The Exile: Cuba in the Heart of Miami
by david rieff
simon & schuster, 220 pages, $21
City on the Edge:
the transformation of miami
by alejandro portes and alex stepick
university of california press, 281 pages, $25
As the Fidel Castro deathwatch reaches its thirty-fifth anniversary, the Cuban-American community in South Florida begins to look at its situation with an uneasy sense of permanence. For many years the declaration “Next year in Havana!” rolled off Cuban tongues like a mantra, but in recent times it has fallen into disuse and even become a cruel joke. The end of Castro could arrive at any moment, but it has seemed this way for decades. The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe briefly rejuvenated the hopes of Cubans living in the United States, though it now looks as if their homeland will not go the way of Romania or Hungary, but of North Korea—a global anachronism somehow clinging to power despite the sharp turns of history.
Large numbers of Cubans have gazed toward their native island from American shores since 1959, when Castro deposed Fulgencio Batista and thousands of middle-class Cubans fled to the United States. Since then, these Cubans have assumed the look of a remarkably accomplished immigrant community — they enjoy high levels of income, employment, and home ownership, among other indicators of success. They dominate the political life of Miami and Dade County. And considering their numbers, they wield enormous influence in Washington, where they play a major role in shaping foreign policy towards Cuba.
Despite all this, a sorrow grips them. They are not voluntary immigrants, but exiles forced from Cuba by the rise of a brutal autocrat. Whereas immigrants typically try to forget their pasts and forge new futures, exiles try to remember their histories and recover what they have lost. “Immigrants want to assimilate because, by and large, they have brought with them unhappy memories of their native countries . . . . We thought Cuba was better,” Cuban-American banker Luis Botifoll tells David Rieff in The Exile: Cuba in the Heart of Miami, Rieff’s impressionistic and insightful profile of Cuban America.
The continued rule of Castro leaves the Cuban Americans in a state of suspended animation. Many of them view Miami as a sort of halfway house, a place to hang their hats before an imminent return. But as the hiatus grows longer and their American-born children grow older, the exile community stands at a crossroads. They have fiercely maintained their old ways and refused to immerse themselves in American culture—“to assimilate was to accept that the exile was over, and, on a political level, that Fidel Castro had won,” writes Rieff—but they also fully integrated themselves into the South Florida economy. If Castro were to fall tomorrow and democratic reformers assume control of Havana, the Miami Cubans might contemplate returning. But their pocketbooks would tug on them with equal force.
This unique duality makes Cuban Americans “or are they American Cubans?” the citizens of two nations and no nation at once. They feel deeply grateful to the United States for providing almost unlimited opportunity, but it is, after all, not a home they chose willingly. “To watch a mostly Cuban-American crowd at a Miami Heat basketball game or at an event at the Orange Bowl or at the new Joe Robbie stadium in North Miami belting out ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was to witness what appeared on the surface like the most old-fashioned, fervent expression of immigrant patriotism,” writes Rieff. Complexity lies just beneath, however. As architect Raul Rodriguez confides, “When the U.S. plays Cuba in some international sport, I don’t know whom to root for. It’s like being the child of a messy divorce.”
For all its power, this duality is generational. It strongly holds onto Raul and his wife Ninon, but it only indirectly touches Ruly, their eleven-year-old, American-born son. Ruly barely knows Cuba. His parents have taken him on visits, but he does not seem to care for the place. He feels no bond with it. Unlike his father, he has absolutely no qualms about cheering for American teams that compete against Cuban teams. He has a poster of Michael Jordan in his bedroom, not a Cuban flag. When he heads off to college, he might meet a nice Anglo girl from Tampa and, like so many other young Cuban Americans, marry outside his ethnic group. Rieff reports that, sitting at the dinner table with the Rodriguez family, he “could feel the exile vanishing before me.”
