Between October 2021 and February 2023, almost 353 thousand Cubans have entered the United States, almost all coming through the Mexico/U.S. border. The migrants represent 3.5 percent of the total population of the island nation and between 5-6 percent of the active labor force. For a country of 11 million people, this is a significant event.
The exodus is the most dramatic symptom of the many ailments plaguing Cuban society. From the U.S. economic embargo to the profound aftershocks of a pandemia that eliminated the fledging tourism industry, to a leadership criticized for being uninspiring, inept, or just plain wrong, the burdens of living in Cuba are so overwhelming that thousands of Cuban citizens have decided to risk it all by undertaking a costly and dangerous exodus.
This march of the thousands will have an impact on the society of South Florida. We don’t know exactly how many of these immigrants will end up in the Miami area, but we can make solid estimates. This is what we know:
- 224,607 Cubans entered the country through all entry ports in FY 2022 (Oct. 2021-Sept. 30, 2022: Customs and Border Patrol data)
- 128,274 Cubans entered the country so far in FY 2023 (October 1, 2022, through February 28, 2023: Customs and Border Patrol data)
- 139,361 Cubans entered the state of Florida in FY 2022 (Oct. 2021-Sept. 30, 2022: Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) data)
- 62% of national entrants came to Florida in FY 2022
- 84,951 Cubans settled in Miami Dade County in FY 2022 (Oct. 2021-Sept. 30, 2022: Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) data)
- 61% of all Florida entrants during FY 2022 settled in Miami Dade County
- 4,840 Cubans settled in Broward County in FY 2022 (Oct. 2021-Sept. 30, 2022: Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) data)
- 4% of all Florida entrants during FY 2022 settled in Broward County
- 64% of all Florida entrants during FY 2022 settled in south Florida (Broward/MDC)
While the DCF does not have numbers available for FY 2023 (Oct. 2022-Feb. 2023), if we assume consistency in the percentage of new entrants that end up in South Florida, we can estimate that 50,898 Cubans have settled in South Florida since October 2022. It is likely, then, that the Miami area welcomed around 135,849 Cuban immigrants since October 2021.
The immediate impact is being felt by organizations such as DCF and the Miami Dade Public Schools but the unprecedented migration is not causing panic in a region accustomed to a constant influx of Cubans. County leaders referred to the inflow as a “crisis” but one that is less visible than other migration crises. Archbishop Wenski speculated that “… one of the reasons that the crisis is so silent [is] because we are not that overwhelmed.”
The ideological distillery of Cuban American political culture
Since the initial wave of migrants lurched into South Florida after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, a linear intransigence has dominated the community’s view towards Cuba and its government. The “strategy” to bring social change to Cuba? Strengthen the embargo, double down on isolation, and establish the identity of the community as one committed to the overthrow of the Cuban government by any means possible. No one seems interested in asking how this approach has worked out or in encouraging the community to develop a plan B.
New waves of immigrants are always viewed as different than previous waves and the anticipation persists that each new wave will dilute the Kool-Aid of intransigence. This has turned out to be wishful thinking.
The ideological socialization process that incorporates new migrants into South Florida’s uncompromising political culture is relentless. The identity of the community seems to depend on maintaining a cold war position on US/Cuba relations.
There are always outliers, the persistent minority of “deviants” who support engagement policies even as the majority doubles down on coercive isolation. But the strategies of these fellow travelers for bringing about change in Miami and in Cuba do not get much play in the local information matrix. They too are isolated.
And then there was the Obama era when Cuban Americans were presented with a brand-new set of rules and options on how to deal with the homeland. Many Cuban Americans disagreed with the Obama policies but, when forced to play in a new, more open terrain, did so. Some viewed the policy shifts as opening a new front in the struggle to bring change to the island; now the job of the committed hardliners would be to help build a Cuban middle class strong enough to create problems for the ruling elite. After Trump’s resetting of sanctions and Biden’s unwillingness to promote the policies he supported as Vice-President during the Obama years, the traditional legacy of heavy-handed intransigence resumed.
