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Seeds of Change in Little Havana: Fresh Perspectives Eventually Emerge in the Cuban Exile Community

Havana, Miami, Washington: A Love/Hate Triangle

Havana, Miami, Washington: A Love/Hate Triangle

The Cuban exile community in the United States constitutes one aspect of a three-way relationship between Miami, Havana, and Washington. Since the revolution in 1959, the Cuban diaspora has been politically (and geographically) on the frontier of relations between Cuba and the U.S. Due to significant financial might and lobbying prowess, in addition to being primarily located in the crucial swing state of Florida, Cuban-Americans have obtained a considerable amount of political power. It is no exaggeration to suggest that U.S. policy towards Cuba since the revolution has largely been formulated in accordance with the wishes of the Cuban-American voting bloc. This has led to fifty years of confrontational policy vis-à-vis Cuba, ranging from an unsuccessful military invasion to over five decades of rigid economic embargo. These policies reflect the hard-line, anti-Castro sentiment that has been at the heart Cuban-American political culture.

For much of the second half of the 20th century, alternative opinions on Cuba were conspicuously absent in Miami. This was due in part to the threat of violent attacks posed by exile terrorist organizations. In the 1970s and early 1980s, groups like Alpha 66 and Omega 7 waged a war of vigilante justice on anyone advocating a sympathetic or even simply conciliatory position towards relations with Cuba. Cuban born academic Maria de Los Angeles Torres has stated that “communiqués were sent to the Miami offices of The Associated Press and United Press International vowing that any Cuban who traveled to Cuba would be killed.”[1] A climate of fear descended on Miami as bombs were planted in businesses and houses of those suspected of encouraging a more moderate stance towards Cuba. Fear of violent reprisals ensured that opposition to the hard-line approach remained minimal.

In recent years, however, as the community has evolved politically, traditional generalizations are no longer applicable. Demographic and generational shifts have diluted the hard-line voice in Miami, creating a community that is possibly more open to a change in policy direction towards Cuba than at any time in the past. On the streets of the Cuban-American neighborhood of Little Havana in Miami, debate now rages as to the value of the embargo and the future direction of U.S. policy. An acceptance of differences of opinion now exists, in contrast to the hard-line hegemony of earlier decades that left little room for alternative views to be aired. Today, “attitudes among the Cuban-American voters in Miami-Dade County have become increasingly complex,”[2] and while hard-line views still exist, they do so alongside other political standpoints.

The Impact of New Arrivals

The Cuban-American community in South Florida today is vast and varied. From the tree-lined opulence of Coral Gables, to the relatively impoverished neighborhood of Hialeah, Cuban-Americans live in many different social contexts. The success and power achieved by one subset of émigrés cannot overshadow the cycles of poverty and deprivation faced by others. Generally, “there is an inverse correlation between date of departure and social class of immigrant,”[3] and more recent arrivals have found it harder to adapt and succeed economically in the U.S. The oft-stated success of Cuban-Americans as an ethnic group has therefore only been part of the exile experience.

Whereas in the late 1960s, more than two-thirds of all Cubans in the U.S. had arrived in that decade, by the 1990s, such early exiles made up less than a third of all U.S. Cubans.[4] As the first generation of émigrés who fled after the revolution ages, the community’s connection to pre-Castro Cuba will become increasingly tenuous, and largely unrelated to personal experience. Today, the majority of Cuban-Americans living in the U.S. arrived after 1980. Predominantly economic immigrants, these Cubans generally lack the political motivation and ethos of early arrivals and take a more moderate stance towards the country in which they grew up. Their Cuba was the Cuba of the Castro regime, not the pre-revolutionary state, and their view of it, though often critical, also contains some more positive features. Later waves of émigrés “generally hold a more balanced view of Castro’s programs, often praising its systems of health care and education and its gutsy nationalism.”[5] Indeed, a 2004 University of Miami poll of 171 Cubans who had recently arrived in the U.S. revealed a widespread approval of the medical care and education they had received while living in Cuba:[6]

As these more recent émigrés and their children become the majority in Cuban Miami, the political culture of the community has begun to reflect their more moderate political leanings. This development has also had an impact on the community’s political partisanship.

