The Cuban-American Transition

Demographic changes drive ideological changes

Guillermo Grenier (Progreso Weekly)

obama-simpatizante-685x342HAVANA TIMES – The recently proposed changes to U.S. Cuba policy have been viewed by critics as being a capitulation to the government of Cuba and by supporters as a long needed adjustment to a failed policy inspired by Cold War geopolitics. Some in both camps consider it a risky move by President Obama. The risk involved is the alienation of the Cuban American electorate in South Florida which might put the 2016 democratic presidential candidate in a precarious position to win the third most populous State in the elections.

Supporters of the vision point out that the Cuban-American community in South Florida is changing and its long-held hardline attitudes have been tempered by time and a demographic transition that is driven by second generation and new migrants from the island. Much of the empirical evidence for the argument supporting changing views comes from the FIU Cuba Poll, a poll which has tracked Cuban American attitudes about U.S. Cuba policy.

Since 1991, the FIU Cuba Poll has measured the attitudes of Cuban-Americans living in South Florida towards U.S./Cuba relations. Despite the controversy that often surrounds the poll, the research has contributed to the understanding of the changing nature of Cubans in the United States. Before the Cuba Poll, Cuban Americans were frequently characterized by their monolithic ideological “right wing” leanings. This “Exile Ideology” shaped the national perception of the nature of the Cuban American community. Non-Cuban-Americans characterized Cubans in the Miami area by their political features: staunch anti-Castrism, militancy and political conservatism. The image was reinforced by their overwhelming political allegiance to the Republican Party.

In this brief essay I present some of the results of the latest poll-May 2014 – on the views of the Cuban community in Miami to Cuba and to the U.S. policy with the island. I compare some of the key responses to previous surveys conducted since 1991 to contextualize some of the changes in the community over the past twenty years.

There are Cubans and there are Cubans

In recent decades the Cuban community has grown increasingly diverse. Since the Mariel Boatlift in 1980 and, more recently, since the regularization of immigration by the 1995 Immigration Agreement, the Cuban population of Miami has developed socioeconomic characteristics unlike the earlier arrivals. For example, analyses of income differences among the pre-Mariel, and the Mariel and post-Mariel cohorts of Cuban immigrants, reflect stark contrasts indicating different modes of economic incorporation (Portes and Puhrmann). More surprising is the fact, that after decades of a strong alliance to the Republican Party, recent studies point to an increasing growth of support for the Democratic Party and Independent affiliation among Cuban Americans.

Under the “wet foot/dry foot” policy Cubans who make it to shore can stay in the United States – likely becoming eligible to adjust to permanent residence under the Cuban Adjustment Act, but those who do not make it to dry land can be repatriated unless they can demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution if returned to Cuba.

The ideological diversity of the community is increasing as well. This change is driven by the flow of immigration established by the 1995 agreements and the rather unusual mode of receiving these immigrants provided by the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966. The special legal status afforded to Cubans was given legal grounds on 2 December 1966 when President Johnson signed the “Cuban Adjustment Act” – providing that “any alien who is a native or citizen of Cuba and who has been inspected and admitted or paroled into the United States subsequent to 1 January 1959 and has been physically present in the United States for at least one year, may be adjusted by the Attorney General at his/her discretion and under such regulations as s/he may prescribe for an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residency…”

In other words, the Cuban Adjustment Act establishes that any Cuban arriving in U.S. territory, even illegally, and residing there for two years (it was later shortened to one year and it is still effective) can receive the status of permanent resident in the United States.

Cubans are the only immigrant group that automatically and immediately receive a working permit, do not have to submit an affidavit of support to become lawful residents, get a social security number and public benefits for food and accommodation, adjusts their status without having to return to their country of origin to receive it and do not need lawyers or money to get the benefit of blanket parole. The CAA might be the only law in effect in any modern society that offers these privileges to a migrant group not threatened with physical extinction.

