout the U.S until they could be reunited with their parents. While many of the Peter Pan children ultimately reunited with their parents, not all them did. During my years living in Miami, I was befriended by a couple who met as Peter Pan children, fell in love, married, and had children. Although they lived a happy and successful life, they never reunited with their biological parents.

Another wave, mostly a mini-wave within the first wave, began in 1961 amid the nationalization in Cuba of educational institutions, hospitals, private land, and industrial facilities. Additionally, the Castro government began a political crackdown on the opposition by either incarcerating opponents of the regime or executing them. At this point, Castro had gone from a self-proclaimed, non-communist freedom fighter to a self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist.

From December 1965 to early 1973, under the Johnson and Nixon administrations, the twice daily “Freedom Flights” (Vuelos de la Libertad) from Varadero Beach to Miami were the only way to escape out of Cuba. It became the longest airlift ever to take political refugees out of Cuba and transported nearly 300,000 Cubans to freedom with the help of religious and volunteer agencies. Flights were limited to immediate relatives, with a waiting period anywhere from one to two years.

The Mariel Boatlift, one of the most significant and documented wave of exiles, happened between April 15 and October 31, 1980, during the Carter administration The mass boatlift occurred after six Cubans crashed a bus through the gates of the Havana Peruvian Embassy and requested asylum. When the Peruvian ambassador refused to return the exiled citizens to the authorities, Castro removed the Cuban guards from the embassy, basically opening the door to the 4,000 plus asylum-seekers who stormed the embassy within the next few days. Embarrassed in front of the world media, Castro stated, “Anyone who wants to leave Cuba can do so” and declared that those who were leaving the country were escoria (scum).

Castro’s comment resulted in an unprecedented mass exodus through the port of Mariel, where an improvised flotilla of Cuban exiles from Miami in small pleasure boats and commercial shrimping vessels brought to the United States family members and other Cuban citizens who wished to leave the island. Within weeks, 125,000 Cubans reached US shores despite Coast Guard attempts to stem the movement.

As the exodus became international news, Castro emptied his hospitals and had prison inmates rounded up as “social undesirables”, including criminals, 1,500 homosexuals and 600 mental patients, and forced to take them among the political and economic refugees. The Cuban Communist Party staged meetings at the homes of those known to be leaving the country. People were intimidated by these “repudiation committees” where the participants screamed obscenities and defiled the facades of the homes, throwing eggs and garbage, for hours. Labeled as “traitors to the revolution” those who declared their wish to leave became the targeted victims of the attacks, their rationing cards were taken from them, their jobs were terminated or they were expelled from schools or university.

The first chapter of my romantic suspense novel, However Long the Night, the story of a family of Marielitos forced to leave Cuba to begin a new life in the United States, describes in detail that turbulent period of time. You can read that chapter here:

The scale of the exodus created political difficulties for the Cuban government, and an agreement was reached to end the boatlift after several months. As many as 40,000 of the refugees were believed to possess criminal records in Cuba. In the end, only about 1,800 of the refugees were classified as serious or violent criminals under U.S. law and denied citizenship on that basis. The majority of refugees were young adult males, 20 to 34 years of age, from the working class, skilled craftsman, semi-skilled tradesmen and unskilled laborers who took advantage of the opportunity to leave Cuba without the hindrance of the oppressive Cuban regime.

The U.S. Department of State, in a website section entitled “Cuba: U.S.-Cuba Relations,” last updated Jan. 20, 2001, explained the exodus, at least partially, as follows: “In the 1980s… U.S.-Cuban relations shifted to include immigration…when a migration crisis unfolded. In 1980…the Cuban government allowed 125,000 Cubans to illegally depart for the United States from the port of Mariel, an incident known as the ‘Mariel boatlift.’ In 1984, the United States and Cuba negotiated an agreement to resume normal immigration, and to return to Cuba those persons who had arrived during the boatlift who were ‘excludable’ under U.S. law.” If anyone was sent back to Cuba because of the “excludable” clause that information has been kept either secret or hidden.

During the past decades, exile waves have consisted of balseros (rafters), who have braved the rough seas in homemade rafts. As a result of bilateral migration accords between the two governments, in September 1994 and May 1995, the status quo of U.S. policy toward Cuban migrants was altered significantly. The U.S. granted Cuba an annual minimum of 20,000 legal immigrant visas and, at the same time, determined that Cubans picked up at sea would be sent home just as any other group of “illegal” immigrants. As a result of these migration agreements and interdiction policy, a “wet foot/dry foot” practice toward Cuban immigrants has developed. Those who do not reach shore (dry land), are returned to Cuba and only those who meet the definition of asylum refugee are accepted to eventually be resettled to a third country. Those Cuban rafters who do reach land are inspected by Department of Homeland Security and usually are allowed to stay in the United States. From May 1995 through July 2003, about 170 Cuban refugees were resettled in 11 different countries, including Spain, Venezuela, Australia, and Nicaragua.

The State Department’s request to monitor the fate of the immigrants returned to Cuba to ensure that they were not subject to reprisals, has noted that since March 2003 it has been unable to find any information about the returnees.

If you are attracted to Cuba and its people, you might be interested in reading my Havana Series of thrillers featuring the peripatetic doctor, Raymond Peters, and the beautiful but lethal Cuban assassin, Marcela. Great portions of the books take place in Cuba, often in locations unknown to tourists, as well as in other exotic places, such as Dubai and Mexico. Here is a link to the last installment of the series, Twin Powers, published earlier this year by Second Wind Publishing.

Below, also, are links to the first two thrillers of the series.

The reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba may open the gates for another large Cuban migratory wave to the United States. It might also encourage many Cuban Americans, eager to recover a past their parents lost but never forgot, to migrate to Cuba in search of a national identity. Who knows, maybe the next flood of migration waves will not be from Cuba to South Florida but from South Florida to Cuba as Cuban exiles accompanied by Cuban Americans return home to establish businesses and reconstruct a run-down country. The next decade of U.S.- Cuba relations promises to be, if nothing else, quite exciting.

Author Notes: I have borrowed heavily from various sources to write this blog, among them the book Let the Bastards Go by Joe Morris Doss, Time magazine, The Miami Herald, and Wikipedia.

1 Comment

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One response to “Five Decades of Cuban Migration Waves to South Florida — by David Pereda

  1. David, I’m embarrassed to say, my knowledge of this history is limited and your recounting has been very interesting. The future relationship of these two countries will be fascinating to follow. Thank you.

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