Cuba's Revolution and ExodusSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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El vino, de plátano; y si sale agrio, ¡es nuestro vino!
José Martí, Nuestra América(1891).
(The wine is from plantain; and if it proves sour, it is our wine!
José Martí, Our America(1891))
The exodus of over 38 years that brought close to a million Cuban immigrants to American soil harbors distinct waves of immigrants, as well as distinct refugee "vintages," alike only in their final rejection of Cuba. To date, analyses of the Cuban revolution focus on the stages of the Cuban revolution, with only a slight mention of the exodus of Cubans as a consequence of the vast upheaval of revolutionary transformation in Cuba.
At the same time, analyses of the Cuban migration focus on the manner in which the immigrants became incorporated in American society, in comparison to other immigrant groups in the United States, with only a brief mention of the stages of the Cuban revolution as the backdrop to the immigration. By contrast, my research seeks to link the two — revolution and exodus — not only as cause and consequence, but also as profoundly social and human processes that were not only political and economic but also cognitive and emotive events. Good statistical descriptions exist of the social and demographic characteristics of Cuban immigrants in the U. S. They are based on surveys of the various waves of immigrants as they arrived, as well as on the U. S. censuses. They show the enormous heterogeneity of the migration across its four major waves of migration. Yet, ironically for a community that defines itself as being in exile, virtually no studies of its political attitudes exist. Through the use of two major research strategies — participant-observation and in-depth, semi-structured interviews — I seek to capture the processes of political disaffection of participants in this major historical drama. I emphasize contrasts among the four major waves of the exodus in both their social characteristics and in their attitudes as members of different political generations. This project thus expresses sociology's dual intellectual heritage as a discipline that is, as Mayer Zald (1991) underscored, quasi-science and quasi-humanities.
Each of the major waves of the Cuban exodus has been characterized by a very different social composition with respect to the immigrants' social class, race, education, gender and family composition, and values. These differences were the result of the changing phases of the Cuban revolution. The Cuban community in the U.S. is today extremely heterogeneous, not only with dramatic contrasts in social characteristics but also in political disaffection, what E. F. Kunz (1973) called "vintages" — "refugee groups that are distinct in character, background, and avowed political faith.
Waves of Migration
The exiles' principal motivation for the decision to leave changed over time with the unfolding Cuban revolution. Nelson Amaro and Alejandro Portes (1972) portrayed these motivations as changing from "those who wait" to "those who escape," and finally to "those who search." To update their analysis, I added "those who hope" and "those who despair" (1996).
The immigrants of the first wave (1959-1962) were Cuba's elite: executives and owners of firms, big merchants, sugar mill owners, cattlemen, representatives of foreign companies, and professionals. They left Cuba when the revolution overturned the old social order through measures such as the nationalization of American industry and agrarian reform laws, which caused the U.S. to sever all ties. "Those who wait" characterized these first refugees who imagined a temporary exile, while waiting for American help to overthrow Cuba's new government. After the fiasco of the exiles' Bay of Pigs invasion (April 1961), the exodus doubled and "those who escape" constituted the second phase. Castro called them counterrevolutionaries — gusanos (worms).
The second wave of migration (1965-1974) arrived through the airbridge which resulted when both the U. S. and Cuba negotiated the orderly departure of Cubans. "Those who search" characterized this wave of migration that Alejandro Portes, Juan Clark, and Robert Bach (1977) studied, a group largely composed of the petite bourgeoisie: cooks, gardeners, domestics, street vendors, barbers, hairdressers, taxi drivers, small retail merchants, and small merchants. They left Cuba when Castro launched a new "revolutionary offensive," confiscating over 55,000 small businesses.
With the economic transition to socialism effected in the 1970s, the government cast the shape of the political system and Cuba took on the features of Eastern European communism. The old idealism and romanticism of the 1960s gave way to pragmatism. In 1978, a dialogue took place between the Cuban government and the Cuban community in exile, resulting in the Cuban government's agreement to release political prisoners and promote family reunification by allowing Cubans in the U.S. to visit Cuba. Those visits were partly responsible for the third wave — the chaotic flotilla exodus from the harbor of Mariel in 1980. Towards its end, this wave included Cuba's social undesirables, many of whom had been in prison (whether they were political prisoners, or common criminals who had committed real crimes, or had only challenged the state). Castro called them escoria (scum).