Cuban-Americans have traditionally voted largely for the Republican Party. This can be traced to a time when a number of early exiles, who blamed John F. Kennedy for the botched Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, flocked to the Republicans in response. Since then, the GOP’s consistently hard line on Castro has ensured loyal support, and one need only observe voting patterns to see how one-sided the community’s electoral tally has historically been. In 2000, 80% of Cuban-Americans cast their votes for Republican candidate George W Bush.[7] However, in the past decade, the Cuban-American community has drifted from its traditional partisanship. Today “there are clear differences in opinion emerging; which suggest the electorate is likely to become less Republican over time, both in their attitudes and behavior.”[8] Despite the majority of Cuban-Americans remaining affiliated with the Republicans, overall there has been a considerable drop in active support for the party. In a 2010 survey of 310 Cuban-Americans, only a little more than half considered themselves affiliated with the Republican Party:[9]

While 58% is still high compared to the wider population, it signals a significant decline in support from 68.3% in 2004 [10] and the 80% who voted for Bush in 2000. The loyalty shown to the Republican Party has waned as the émigrés who fled Cuba in the early years of the revolution decline both in number and significance. A senior academic in Cuban studies at the University of Miami describes this shift: “I remember my father voted straight Republican. This doesn’t happen as it used to. It’s a sign of maturation, if you will…you’re not blue or red and that’s how you vote, but you look for the best possible person.”[11] In the build-up to the Presidential election in 2008, then Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s popularity among Cuban-Americans highlights the increasing complexity of partisanship in the community. Some 67% of Cuban-Americans surveyed viewed Obama either very or somewhat favorably.[12] This high regard for Obama in Cuban Miami may well have been a factor in the state of Florida being reclaimed by the Democrats in the election of 2008. The Cuban-American community is therefore no longer a bastion of unwavering support for the Republican Party.

New Generation, New Perspective

Historically, the Cuban exile community has been characterized as a single-issue group, with U.S. policy on Cuba dominating discourse. Politicians have traditionally been judged in Miami on the grounds of their stance on Cuba, with any deviance from a hard-line equating to electoral suicide. Consequently, potential presidents have made a ritual of taking their campaign trail to the Versailles Café in Little Havana, where hard-line exiles congregate to sip Cuban coffee, eat sweet guava pastries, and discuss the latest developments on the island. With the growth of a more heterogeneous community representing increasingly diverse political opinions, candidates are viewed through a different lens. Today, a candidate’s position towards Cuba is less significant than in the past, as other issues climb higher on the community’s agenda.

A significant reason for this development can be found in generational shifts. When the older generation casts its vote, the candidate’s stance on Cuba is likely to be in the top five, even the top three, most vital considerations. In contrast, the younger generation is more concerned with the economy, foreign wars and the environment, among other issues. U.S. policy on Cuba is not of paramount importance in informing the political inclinations of Cuban-American youth, where it might be for their grandparents. A founding member of the “Youth for a Free Cuba” campaign at the University of Miami states: “Unlike the first generation, I really don’t think young Cubans vote based on Cuba. I think it is a factor maybe, but not the main one.”[13] In a poll of 1,175 Cuban-Americans by the Institute of Latino Studies, a presidential candidate’s position on Cuba is shown to be of greater importance to first generation émigrés than their children (the ‘1.5 generation’) and grandchildren:[14]

