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Cuban immigration to the U.S. began in an era of peaceful coexistence between the two nations. In the latter part of the 19th century, workers moved freely between Florida and the island, and the trade in sugar, coffee, and tobacco was lucrative. Cigar companies soon began relocating from Cuba to avoid tariffs and trade regulations, and Cubans came by the thousands to work in the factories. Soon the towns of Key West and Ybor City were the capitals of a tobacco-scented empire, and also became the centers of new Cuban enclaves. Even as these communities grew, Cuban workers continued to shuttle across the Straits of Florida as work allowed. At the beginning of the 20th century, between 50,000 and 100,000 Cubans moved between Havana, Tampa, and Key West every year.
At the same time, some Cubans fled political persecution, including José Martí, the father of Cuban independence, who worked as a writer in New York City while organizing his liberation forces. After the Spanish-American War and through the early 20th century, the U.S. maintained a high level of interest in Cuban affairs, and U.S. businesses increased their investments in Cuban enterprises. Meanwhile, as the Cuban government adopted increasingly repressive policies, opposition leaders continued to seek refuge in the U.S. In the 1950s, the harsh regime of Fulgencio Batista brought political resistance to a boiling point, and the number of refugees swelled.
When Fidel Castro led his revolutionary army into Havana in January of 1959, he ushered in a new era in Cuban life. He also launched a new era of mass emigration from his country to the United States. In the decades that followed, more than one million Cubans would make their way to the U.S., and thousands more would try and fail. Once the new Cuban government allied itself with the Soviet Union, the U.S. and Cuba became open enemies, and prospective emigrants were at the mercy of international politics. Through the years, as relations between the countries improved or deteriorated, the door of emigration would be opened and closed again and again. As a result, Cubans arrived in the U.S. in several distinct phases, each of which had a distinctly different reception.
The first Cubans to flee were the wealthiest—affluent professionals and members of the Batista regime who feared reprisals from the new government. More than 200,000 of these “golden exiles” had left Cuba for the U.S. by 1962, when air flights between the two countries were suspended. Between 1965 and 1973, a few flights resumed from Varadero beach in Cuba, and 300,000 more Cubans, who became known as Varaderos, seized the opportunity to emigrate. Many of the Cubans of these first waves felt that it was only a matter of time before the new government was overthrown, and planned to wait in the U.S. for their opportunity to return.
The immigrants of these first two phases were welcomed in the U.S. with open arms. It was the peak of the Cold War, and immigrants from Cuba were viewed by many in the U.S. as refugees from a dictatorial regime. The U.S. government opened a Cuban Refugee Center in Miami, and offered medical and financial aid to new arrivals. In 1966 Congress passed the Cuban American Adjustment Act, which allowed any Cuban who had lived in the U.S. for a year to become a permanent resident—a privilege that has never been offered to any other immigrant group.
The next major group of immigrants received a very different welcome. In 1980, under international pressure, the Cuban government opened the port city of Mariel to any Cuban who wanted to leave for the United States. The Cuban American community mobilized to help, and within days, a massive flotilla of private yachts, merchant ships, and fishing boats arrived in Mariel to bring Cubans to Florida. In the six months the port remained open, more than 125,000 Cubans were delivered to the U.S. These immigrants, known as the Marielitos, were much less affluent than previous generations had been, however, and a few thousand had been incarcerated while in Cuba. As a result, many Marielitos were stigmatized in the U.S. as undesirable elements, and thousands were confined in temporary shelters and federal prisons—some for years.
Many Cubans took even greater risks in their attempts to leave their country. In the 1980s and 1990s, tens of thousands of hopeful emigrants attempted to flee by sea, chancing death by drowning, exposure, or shark attacks to make the 90-mile crossing. Many thousands rode only on flimsy, dangerous, homemade vessels, including inner tubes, converted cars, and cheap plywood rafts, or balsos. Hundreds of the balseros died on the journey, and both governments came under global pressure to stop the flotillas. By the end of the 90s, the two countries agreed that U.S. would return any boats to Cuba.
At the beginning of the 21st century, very few Cuban emigrants successfully reached the United States. Only a major shift in relations between the two countries will result in any more substantial Cuban immigration in the future.
When they finally arrived in the U.S., Cuban immigrants transformed it in lasting and unprecedented ways. Many Cubans, especially among the earliest groups of immigrants, at first only expected to stay in the U.S. for a short while before the new government was overthrown. With the passing of time, however, some Cuban Americans came to face the possibility that they would not be returning home in the near future, and went about building a new life in their new home. For the vast majority of Cuban immigrants, that new home was in Florida. Although some Cubans moved to other parts of the U.S., including Chicago, Los Angeles, and New Jersey, most stayed in Florida, and most settled in the southernmost large city in the state—Miami. In 1960, the Hispanic population of Miami was 50,000; in 1980, it was 580,000. The new Miamians formed a very close and cohesive community, and they quickly began founding businesses, banks, and Cuban American institutions, as well as finding jobs for later arrivals. By 1970, 50% of Miami hotel staff members were Cuban American, and in 1980 half of all Miami-area construction companies were Cuban-owned. Cuban immigrants soon gained a reputation for success, in part because of the relative affluence of the first, “golden,” generation. However, most Cuban immigrants faced the same struggles as all other immigrant groups. The arrival of the Marielitos in the 1980s led to a backlash from non-Cuban Miamians, as well as by some more established Cuban Americans. Even the most successful Cubans had to overcome language discrimination and religious intolerance in their time in the U.S.
Today, Miami is not only the capital of Cuban America—it has become a major capital of the Latin American world. Much of the city is bilingual in practice if not by law, boasting major Spanish-language newspapers, television and radio stations, as well as studios that create movies and TV programs for Spanish speakers worldwide. Caribbean and South American nations do business with Cuban American banks and businesses, and Spanish-speaking tourists can feel culturally at home on the streets of Miami. Every year the Calle Ocho festival brings hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world into the streets of the traditional Cuban quarter for a celebration of Cuban heritage.
In the nation overall, Cuban Americans have made a significant impact both politically and culturally. In Florida especially, Cuban immigrants and their descendents have become known for their political activism, whether fighting for better working conditions for farm workers or advocating political change in Cuba. In 1985 Xavier Suárez became the first Cuban American to be elected mayor of Miami, and three years later Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was elected to the U.S. Congress.
Cuban artists have also had a profound influence on U.S. culture, as musicians like Celia Cruz and Chano Pozo have brought Cuban dances, from the rumba to the mambo to the conga, onto North America dance floors. One Cuban American bandleader, Desi Arnaz, went on to become the first Latin American to found a television studio, and with his production of “I Love Lucy” helped define the situation comedy as we know it today. Meanwhile, writers such as Cristina Garcia, Reinaldo Arenas, and Oscar Hijuelos have become critical and popular favorites, exploring the richness and complexity of the Cuban American experience as it moves into the next century.