The Marielitos' most salient characteristic was their youth (most were young men, single or without their families) and the much larger presence of Blacks than before. As Robert Bach's (1981/82) studies of the Marielitos highlight, this last group was overwhelmingly working-class. A significant number of young intellectuals came as well, who called themselves "the Mariel generation" (the most famous of whom was Reinaldo Arenas). "Those who hope" might well characterize this wave.
Because of their youth, the Marielitos constituted a different political generation, coming of age long after the initial revolutionary struggle and its enormous sacrifices and affirmations of loyalty. Karl Mannheim (1952) defined a political generation as constituted by individuals of approximately the same age who share, in their coming of age, certain historical experiences that shape their political outlook. Most of the Mariel immigrants grew up during the late 1960s or the 1970s, at a time when problems of freedom of expression became acute, especially for artists and intellectuals, and when deviance, particularly homosexuality, was dealt with by prison sentence. As a result, the Marielitos are a significantly different "vintage." After 20 years of exodus, two exile "vintages" face one another but can hardly comprehend one another. Both groups are politically disaffected, but in markedly different ways. For example, a typical 1960 émigré was an executive, older, male, and White who likely became disaffected by the nationalization of American industry in the early years of the revolution. But a typical 1980 émigré was a bus driver, young, male, and Black who did not mind that nationalization. Instead, he likely believed in the revolution until successive prison terms for his participation in the black market promoted his disaffection.
The fourth wave of the Cuban exodus to the United States developed recently (1985-1994). Cuba's enormous dependence on the Soviet Union created a new economic crisis when communism collapsed in Europe (Mesa-Lago 1994). This severe crisis caused Castro himself to declare it a "período especial" — a special period that was to have been temporary. But this crisis, coupled with the United States' tightening of the embargo in 1992, led to the abject need and hunger that are daily realities for Cubans. Indeed, Cubans became so desperate that in 1994 they began leaving on balsas (rafts, tires, makeshift vessels) that drifted on the ocean, risking death due to starvation, dehydration, drowning, or sharks. Over 34,000 left that summer. Due to an abrupt change in U. S. policy, the U. S. Coast redirected them to the base at Guantánamo, from where they were eventually resettled throughout the U.S. "Those who despair" constituted this last wave of migration.
Living the revolution inside the island, joining the exodus that left the island, living el exilio in Miami, and being active in the dissident movement within Cuba entailed joining and leaving political communities that defined themselves against one another. Those who chose to stay in Cuba and integrate with the revolution ascended in social status but suffered the emotional loss of family, though at times they also rejected them. Those who chose exile outside Cuba suffered the loss of property, status, memories, peers. Profoundly alienated while in Cuba, once in Miami, some again found themselves alienated, now from the oppressive conservatism of el exilio — victims of a double alienation, possibly, a double exile. Those who joined the dissident movement (which eventually emerged in Cuba as an organized political force in the mid-1980s) found themselves repudiated and shunned by even the most intimate of family and friends. As declared dissidents, they experienced both social isolation — as pariahs within their own country — and often suffered physical and mental isolation when imprisoned. In short, revolution and exodus intertwined not only historically and politically but also cognitively and emotionally. Mistrust, fear, betrayal, isolation, humiliation and denunciation permeated the lives of Cubans, as they lived through a historical and political process that forced them to define and redefine themselves over and over, to side with one political community against another. To date, this dimension of the Cuban revolution and exodus remains unexplored.