The question becomes: How will the new thousands of Cuban Americans incorporate themselves into this political environment? Will their presence moderate the political bloodlust of their South Florida compatriots? Or will the socialization process demand conformity to the political nihilism of their co-ethnics?
Decades of studying the dynamics of the community have made us sensitive to certain patterns that might shape the process of incorporation of new arrivals. As they settle into their new home, the new migrants will notice immediately two political characteristics of their South Florida compatriots: 1) most have an intense dislike for the Cuban government, and 2) the Republican party is the institution that best communicates this antipathy to the local and national audience.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend
The ideological foundation of the post-Revolution migration of Cubans to the United States is constructed of solid anti-Cuban government animus. The initial migrants fled the immediate political upheavals inherent in revolutions while subsequent migrations increasingly drew motivation to leave from the economic difficulties which never seemed to loosen their chokehold on the island.
Most Cubans since the disappearance of the Soviet Union in 1991, do not report migrating for political reasons. That is the pattern evident in the FIU Cuba Poll of the last twenty years. (Figures 1 and 2) The contemporary arrivals, like many of their predecessors, are fleeing abysmal economic conditions, want to rejoin family members or otherwise improve their lives.
But it is not necessary to leave Cuba for political reasons to have a total antipathy for the Cuban government. And this antipathy is the common denominator of early migrants as well as new arrivals.
Most of the recent crop of migrants blame the Cuban government for creating the conditions forcing them to leave the island. In the interviews that I’ve conducted, the resentment towards to Cuban government is widespread. Most report not wanting to leave the island but, in one way or another, share the opinion of one respondent: “You can’t live in Cuba right now.” In their eyes, the blame for this soul-crushing situation lies with the Cuban leadership.
Once in South Florida, the new Cuban Americans find that their dislike for the Cuban government, although a product of different historical conditions, is shared by friends, relatives, neighbors, media personalities, influencers, teachers, political leaders, waitresses, and the check-out lady at Sedano’s. Their antipathy melds seamlessly with the dominant anti-Cuban political narrative that has been institutionalized in South Florida for over 60 years. The antipathy is echoed and reinforced in personal interactions and authoritative pronouncements from political and civic society leaders. Intransigence is in the water, bubbling up from the brackish depths of the Floridan aquifer.
The new arrivals are expected to have well-defined, principled, opposition to the Cuban political system in general, not just the current leadership. Yet, most of the new arrivals do not view their unfortunate situation as a result of an overarching “failure of socialism,” (just as most Americans do not see the inequality and poverty generated by this system as a “failure of capitalism”) but rather the inability of Cuban leaders to understand and respond adequately to the difficulties facing the Cuban people. The leadership is seen at best out of touch with ‘el Cuban@ de pie’ and at worse, corrupt and festering with cronyism.
South Florida incubates a confusing political culture, where keeping your thoughts to yourself becomes a survival strategy. I often hear the phrase, “I don’t want to get involved in politics” which means “I don’t want to cause waves.” In this emotionally proto-dystopian political environment, anyone supporting policies that establish contact between South Florida Cubans and those on the island can be accused of “causing waves;“ of “defending” Cuba and its government, and of being a “communist.” While many see the absurdity of these accusations, this is a battlefield that new immigrants do not want to enter.
The Republican Party is the “Cuban Party” in South Florida
New arrivals find out quickly that there is one party that has maintained a steady drumbeat of opposition to the Cuban government. While the Democrats wax and wane in their approaches to Cuba/U.S. policy, the Republicans hold steady in their belligerence.
Since the 1980s the Republican Party has earned the support of Cuban Americans by investing in its political development and providing a national stage for the Cuban cause. It is, as a Havana resident once told me when speaking of the political environment of South Florida, “el Partido de los Cubanos.”
The new arrivals become socialized into the U.S. political system in this unipolar environment. They feel an affinity towards the Republican Party from the get-go (Figure 3), even without understanding the full meaning of the Party in the national political environment.
