Miami fascinates me. Ever since I watched Dexter and read all three books, I’ve continually investigated the cultural climate of the area, reading news articles and blogs, trying to ascertain what could produce such a violent but gripping drama.
What I found were stories of trailer park revenge, of people using priceless art to smuggle drugs in their motels, of a man running into the middle of a freeway, naked, covered in peanut butter. And, more recently, a man receiving a court-ordered ban from ordering pizza ever again.
But then I discovered a strain of American history I hadn’t fully explored before, evoked in the show with the beautiful string music of the Buena Vista Social Club playing as Dexter roamed through Miami on his midnight hunt. With just a few Google searches, I found a large community of Cuban-American exiles, who came to Miami to escape the Cuban Revolution.
Their story of coming to the United States is different from many immigrants, who come in pursuit of greener pastures, who want the opportunity to pursue a better life for themselves and their families. Cuban-Americans rather view their presence here as a prison sentence. No matter how much time has passed since their exile, how many benefits this community has enjoyed, how accepted they are here in the United States, they can’t shake the shackles of their grief and nostalgia, which has prevented them from looking forward to the future, and still does today, even in the face of the upcoming election.
The Cuban Revolution and the Cuban-American Population in the U.S.
Cuban-Americans comprise 6.5% of Florida’s population and a whopping 54% of the population of Miami. Nationally, they are the third largest group of people with Hispanic origins. Since President Obama announced renewed ties with Cuba in December 2014, “the number of Cubans entering the U.S. via ports of entry has increased 78 percent. In the fiscal year 2015, 43,159 Cubans entered the U.S. via ports of entry compared to 24,278 in the fiscal year 2014.”1
The mass exodus started with Cuba’s 1959 revolution, which marked the overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista. Many of his supporters and cronies, as well as upper class, well-educated Cubans afraid of losing their wealth (or their lives) in the Communist overthrow, including executives of U.S. internationals, lawyers, doctors, and businessmen, fled to Miami in search of political refuge. Thinking that Castro’s rule was only temporary, some of them left their relatives without even saying goodbye, and didn’t bring many personal or precious belongings besides their money. Castro then ordered for any and all belongings left by people leaving the country to be sequestered and redistributed. Knowing America’s staunch and violent support of capitalism, these immigrants didn’t anticipate the Communist regime would last so long, and depended on the Bay of Pigs invasion to knock Castro out. Alas, the fated day never came and, in fact, failed quite miserably.
But anyone who knows even just a morsel about immigration to the United States knows that Cubans fleeing the revolution of 1959 got quite a bargain.
First off, they had wealth and capital that most immigrants do not. Even today, after many low-income Cuban immigrants have come to the United States, Cuban-Americans have a higher average income than any other Latin American ethnic group in the nation. Second, when they left all those years ago, the threat of violence by the regime wasn’t immediate, like it often is and was in Mexico or Central American countries, where social upheaval and violent crimes are commonplace. Third, the U.S. government was happy to have them! They were the perfect examples of why capitalism is supposedly better than Communism. By giving them the economic and political support they needed, they could establish flourishing businesses and political organizations that showed the world what a success story of capitalism they were. Look at those nasty beret-wearing-Communists, trying to take away all their spirit and industriousness! This was the perfect chapter in America’s Cold War narrative, and explains why Cuban-Americans are so conservative: in the 2012 election, 49% voted for Obama and 47% voted for Romney.
The conservatives, being staunch proponents of Cold War rhetoric, ate them up. This explains why Cuban-Americans are so conservative: in the 2012 election, 49% voted for Obama and 47% voted for Romney.2 Before more low-income migrants came, numbers were leaning far more towards the Republican end.
The more recent immigrants from Cuba are better defined as economic migrants who come due to their country’s crippled economy. When they started coming to the U.S. in perilous sea journeys, such as the Mariel Boatlift, the U.S. cut them a break. They said if their feet touched U.S. soil, they were citizens. Immigrants facing similar problems in other countries aren’t so lucky.
With regards to immigration policy, Latin Americans trying to escape pertinent crises, the many civil wars, gang violence, or major social upheaval are given… Nothing, really. No special privileges, because they don’t fit in with Cold War rhetoric (there are a few historical exceptions other than Cuba). They usually arrive with very little economic resources, with 22% of all Central Americans living in poverty compared to the overall national average of 15%.3 It’s also not uncommon for minors to show up at the border, in panic, escaping a country in turmoil. El Salvador, due to gang activity, has a murder rate of 90 per 100,000, which makes it the most violent country not at war. And still, many struggle to pass immigration, and many won’t receive refugee status. Many will be criticized by U.S. conservatives.
Most of them don’t complain. At least, not like Cuban-Americans do.
At least, not like Cuban-Americans do.
No te quejes tanto.
(Don’t complain so much.)
Calle Ocho of Miami is a beautiful, lively street. You can hear Cubans sing, dance, stay up till the wee hours of the night. At first glance, you might think they’re just way too happy to be living in a free country, far, far away from Castro and Cuba’s tumultuous past. But a closer look at the community reveals traces of… misery. Bitterness. Nostalgia. Violence.
The older generations are especially vulnerable to such sentiments. Every New Year, during a time people are often looking forward to the future, you can find them toasting to the “Cuba de ayer“—the Cuba of yesterday. There’s literally an annual event called “Cuba Nostalgia” where Cuban-Americans gather at the Miami Expo Center to restore and relive their memories of their homeland. When Fidel Castro gave a speech and slipped and fell as he was getting on stage, you could hear the laughter in Miami for miles, as Cubans rewound the event over and over, cheering: “Castro has finally fallen! Now we can return!”
“The dream of return, the dream of revenge, the dream of settling scores and turning back the clock has held a significant proportion of the diaspora in its thrall for nearly five decades. The impact of these sentiments has been felt in U.S. politics and policy—logically during the Cold War, but also for more than a decade since its conclusion,” writes Latin American expert Mark Falcoff.
There are even cases of violent retribution, such as terrorist attacks organized by Cuban-Americans in Miami against Castro and his supporters.
These sentiments which have grown to characterize this community have prevented them from looking forward to the future, supporting conservative candidates like Donal Trump, whose more likely to pursue policies in their favor like other conservative president of the past. Especially with Obama’s new policies that spearhead the neutralization of U.S.-Cuba relations, they’re not to keen on another democratic candidate such as Hilary Clinton.
They say they like him because he’s a “jodedor.” A trickster.
But the beauty of the past few decades is now the Miami Cuban community is full of younger migrants, who arrived in the Mariel Boatlift of the 80s, and other subsequent waves of migrations, who are looking for restoration without retribution. They didn’t have to leave Cuba, they just did. Their entire status and livelihood wasn’t robbed from them. They lived in a poor country and wanted to leave. So they left.
Most of them don’t want revenge. They want to be able to visit their families in Cuba.
And maybe they can shine a light in this community that can’t get over the burdens of yesterday. Maybe in pursuit of their dreams here in America, they can find common ground with the older generations who have lived here for decades but still don’t seem to fully enjoy the privileges they are very lucky to have. Maybe the contradictions that have defined their exile can be resolved in a meeting between these two worlds. Given that U.S. election has always depended on the Florida swing state, our own future depends on it.
Melanie Falconer is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles, California. Her writing mainly concerns philosophy, personal experiences, cultural commentary, and her love of the visual and performing arts. If you’d like to reach out to her, you can do so here.