Using the distinction developed by Albert O. Hirschman (1970) in Exit, Voice, or Loyalty, I am conducting in-depth, semi-structured interviews with people representative of the four waves of the exodus and who at different points were also protagonists of the four major political communities that, as I see it, developed: the supporters who never wavered and became highly integrated to the revolution (loyalty); those who remained in Cuba uninvolved in the political process (neglect); the exiles who rejected the revolution and joined the Miami political community (exit); and the reformists and dissidents who, living their criticism within, both supported the revolution and rejected it (voice). While at present all of these communities exist simultaneously, over time people have also left one to join another. Moreover, people who lived through one stage of the revolution were faced with very different choices than those who lived through another. For example, in the early 1960s the dramatic social changes taking place in Cuba were associated with the transition from capitalism to communism, while in the early 1980s the enormous changes taking place in Cuba reflected the debates then raging in the communist world — glasnost and perestroika. Young people who lived through such distinctly different stages of the history of Cuba and the revolution constitute different political generations. Their loyalty to the revolution, their dissent within it, and their exile varies in meaning. A central hypothesis of this research is that the critical experiences that promoted their processes of political disaffection — the loss of faith and trust in government and cause — vary quite markedly across the major waves of migration, not only because of their varying social composition but also because they represent different political "vintages" — different lived experiences over the course of the revolution. Hence, in this research project I try to take time into account in two senses — time as history and time as stage in the life cycle.
A transition out of communism is already underway in Cuba and has led to a new civil society in both Miami and Cuba, places rich with new organizations and associations that make them both excellent sites for field work. Although my research focus is on the exodus, an eyewitness understanding of the changing social conditions in Cuba is essential to understanding those who chose exile. My aim, at present, is to complete 100 interviews total — 25 from each of the four major waves of migration. The respondents are representative of the known characteristics that typified the immigrants of a particular wave — a form of what Anselm Strauss (1987) called "theoretical sampling." The typical interview, taped, takes from four to six hours, although some have taken two days. Because I am halfway through my project, I will simply offer a few brief illustrations. To preserve anonymity and confidentiality, all names and other identifying information have been changed.
Among the immigrants of the first wave, one finds three very different "vintages" of exiles among those who reached adolescence and adulthood in the 1950s, when the Cuban revolutionaries rose up successfully against the dictatorship of General Fulgencio Batista. The Batistianos, who sided with Batista against the incipient revolution, form the first "vintage".
However, most Cubans at the time believed in and supported the revolution that was then gathering force. Some supporters even fought for it, in the underground movement in the cities or in the armed struggle in the hills of Oriente and Las Villas. Among them, a second "vintage" developed from those who felt Fidel Castro betrayed the social and democratic revolution they had fought for. Rafael Peláez, one such exile, bore arms twice — first, against Batista in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra, and then against Castro in the mountains of the Escambray. He speaks of "the revolution betrayed." From 15 to 19 years old, Rafael Peláez fought side by side with Fidel Castro when he attacked the army barracks of El Moncada on the 26th of July, 1953, the event that triggered the revolution as an armed struggle. The Manifesto of the 26th of July Movement spoke of a social and democratic revolution and expressed a social populism that had long been a part of Cuban history. As a student at the university, Rafael Peláez became part of the Action and Sabotage Unit of the 26th of July Movement, whose tasks quickly progressed from burning the sugar cane fields, to placing bombs in the city, to killing Batista's soldiers. "I was a man of action," underscored Rafael, "not a politician. I had a quixotic, romantic sense that one should fight for justice." However, soon after the revolution triumphed in 1959, Rafael was horrified by the massive killings Castro ordered in a stadium.
He also realized, due to his proximity to the revolutionary center, that Castro was handing the revolution over to the communists. Now he began to fight against Fidel with the same tactics and skills he had earlier learned in the struggle against Batista. "The hatred," he said, "the killings...That was not the revolution we had fought for. The revolution we fought for was not red, but verde como las palmas (green as the palm trees), as Fidel himself had said in one of his speeches, and it was to take place through the democratic process." When the armed struggle against Fidel ensued, various political movements developed. Rafael joined the one most to the left — the MRP (Revolutionary Movement of the People), group that many characterized as "Fidelismo without Fidel" or "the 26th of July Movement without communism." He then joined the armed struggle in the hills of the Escambray mountains, which ended with the fiasco of the exiles' Bay of Pigs invasion. After he was caught with a carload of arms, Rafael spent 10 years in prison. He arrived in the United States in 1980 — too old to complete his education as an engineer and start anew. Today he drives a city bus in New York.