According to Tony Quiroga, Raul’s business partner, “The exile is already over.” Quiroga suggests to Rieff that the Miami Cubans have lost their fabled cohesiveness, though neither he nor Rieff fully examines this thesis. Truth be told, the demography of Cuba and Cuban America are not much alike. Social and racial divisions could very well keep these cousin populations from ever again intermingling. The exiles are mostly white and middle-class. The remaining Cuban population is over two-thirds black and mulatto, and largely poor. “I’m constantly aware here of how hard it is to get my fellow Cubans to accept the country’s black heritage,” says David Rosemond, a black Cuban who serves as vice president to the local United Way. “There’s a distortion of memory, but there’s also a ‘bleaching’ of it.”
Rieff effectively captures the profound ambivalence of the exile community and rightly suggests that its future lies mostly in the multicultural United States, not a post-Castro Cuba. Despite its many strengths, however, the book contains several flaws. Rieff relies heavily on upper-middle-class, politically liberal sources. He correctly points out that the Miami Cubans represent no monolith-they are too often portrayed in the media as knee-jerk anti-Communist Republicans-but he fails to grasp fully the community’s views on a whole range of pressing social matters, including its relations with blacks, whites, Haitians, and recent Central-American immigrants. And despite his having spent several years in Miami to research the book, it seems as if Rieff never set foot in a Catholic Church. His analysis of “the cult of Cubanness” remains quite good, but it might have been improved had he sought out a few more sources.
Sociologists Alejandro Portes and Alex Stepick fill in some of these holes in City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami. Their book addresses Miami’s social landscape more than it does Cuban America specifically, but the authors do examine an internal rift that Rieff largely ignores: the Mariel boatlift generation. When a Havana bus driver rammed his vehicle through the gates of the Peruvian embassy and demanded political asylum in 1980, he set off an international crisis that still reverberates in Miami. Within days thousands of Cubans arrived at the embassy to claim refuge. An embarrassed Castro regime opened the port of Mariel to all Cubans wishing to leave and invited the Miami exiles to pick up their relatives. Before long, the famed “Freedom Flotilla” had ferried 125,000 Cubans to Florida in a Caribbean-style Dunkirk.
The Cubans who had already established themselves in Miami obviously felt—and still feel—an affinity for the marielitos, but many also think the newcomers have blemished the Cuban reputation. Castro, in fact, used the boatlift as an opportunity to rid his island of those he considered undesirable. Almost one-half had criminal backgrounds. Many others had engaged in homosexual relations, which are outlawed in Cuba. Castro himself was rather upfront about the departing citizens: “Those that are leaving from Mariel are the scum of the country . . . who are welcome to leave Cuba if any country will have them,” he scoffed at a 1980 May Day celebration during the height of the migration.
Before the boatlift, Cubans had been widely trumpeted in the national press as a “model minority.” They were staunch Cold War allies. Their businesses flourished. Miami emerged as a Renaissance city and became a popular tourist destination under Cuban influence. After the Mariel exodus, however, Cuban Americans found themselves ranked among the undesirables. A 1982 national poll found that Cubans placed dead last in the public’s view of contributions made by different ethnic groups to the national welfare. Only 9 percent considered them “good for the country” and 59 percent deemed them “bad”—the exact opposite of Jewish poll numbers. “For a minority long accustomed to public praise, such opinions came as a rude awakening,” write Portes and Stepick. Ever since, the marielitos and older Cubans have traded resentments.
Portes and Stepick ultimately come up short in the very places where Rieff is strongest. They aim their text primarily at an academic audience, but they also try to enliven their writing with storytelling and lengthy quotations. These aspects lend a human voice to what would otherwise be a rather dry volume, but they lack the sense of seamless prose craftsmanship that marks Rieff’s work. It makes an essential companion volume, however, and together the two books offer a probing and textured look at an important ethnic group.
Cuban America is a community in flux, slowly awakening to its permanence in South Florida. Awaiting a return many of them will never see, they have made Miami distinctly their own. “For those old enough to remember, there were ways in which the Miami of 1992 more closely resembled the Havana of 1958 than did contemporary Havana,” notes Rieff. The exiles, in effect, have built a new Havana—a Havana they fondly remember—in the heart of Miami. For those who one day return to a post-Castro Cuba, many will feel homesick anew as they experience a second, and perhaps even more painful, exile.
John J. Miller is Associate Director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for the New American Community, based in Washington, D.C.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?