Why Cuban exiles don't take America's freedom for granted
BY LOUISE OBRIEN
Without the Cuban diaspora, Miami would be a very different city.
Before Castro's revolution, Cubans represented just 2 percent of
Miami-Dade County's population. By 2010, they'd grown to 34 percent
—numbering only slightly fewer than the entire county population in 1960.
Cuban exiles have dramatically changed the culture, economy, language
and history of South Florida over the past 50 years. When the first wave
fled the island after Castro took over, they believed their sojourn here
would be temporary — making them exiles rather than immigrants. Cubans
and many Americans at the time were convinced the U.S. would never
tolerate a communist regime 90 miles south of its shores. Despite the
failure of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, some Cuban exiles continue to
hope for a triumphant return to their island.
It's been a long wait.
From the Bay of Pigs to Elián, exile stories have grabbed headlines
across our country, becoming part of American as well as Miami history.
No chapter was more dramatic than the Mariel boatlift, which brought
125,000 refugees to our shores in a few short months during 1980. Its
size and suddenness placed an enormous burden on the community, bringing
tensions already simmering to the boiling point.
As a student of international affairs in 1980, I came here to observe
firsthand the largest refugee influx in America's history, and its
effects upon a metropolitan community. Mariel became the subject of my
senior thesis for Princeton University, and launched a lifelong
fascination with Cuban Miami. Thirty years later, I accepted an
invitation to help edit Cubans: An Epic Journey. This group project,
involving over 30 contributors, was initiated by Facts About Cuban
Exiles (FACE), an organization formed after Mariel to combat prejudice
Before Mariel, Cuban exiles believed they'd been fully accepted by their
Miami neighbors. "Mariel ripped that pretty picture to shreds," recalls
Sergio Pereira, aide to the Dade County manager and special consultant
to the White House at the time. Due to a small but highly visible
criminal element among the Mariel refugees, the Miami community now had
license to vent decades of pent-up frustrations and bigotry. Pereira
says, "Cuban Americans who had spent so many years flourishing in what
they truly believed to be the 'land of equal opportunity' were crushed,
emotionally and spiritually."
In joining the mostly Cuban team on this book project, I hoped to learn
more about the entire Cuban exile experience, and how it helped mold the
culture of the city I now call home. What I hadn't anticipated was how
much this project would deepen my appreciation for what it means to be
Like all Americans, I'm descended from immigrants. My Irish Catholic
ancestors faced prejudice long before their descendants were fully
accepted as part of the American melting pot. Notwithstanding their
early struggles here, my great-grandparents never doubted they were
better off in the United States than they'd been before. It's easy for
subsequent generations to take that for granted.
With Castro's Cuba as a living comparison, the exiles have never taken
America for granted.
This is really the key to understanding the Cuban-exile community — the
part that sometimes their neighbors don't get. Their vehement feelings
about Cuba and Castro 50 years after the revolution stem as much from
commitment to the American way of life as from resistance to the current
regime in Cuba. In fact, to an exile, these are two sides of the same coin.
The exile community's position on the repatriation of Elián González in
2000 was an example of this. Cuban Americans know firsthand the
differences in economic opportunity and personal freedom that children
face in the United States vs. Cuba. Their passionate protests sprang not
from the insularity of a narrow ethnic community, but from a broad and
deep patriotism toward their adopted country.
This is why the story of the Cuban exiles is important for all of us.
Louise OBrien is a former business executive and editor of the Harvard
Business Review. A current resident of South Florida, she wrote her
thesis for Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School on the Mariel