The third "vintage" is constituted by Cuba's professional class, most of whom came over during the first wave. Their lives had not only been well-off but also had the grace and pace that often accompanies the lives of the middle and upper classes in underdeveloped countries, together with all the trappings of modernity that came from their rich, developed neighbor to the North. Carlos Ruiz, a tall, thin, blue-eyed, well-mannered, and quietly elegant man, was a civil engineer who left Cuba in 1960 when the American companies were nationalized. He underscores that "In Cuba, there was no need for a social revolution at that time..." and points to Cuba's leading social indicators in comparison to other Latin American countries at the time. Like so many in his social class who left early, he could not credit the revolution with having done anything worthwhile. Giving vent to his nostalgia for the remarkably beautiful city he had left behind 37 years ago, he added, "Havana then was like a bright, shining star, whose light shone throughout the Americas."
By contrast, those who left Cuba during the most recent waves almost always point to Cuba's advances in health and education as real social advances. Salvador León was 36 years old when he arrived in 1994 and had formerly been an assistant professor of biology at the University of Camagüey. He noted that "After all, I am the product of that society." Most of the recent exiles emphasize that the social ascent they experienced — from humble families to the University to become well-trained professionals — was real. But immediately thereafter they point out that the government was unable to accept that such training requires the freedom to be, to think, to express oneself. Emilio Muñoz came face to face with such limits. At present 46 years old, Emilio is a mulatto who originally came from a decent, poor family. He received a good education, amplified through the classic literary texts made available to him by a European girlfriend, and graduated from the University of Havana with a degree in foreign languages. He rose to become a television producer of an extremely popular children's program, work in which he took great pride. For him, as for many in Cuba then, the impact of the Mariel exodus in 1980 was decisive. His closest friends left then. They were among many who, until the day they left, everyone had believed were strong supporters of the government. Suddenly, Emilio felt as if Havana had become an empty shell. Moreover, the actos de repudio (repudiation acts) developed alongside the Mariel exodus; those who applied to leave the country were spat at, insulted, beaten, humiliated — stampede that went on for months. Also, often those who left had worn many masks: they had been members of the UJC (the Union of Young Communists), the CDR (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution), card-carrying members of the Communist Party. A member of the UNEAC (Union of Cuban Writers and Artists) himself, Emilio wrote a collection of short stories that, while fictional, narrated the duplicity of these lives that became apparent then. As a result, Emilio spent five years in prison and arrived in the U. S. in 1986. Yet, he said, "in prison, I discovered another Cuba," a more profound Cuba than any he had known, composed of the resistance of many. He became a dissident and joined the human rights movement emerging in Cuba, partly out of the dismal prison conditions.
Last, politics and economics are very hard to separate in the Cuban case. At 26, Olguita Gómez never thought that she and her husband would ever leave Cuba. But they arrived in the U.S. in 1994. A vivacious young woman, her adolescence had been carefree, with much partying and dancing. Always the best student in her class, Olguita won a trip to the Soviet Union in the early eighties, where she spent a month touring the country with her teachers. Though finding the Soviet Union somewhat colorless in comparison to Cuba, she believed firmly that communism was a good system until its collapse in the Soviet Union ushered in Cuba both an economic crisis and a crisis of disbelief. "They had told us that communism was a good system," she said, "but then we could see that it wasn't."
I believe my present research will help us develop an understanding of how our lives, our biographies, are shaped by and, in turn, seek to influence the limits imposed by society and history. It will also add a much-needed dimension to a very neglected area of research on Cuba's refugees and the Cuban revolution, and will contribute to our knowledge, more generally, of the twin processes of revolution and exile. As such, it will contribute to the development of the sociology of the refugee as well as the sociology of revolutions.
Silvia Pedraza is Professor of Sociology. This research project has been supported by the American Sociological Association's Fund for the Advancement of the Discipline (1995-96) and by the University of Michigan's Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies' Faculty Grant and Fellowship (1997-1998).