The new arrivals normalize the existence of Donald Trump. He is not seen as an aberration in the American political system, but a political leader able to inspire rabid support not only from Cuban Americans but from a large portion of the American public.
He is not a toxic figure who mobilizes supporters based on their fears, nostalgia and resentments, but an anti-socialist caudillo playing hard-ball with the Cuban government. At least that is the simplified narrative that passes for political discourse in this Cuban American world.
This narrative conveniently ignores the Republican party’s position on other policies which have a more direct impact on the well-being of the community, i.e. health care, gun violence, education, and immigration policy.
Any positive memories or interpretations that new arrivals might have about the Obama policies–the wave of hope and excitement that diplomatic and economic relations unleashed among the people on the island, the anticipation that finally the economic and political situation of the island would move in a positive direction–any such memories will soon be recast into the simplistic logic of the local political environment: Obama’s policies are responsible for the current situation of oppression and scarcity on the island.
The pull of the Republican party is hard to resist, particularly when there is no counterbalancing pull from the Democratic Party. The Dems have very little penetration into the Cuban American community and an even less impressive organizing strategy. There are committed and talented organizers in the community who consistently are disappointed by the lack of support from the Party. As one activist mentioned, the Democratic Party “has abandoned Cuban Americans.”
When it comes time to register to vote, new arrivals float into the Republican lake effortlessly, without causing waves. And even when Republican registration does not boom, the Democrats do not gain. (Figure 4) The growing number of no-party affiliation registrants behave like Republicans when voting.
The clearest evidence comes from the 2022 electoral preferences of new arrivals. Of the 46% claiming to be registered democrats (9%) or independents (37%) none planned to vote for the democratic candidate for governor. (Figure 5)
All this might sound profoundly depressing to anyone hoping that new waves of Cubans immigrants would be more prone to support engagement policies and help thaw the cold war core of the exile ideology. But repeatedly we have underestimated the power of conformity in the process of political socialization. The forces shaping the political views of newcomers are many and powerful. Systems—social systems, work systems, economic systems, ideological systems—reward conformity. Stepping outside of the “normal” identifies one as a “deviant.” New arrivals do not want to be seen as deviants. For many of them, that is a status better left behind.
What I’ve presented are hypotheses; possible processes based on established patterns of community attitudes and behaviors over the years. The new arrivals might alter the established order. They might contribute to an eruption of tolerance and creative thinking about how Cuban Americans can contribute to the development of Cuba. Sure. This might happen. But my guess is that if we are waiting for a tipping point of attitudes to occur from the bottom up, we might be waiting for two or three generations.
However, there is one bit of compelling evidence from our decades of research that holds hope. When we control for the most important variables in the Cuba Poll—gender, age, time of arrival–we find that when Democrats occupy the White House, the attitudes of Cuban Americans become less intent on isolation and more inclined towards engagement. This pattern has its roots 1991, when we started the poll, but the shift is most dramatic during the Obama years. When President Obama entered the White House, 64% of Cuban Americans supported the embargo (same as throughout all of Bush Jr.’s years). When he left office, the percentage of Cuban Americans supporting the embargo was cut nearly in half to 34%. Other engagement measures responded similarly. (Figure 6)
Trump tightened the screws on Cuba. Cuban Americans attitudes shifted again towards isolation and sanctions. By 2020, 59 percent of Cuban Americans supported the embargo.
The political-party-in-office pattern was broken in the 2022 elections. The Biden administration’s lack of action on Cuba, at least up to October of 2022, when we conducted the last poll, had no impact on the trend initiated during the Trump years.
Perhaps the pattern might not be that the Party in the White House shapes the opinion of Cuban Americans but maybe it is the leadership emerging from the White House on Cuba policy that shapes Cuban American opinion.
The most hopeful point can be summarized in two words: leadership matters. Build a policy based on national interests, and they, Cuban American arrivals old and new, will come. This is a hypothesis worth testing.