President Obama and Raul Castro shake hands.


President Obama and Raul Castro shake hands.

What Does Our New Relationship With Cuba Mean for Cuban Americans?

The writer moved to the U.S. over 50 years ago, never expecting the two nations to reestablish ties. Nor how she, and other émigrés, might feel about it.

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What now?

If and when President Obama’s initiative to reestablish diplomatic ties with Cuba is successful, what happens then to the island’s émigré community whose identity has been forged by its condition as exiles?

This is the thing about us, about Cubans in the U.S., about the so-called Cuban-American community: We have a long-held belief that we are different. That we are special. That we are not unwashed masses on South Florida shores but, instead, casualties of history. That we are here because fate was cruel and unpredictable and expelled us from an Eden that’s almost too painful to describe.

I’m not being hyperbolic. To understand, look no further than Senator Marco Rubio, whose career has been based on a necessary lie: His family came to the U.S. from the island before the Cuban Revolution. That is, like so many millions of other immigrants, especially from the Americas, the Rubios came for a better economic opportunity. But that story lacks the heroic contours of principle provided by exile, so the junior senator from Florida willfully revised his biography to place his parents here after 1959. In this way, the narrative paints them as people who took a stand, whose fleeing was heroic rather than cowardly or weak or desperate.

I’m not beating up on Rubio. My family left too, in 1963, 44 of us crammed into a small boat. We were afraid of the Revolution, we felt too vulnerable to stay. We were desperate. And we benefitted—as have literally about a million Cuban-born émigrés—from a law designed exclusively for Cubans and passed under Lyndon Johnson’s administration called the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA). Because of that law, at no other time in history has any other group had their American arrival greased so spectacularly.

The CAA’s benefits package has, over time, included different things, such as financial assistance, but a constant and crucial component gives Cubans—any Cuban—instant parole (a form of legal residence) the minute she touches U.S. soil. Since its passage in 1966, it has gone through a few revisions to today’s version: the “wet foot/dry foot” policy, which no longer even requires an asylum petition (the very core of exile) but just physical presence on U.S. soil. (The law specifically waives all requirements to come in through official ports of entry, thus bypassing whether the petitioner arrived legally or not.)

This is an absolutely unjust, crazy policy. Think about it: One small group of people—and only this privileged group—can come to the U.S. and be granted instant residence without having to explain why they came! Consider what Argentinians during the Dirty War or Chileans during Pinochet or Central Americans during the Civil Wars must have felt as we Cubans waltzed through U.S. Customs.

One of the unintended consequences of the CAA is that many Cubans in the U.S. have believed their own propaganda. My father, for instance, had no qualms telling me we deserved our privilege, that we had earned it, because the Castro dictatorship was uniquely horrible. When I’d point out that the boatloads of Haitians fleeing their way-more-viciously violent dictatorship seemed at least as deserving, he’d scoff. No, no. Our situation was worse. Why would we be treated so differently if we weren’t in fact different? This idea that our situation is so singular has permeated Cuban-American thinking, especially among the older generation (the folks who were young adults in the 1960s) to such an extent that it’s acquired a particularly isolating coda: It is impossible to explain. So impossible that no one else can understand. We stand alone, an island, yes, an island in a sea of torment.

What this has done is separate us from what might have otherwise been other natural communities of affinity. And this idea of specialness, of deserving to be special because of unique suffering, has, of course, provoked resentment toward Cubans by other immigrant groups. It’s what feeds the Cuban-American community’s hesitation to show solidarity on larger immigration matters. Indeed, only in the last few years, after her South Florida district became less Cuban, did the leonine Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first Hispanic congresswoman in history, come around on things like the DREAM Act, opening the way for fellow Cuban-American U.S. Representative Mario Díaz-Balart to follow. And only after they’d stepped into the fray could Rubio try his hand at immigration reform—an effort so tone-deaf and soulless on his part that he soon gave up, denouncing his own proposed legislation.

Though neither Obama nor Cuban President Raul Castro has made specific mention of the CAA, there is little doubt Cuba will make its repeal a condition to go forth. In Cuba, the law is referred to as “la ley asesina,” the murderous law, because its promise of instant residence serves as bait for thousands to leave, many dying en route along the Straits of Florida.

In Cuba, the CAA is also a strategy, not for exile, but for economic advancement: Cubans come to the U.S., get their residency under the CAA in the required year and a day, then turn around and go back to Cuba, visiting multiple times in any given year, and taking with them U.S. earned dollars, completely undermining the idea of exile—clearly people go back because no one is persecuting them. In recent years even hardliners like Ros-Lehtinen and Rubio have begun to question whether to reform—though certainly not repeal—the CAA. How can we have normal relations with such an abnormal policy in place?

But how will we Cubans adjust to being just another immigrant group, to surrendering our special status, to having no special claim other than ourselves? How will Cubans adjust to having a normal immigration quota, to having to justify moving to the U.S. for practical and personal reasons? How will being immigrants in every sense realign our relationships with other U.S. Latinos, and with other Americans?

Redefining U.S.-Cuban relations means giving up exile, every last speck of it. It means redefining who we are. 

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