This survey clearly highlights the decline in importance attached by younger generations to the issue of U.S. policy on Cuba. This change in generational passion stems at least in part from an increased separation from Cuba, both emotionally and psychologically. The traumatic process of enforced immigration that the older generation went through has come to define them; accordingly, for them, the issue of Cuba will always be of paramount importance. In contrast, Cuban-Americans born and raised in the U.S., while maintaining a strong sense of Cubanidad, have also achieved high levels of conformity to U.S. cultural norms. The distinguished Latin American scholar Maxine Molyneux describes a process of transition from “exiles to ethnics” in which younger Cuban-Americans still hold on to a strong sense of their cultural heritage, but do not define themselves as their grandparents do, through a mentality of displacement.[15] This has led to what one Cuban-American academic described as a move from “the politics of passion to the politics of reason”[16] among a younger generation less affected by the scars of exile. As time passes, this process is likely to expand as the experiences of first generation exiles become more and more distant.

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There has also been a growth in Cuban-American youth and student activism in the past decade. Cuban-American Student Associations (CASAs) have emerged on a number of university campuses both in Florida and nationwide. It is the desire of CASAs to encourage more Cuban-Americans to engage with the challenges facing Cuba. The isolationist rhetoric and ambition to invade and reclaim Cuba has been replaced by a desire to improve the day-to-day well-being of Cubans. The development of these novel approaches to the issue of Cuba may come to represent the beginnings of a new chapter in the political culture of the community. Groups like the Free Cuba Foundation at Florida International University emphasize the importance of human rights and strategic non-violence, citing Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as key influences.[17] The discourse of peaceful political action could not be further from the hard-line dialogue that used to prevail in Miami. A former president of the Free Cuba Foundation, who wished to remain anonymous, highlights the generational changes that have occurred in the Cuban-American community, arguing that “the younger generation is trying to do things in a different way because they’ve noticed the way it was done before didn’t work, hasn’t worked.”[18]

Elian Gonzales: A Moment of Reflection

Ten years ago, a traumatic and defining moment in the Cuban-American exile experience fueled the desire for a new perspective on Cuba. In the first few months of 2000, the dramatic saga of six-year-old Elian Gonzales gripped Miami and the rest of the world. Elian was found by two fishermen on Thanksgiving Day 1999 floating on a tire in choppy waters off the Florida coast. He had somehow survived the 90-mile trip across the straits from Cuba, during which his mother and stepfather had drowned. In what Lisandro Peréz described as the “last gasp of the émigré old guard,”[19] Miami’s hard-liners fought passionately to keep Elian in the U.S. with his great uncle Delfin González rather than repatriating him to Cuba to live with his father. Despite angry demonstrations and a media circus camped outside González’s bungalow on the outskirts of Little Havana, the judge ruled that Elian should be returned to his father. In a dawn raid on April 22nd, the boy was removed at gunpoint from his uncle’s house and taken back to Cuba. The hard-liners politicized the case, framing it as a battle between themselves and Havana, and they lost dramatically.

The exiles’ defeat in the Elian case signaled a turning point in the community, representing “the end of 40 years of headstrong obduracy on behalf of the exiles towards their homeland.”[20] Pepe Hernandez, current president of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) confesses, “I’d said for 40 years that we exiles must mobilise the U.S. government to overthrow Castro, but after Elian we saw that was not going to happen.”[21] The case highlighted the limits of the hard-liners’ power and governmental backing, and it put an end to the notion that a U.S.-organized ousting of Castro was a genuine possibility. Following the case, the community became more introspective, looking to move on from the hard-line’s failures, which will now always be personified by Elian Gonzales.

Split at the Heart of the Community

Since its creation in the early 1980s, CANF has been the most prominent exile organization in Miami. Under the obstinate, yet hugely popular leadership of Bay of Pigs veteran Jorge Mas Canosa, CANF catapulted the Cuban lobby into a position of considerable power. Mas Canosa ensured that CANF was unrelenting in its aim to maintain a strong economic embargo on Cuba in order to hasten the regime’s collapse. CANF’s “advocacy of hard-line policies to isolate Cuba was taken as the exile line on Cuban/U.S. relations, and CANF itself brooked no dissent either within the exile community or beyond, whether from its own members, government officials in Washington or from its critics in the press.”[22] The intolerance of dissenting views juxtaposed with CANF’s crusade for democracy in Cuba reveals the barely-cloaked double standard at the heart of hard-line politics in Miami at the time.

