MIAMI — Some 46,662 Cubans left the island legally and permanently last year, the largest migration in a single year since 1994, according to figures from Cuba’s National Statistics Office. Since 2002, the number leaving has hovered around 30,000 annually, making the last 10 years the largest exodus since the start of the revolution. That’s in addition to an estimated 7,000 to 19,000 who leave Cuba illegally each year.
The influx of new arrivals is evident throughout Miami, the heart of Cuba’s exile population, from myriad shops offering cell phone services to street fliers about performances by artists who still live on the island.
Cubans arriving today grew up on the island after the revolution, and their relationship with their homeland is different than the wave of immigrants who arrived immediately after Fidel Castro took power. Their growing numbers are bringing those stark contrasts to the fore, leading to moments of friction between groups and putting into question what it means to be a Cuban “exile.”
The clashes surface in a big way when older Cuban Americans protest outside concerts and sporting events featuring Cuban musicians and athletes who draw throngs of fans who grew up listening and watching them. The rifts are also apparent in small exchanges.
Some immigration activists and politicians have said it’s time to revisit policies that offer generous privileges to Cubans immigrating to the U.S., like the Cuban Adjustment Act, by which Cubans who reach U.S. soil are allowed to stay and are fast-tracked toward residency.
“I don’t criticize anyone who wants to go visit their mom or dad or their dying brother or sister in Cuba,” U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a prominent Florida Republican born in Miami to Cuban parents, told the American Society of News Editors earlier this year. “But I am telling you it gets very difficult to justify someone’s status as an exile and refugee when a year and a half after they get here they are flying back to that country over and over again.”
Emilio Morales, a market researcher in Cuba before immigrating to the U.S. in 2007, characterized the relationship between revolution era exiles and today’s arrivals as “bad.” He said recent arrivals are not interested in politics, and don’t feel that something was taken from them.
Cubans have come to American in three general waves: Post-revolution immigrants who faced persecution in Cuba, those coming in the 1980s, when thousands were permitted to leave by boat, chiefly in opposition to the communist government’s policies, and those who have come since 1994, largely for economic reasons after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
All seven Cuban Americans in Congress come from families that immigrated shortly after 1959, and the majority support hard-line policies toward the island, in line with the views of the generation they represent.
The older generations of Cuban exiles “don’t have anything in common with us, culturally, politically, nothing,” said Morales, 44, who now runs his own consulting business in Miami.
Rafael Gonzalo, 69, who came to the U.S. in 1959 when he was 15, said Cubans who came decades ago rarely interact with recent arrivals. Cuban Americans today are immigrants, not exiles, Gonzalo said, and their differences range from how they talk and dress to their work ethic.
“Those who come don’t like to work a lot,” he said. “You have to look for the root of the problem. The problem is, in Cuba they don’t work.”
Instead, he said, they survive by “resolver,” which in Cuba means having to invent or barter to make ends meet.
Blanes cringes when she hears comments like that. She spent long hours studying at night while caring for two young daughters to re-establish her career here. Many of the unemployed have struggled to find jobs, but do want to work, she said.
Back at the store, Benitez empathizes with her clients, but feels compelled to remind them of the freedoms they enjoy here.
Although he doesn’t mention it, Perez was once arrested for illegally selling meat he butchered in Cuba, she said. Still, she recognizes that persecution was not Perez’s main motivation in leaving.
“Hunger is hunger,” Benitez said. “Necessity is necessity. The freedom is somewhere in there, but your stomach is first.”