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Presentation Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History

Crossing the Straits

Cigar factory, Key West, Fla., ca. 1900.

Cuban immigration to the U.S. began in an era of peaceful coexistence between the two nations. In the latter part of the 19th century, workers moved freely between Florida and the island, and the trade in sugar, coffee, and tobacco was lucrative. Cigar companies soon began relocating from Cuba to avoid tariffs and trade regulations, and Cubans came by the thousands to work in the factories. Soon the towns of Key West and Ybor City were the capitals of a tobacco-scented empire, and also became the centers of new Cuban enclaves. Even as these communities grew, Cuban workers continued to shuttle across the Straits of Florida as work allowed. At the beginning of the 20th century, between 50,000 and 100,000 Cubans moved between Havana, Tampa, and Key West every year.

To hear Cuban songs from this period, search in "Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections."

At the same time, some Cubans fled political persecution, including José Martí, the father of Cuban independence, who worked as a writer in New York City while organizing his liberation forces. After the Spanish-American War and through the early 20th century, the U.S. maintained a high level of interest in Cuban affairs, and U.S. businesses increased their investments in Cuban enterprises. Meanwhile, as the Cuban government adopted increasingly repressive policies, opposition leaders continued to seek refuge in the U.S. In the 1950s, the harsh regime of Fulgencio Batista brought political resistance to a boiling point, and the number of refugees swelled.

When Fidel Castro led his revolutionary army into Havana in January of 1959, he ushered in a new era in Cuban life. He also launched a new era of mass emigration from his country to the United States. In the decades that followed, more than one million Cubans would make their way to the U.S., and thousands more would try and fail. Once the new Cuban government allied itself with the Soviet Union, the U.S. and Cuba became open enemies, and prospective emigrants were at the mercy of international politics. Through the years, as relations between the countries improved or deteriorated, the door of emigration would be opened and closed again and again. As a result, Cubans arrived in the U.S. in several distinct phases, each of which had a distinctly different reception.

The first Cubans to flee were the wealthiest—affluent professionals and members of the Batista regime who feared reprisals from the new government. More than 200,000 of these "golden exiles" had left Cuba for the U.S. by 1962, when air flights between the two countries were suspended. Between 1965 and 1973, a few flights resumed from Varadero beach in Cuba, and 300,000 more Cubans, who became known as Varaderos, seized the opportunity to emigrate. Many of the Cubans of these first waves felt that it was only a matter of time before the new government was overthrown, and planned to wait in the U.S. for their opportunity to return.

The immigrants of these first two phases were welcomed in the U.S. with open arms. It was the peak of the Cold War, and immigrants from Cuba were viewed by many in the U.S. as refugees from a dictatorial regime. The U.S. government opened a Cuban Refugee Center in Miami, and offered medical and financial aid to new arrivals. In 1966 Congress passed the Cuban American Adjustment Act, which allowed any Cuban who had lived in the U.S. for a year to become a permanent resident—a privilege that has never been offered to any other immigrant group.

The next major group of immigrants received a very different welcome. In 1980, under international pressure, the Cuban government opened the port city of Mariel to any Cuban who wanted to leave for the United States. The Cuban American community mobilized to help, and within days, a massive flotilla of private yachts, merchant ships, and fishing boats arrived in Mariel to bring Cubans to Florida. In the six months the port remained open, more than 125,000 Cubans were delivered to the U.S. These immigrants, known as the Marielitos, were much less affluent than previous generations had been, however, and a few thousand had been incarcerated while in Cuba. As a result, many Marielitos were stigmatized in the U.S. as undesirable elements, and thousands were confined in temporary shelters and federal prisons—some for years.

Many Cubans took even greater risks in their attempts to leave their country. In the 1980s and 1990s, tens of thousands of hopeful emigrants attempted to flee by sea, chancing death by drowning, exposure, or shark attacks to make the 90-mile crossing. Many thousands rode only on flimsy, dangerous, homemade vessels, including inner tubes, converted cars, and cheap plywood rafts, or balsos. Hundreds of the balseros died on the journey, and both governments came under global pressure to stop the flotillas. By the end of the 90s, the two countries agreed that U.S. would return any boats to Cuba.

At the beginning of the 21st century, very few Cuban emigrants successfully reached the United States. Only a major shift in relations between the two countries will result in any more substantial Cuban immigration in the future.