At a time when the community was still reeling from the Elian Gonzales case, a further important event unfolded when CANF split into two opposing factions. Following the death of Mas Canosa in 1997, his son Jorge Mas Santos attempted to plot a new course for the organization, relaxing the hard-line rhetoric that had previously characterized it. In August 2001, 22 CANF directors resigned in anger at the perceived change in direction, and formed a separate organization, the Cuba Liberty Council (CLC). The CLC retains close links to the Republican Party and is unwavering in its support of tough economic sanctions on Cuba, flying the flag for the remnants of the hard-line in Miami. CANF’s influence has since been reduced, as there are now two major groups vying for and dividing the attention of the community as well as legislators.[23]

Almost overnight, CANF had lost its function as the ‘go-to’ organization in the community. The glue provided by Mas Canosa had come unstuck, and differing opinions among Cuban-Americans, that in the past had been skilfully veiled, became apparent. Since the split, CANF has pursued a more moderate stance, distancing itself from the hard-line mantra of its past. Hernandez, current president of CANF, describes the rationale for this change in direction:

We had lost sight of our demographics. People like myself were a minority. After us came the ‘Mariel’ generation, the rafters, people here through immigration accords – who all wanted to help relatives back in Cuba, and travel to see them. Then there were young people who had grown up here, and considered themselves Americans. Our demands were no longer relevant to the relationship with Cuba that people needed.[24]

This pragmatic approach is reflected in CANF’s recent publication “A New Course for Cuban Policy” in which Mas Santos demands that the U.S. assist the Cuban people in a “peaceful transition to democracy.”[25] A list of demands of the U.S. government includes lifting restrictions on remittances and travel and establishing bilateral and multilateral diplomatic efforts with Cuba. Despite upsetting hard-liners in Miami, CANF seems to be reflecting a growing moderate voice in the community. A recent Florida International University poll of 1,000 Cuban-Americans found that 57% share CANF’s desire to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba.[26] Tellingly, then-Senator Barack Obama was chosen to speak at the CANF Independence Day Luncheon on May 23, 2008, where he expressed a similar desire to rethink U.S. relations with Cuba. The position of CANF today is therefore a far cry from the hard-line it championed in the 1980s and 1990s.


Today, it would be a mistake to characterize the Cuban diaspora as a monolithic political unit. Indeed, as its demographics have evolved, traditional conceptions of Cuban-Americans are no longer valid. Today, following the arrival of successive waves of immigrants, the structure of the community is more reflective of American society in general, spanning socio-economic boundaries and reflecting a wide spectrum of political views. Hard-line Cuban exiles still exist in pockets, but the stereotype of the anti-Castro extremist now represents a dwindling proportion of an increasingly heterogeneous community. Consequently, in the past decade, the political climate has also shifted. In contrast to earlier decades, there is no longer a dominant stance on how best to deal with the Cuban regime, but rather, a number of views involved in open debate.

Recent trends have the potential to continue in years to come. Connections to pre-revolution Cuba are becoming increasingly distant, as a larger percentage of the community was born either in the U.S. or under Castro’s regime. As first generation exiles become an ever-smaller proportion of the community, the hard-line perspectives associated with early émigrés are likely to become less and less significant. As third and fourth generation Cuban-Americans enter adulthood and begin to fill positions of power in Miami, a more moderate perspective towards Cuba may well come to define the community, with an increased emphasis on engagement. It is this generation to which the politicians of tomorrow will be seeking to appeal.

