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Modern Florida (1959-20 07)

On January 2, 1959, Fidel Castro and his supporters began a victorious march toward Havana, having successfully ousted Fulgencio Batista, who fled Cuba in the early morning of New Year’s Day. With this shift began one of the Cold War’s most notorious stories, and also the single greatest migration of Latinos into Florida in its history. The migrations across the now-famous ninety miles of the Florida straits would be massive. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans would eventually leave Cuba for Miami. And this migration also paved the way, in uneven ways, for future Latino migrations, because this ultimately transformed Miami from a relatively sleepy retirement town and enclave of Russian Jewish emigres into a city where one could conceivably live and die without speaking a word of English.

The Cuban migrations to Miami were structured along class, socioeconomic, professional, and racial lines. The first wave of migrations came immediately in

the wake of Castro’s triumph. Fearing (correctly) that Fidel would turn Cuba communist, the Batista oligarchy, wealthy conservatives, business owners, and the right-wing professional class constituted, generally, the initial migration to Florida. Predominantly white and well-to-do, this group tended to integrate successfully into the Miami economic and political world. Unlike other migrant groups in U.S. history, Cubans have benefited from the circumstances of global politics. Eager to embarrass or eventually defeat Castro (and, one might add, to add Cubans to their voting rolls), formal U.S. policy has been exceptionally favorable to Cubans.

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The first wave of emigres, who viewed themselves as political exiles, possessed an unusual profile for migrants: educated, propertied, and professional. In many cases they were from the highest ranks of the old Batista elite. The result is that this relatively upper-middle- and upper-class group set up shop quickly in Miami as a kind of oligarchy in wait for the hoped-for demise of Castro. Castro did not fall; in fact, he outlived assassination attempts, coups, an incompetent invasion at the Bay of Pigs, and even the Cuban Missile Crisis. The next wave of Cuban migrants consisted of children who were airlifted out of Cuba by the U.S. military, a program known as Operation Pedro Pan.

Until 1965 Cuba saw the first phase of the revolution and it became increasingly clear that things were taking an authoritarian turn. Castro surprised the United States and the exile community in September 1965, when he announced that anyone in Cuba who had relatives in the United States and who wished to leave was free to do so. The result was the so-called freedom flights over the next 9 years, in which close to 300,000 Cubans left for Florida.14 Throughout this process Miami became the front line in the Cold War.15 In 1966 the United States implemented the Cuban Adjustment Act, which provided for immediate and automatic permanent resident status for all Cubans who arrived legally in the United States. The U.S. government also sponsored wide-ranging welfare programs to assist new arrivals. By the mid-1970s the United States government had spent more than $1 billion assisting Cuban migrants.

The result of the U.S. government’s eagerness to discredit Castro and welcome enemies of world communism was to provide unprecedented opportunities for Cubans in Florida, who thrived as a result of strong familial and community solidarity, economic patronage, and their generally high socioeconomic profile prior to migration to Florida. By the late 1970s Cubans had come to form an economically and politically powerful group in Miami. By 1977 Cubans owned

8,000 businesses in Miami. Although Cubans would increasingly dominate Miami business and politics, 1980 marked a watershed in Florida history, in the collective dynamic of Latino identity in Florida, in Cuban identity, and in the ethnic balance in Florida. In April 1980 Castro announced that gusanos (worms Castro’s pejorative word for enemies of his regime) would be free to leave Cuba. Debarking from Mariel Harbor,

some 125,000 Cubans left for Miami. It was nothing short of a debacle. Cubans in Florida organized fleets of freedom boats to ferry the emigres. Among the Marielitos were a substantial amount of criminals and the mentally insane whom Castro had released from asylums and prisons. He remarked that he had flushed the toilets of Cuba on the shores of Miami and openly mocked the exile community in Florida. U.S.

President Carter was caught off-guard and the entire incident made for salacious headlines murderers and psychotics dumped on Miami’s shores. From a demographic perspective, however, important shifts could be detected Marielitos were generally poorer, younger, and less white than previous Cuban migrants. Significantly, unlike previous migrations, which tended to be for both economic and ideological reasons, by 1980 the promises of the revolution were souring on substantial portions of the population, and middle-class and working-class Cubans left Cuba out of discontent over the stagnant economy and the increasingly dictatorial rule of Castro.

 

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