In terms of U.S. policy, the developments in Miami make the prospect of a normalization of relations with Cuba increasingly possible. As the Cuban-American community becomes progressively more moderate, one of the main obstacles to a thaw in U.S. policy towards Cuba is removed. No longer is the need to appeal to a reactionary Cuban-American voting bloc a reason for the continuation of a failing policy. President Obama has made some small movements in a new direction, by lifting restrictions for Cuban-Americans on traveling and sending remittances to the island. Moreover, a bill is currently being considered in Congress that would allow all U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, in addition to lifting certain controls on agricultural sales. In Havana, Raúl Castro has recently signaled his intent to move towards an increasingly mixed economy, while in Miami the hard-line hegemony of the past is fading. All sides of the three-way relationship seem to be accepting the need for at least an element of pragmatism. It is surely time for the U.S. to continue down this path and make the long overdue steps necessary to put an end to its counterproductive and highly damaging isolationist policy towards Cuba.


1 Torres, Maria. 1999. In the Land of Mirrors – Cuban Exile Politics in the United States Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

2 Bishin, Benjamin et al. 2009. ‘Miami Dade’s Cuban-American Voters in the 2008 Election’ Cuban Affairs 4(1).

3 Pilley, Anna-Claire. 2000. The Elian Gonzalez Case and Cuban American Political Culture MA Dissertation. Institute for the Study of the Americas.

4 Perez Jr, Louis A. 1994. Essays on Cuban History: Historiography and Research Gainesville: University of Florida Press.

5 Torres, 1999.

6 Gomez, Andy and Eugenio M. Rothe. 2004. ‘Value Orientations and Opinions of Recently Arrived Cubans in Miami’ University of Miami. Available at [Accessed July 28th, 2010].

7 The Florida Times-Union. ‘Many Younger Cuban-Americans Splitting with Parents on Politics’ October 31st, 2004. Available at [Accessed July 21st, 2010].

8 Bishin et al, 2009.

9Gomez, Andy. 2010. ‘New Trends in the Cuban-American Community (Poll)’ Available at…/New_Trends_Cuban-American_Community.pdf [Accessed August 20th, 2010].

10 Bishin, Benjamin et al. 2008. ‘What to Expect from the Cuban-American Electorate’ Cuban Affairs 3(3).

11 Interview with senior fellow at the Centre for Cuban and Cuban American Studies, University of Miami. Held on 7th June.

12 Bendixen & Associates. 2009. National Poll on Cubans and Cuban-Americans on Changes to Cuba Policy Available at [Accessed June 7th, 2010].

13 Interview with founding member of ‘Youth for a Free Cuba’ group at the University of Miami. Held on 14th June.

14 LatinoResearch. 2004. ‘Anti-Castro Political Ideology among Cuban-Americans in the Miami Area: Cohort and Generational Differences’ Available at [Accessed August 10th, 2010].

15 Molyneux, Maxine. 1999. ‘The Politics of the Cuban Diaspora in the United States’ in Victor Bulmer Thomas and James Dunkerly ed. The US and Latin America: The New Agenda London: Institute for Latin American Studies.

16 Interview with senior fellow at the Centre for Cuban and Cuban American Studies, University of Miami. Held on 7th June.

17 Interview with former committee member of Free Cuba Foundation. Held on 3rd June.

18 Interview with former President of the Free Cuba Foundation at Florida International University. Held on 4th June.

19 Los Angeles Times. ‘A Last Gasp of the Émigré Old Guards’ April 2nd, 2000.

20 The Observer. ‘Elian Gonzales and the Cuban Crisis: Fallout from a Big Row over a Little Boy’ February 21st 2010.

21 Ibid, 2010.

22 Molyneux, 1999.

23 Entrepreneur. ‘Exile Groups Implosion Could Mean Loss of Influence in Washington’ August 21st, 2001. Available at [Accessed August 10th, 2010].

24 The Observer, 2010.

25 Cuban American National Foundation. 2009. ‘A New Course for Cuban Policy: Advancing People Driven Change’ Available at [Accessed July 10th, 2010].

26 Florida International University. 2007. ‘Cuba Poll’ Available at [Accessed July 23rd, 2010].

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