This policy has provided an irresistible “carrot” to Cubans discontent with their lives on the island and it provides a significant “stick” for the Cuban government to use against the United States while encouraging the exit of its dissidents and malcontents. The result of this policy has been the constant flow of Cuban nationals to the United States for over fifty-five years. It is this flow that has changed the character of the Cuban-American population from exiles to immigrants and is changing the ideological and political landscape of the community.

The shift in policy ushered in under the “normalization” agreements of 1994-1995 have increased dramatically the flow of Cubans to the U.S. as well as introducing an important change in the provisions of the Cuban Adjustment Act.  The 1995 agreements committed the United States to admitting a minimum of 20,000 Cubans per year and adjusted the CAA by introducing what has been called the “wet foot, dry foot” policy to discourage unregulated migration from the island.

Under the “wet foot/dry foot” policy Cubans who make it to shore can stay in the United States – likely becoming eligible to adjust to permanent residence under the Cuban Adjustment Act, but those who do not make it to dry land can be repatriated unless they can demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution if returned to Cuba. Although the agreements created an “illegal” dimension to Cuban migration that did not exist previously, it also normalized the flow of migrants. (The minimum number of admittances does not include the admission of immediate relatives of U.S. citizens.)

During the Bush years, legal migration never reached the agreed upon totals. The Washington Post reported that in 2003, only 700 Cubans had been admitted during the first quarter of the year. (Washington Post, 2003:A21) Despite this hiatus, the first decade of the 21rst century was the most active in Cuban migration history (Wassem, 2008:15). (Figure 1, below)

More than thirty-five percent of the population of Miami is Cuban, and “newcomers” arriving after the signing of the 1995 migration agreement comprise more than thirty-five percent of the Cuban population.

This population displacement is important for several reasons. As shown in Figure 2, the continuous migration from the island since 1959 has transformed Miami-Dade County into the largest metropolitan area in the U.S. composed mostly of ethnic minorities. Over eighty-five percent of the population belongs to a minority group. Cubans stand out as the largest minority group. More than thirty-five percent of the population of Miami is Cuban, and “newcomers” arriving after the signing of the 1995 migration agreement comprise more than thirty-five percent of the Cuban population. But even this number understates the importance of the Cuban population in the Latinization process of Miami. As shown in Figure 3, Cubans are the largest Latino group in the county; only six other national groups represent more than two percent of the total county population.

The persistent Cubanization of Miami is significant because it is the driving force for change in the ideological profile within the community, particularly in their attitudes towards Cuba and its government. If we take the average of the five surveys conducted during the 1990s and the six surveys we conducted since 2000, we see some basic trends. Figure 4 shows the average of the support expressed for the embargo during the two decades of surveys and the number of the approximate population of Cubans in Miami at the time of the surveys according to the U.S. Census. In the 1990s, when the number of Cubans in Miami totaled 650,000, an average eighty-four percent of respondents supported the embargo. Over the next decade, support declined to an average of fifty-three percent as the population of Cubans in Miami rose to 856,000. Figure 5 shows a similar impact of population density on the support expressed for unrestricted travel to Cuba by all Americans as the support increased from forty-three to fifty-eight percent. The density of the Cuban diaspora, fueled by newcomers, appear to be an important factor in the changing ideological profile of the community.

The changes in community attitudes toward the island can be clearly seen when comparing the survey responses over the past two and a half decades. Figure 6 presents the weakening of support for the embargo during this time. The importance of demographics in this change is evident in Figures 7, drawn from the 2014 poll. Here we see conciliatory viewpoints expressed more frequently by newcomers (since 1995) and the younger generation of the Cuban diaspora. It is also important to note in this and other figures the tendency of voters. Voters are immigrants with more time in the U.S. Their attitudes tend to be more consistent with the characteristics of the classic “exile ideology” in their resistance to reconciliation. Newcomers, however, reflect more conciliatory attitudes.

In another publication, I have explored the symbolic nature of support for the embargo and this dimension of the a characteristic often associated with a “hardline” approach to U.S./Cuba relations is evident in the 2014 poll when we consider how effective the respondents consider the embargo to be. As Figure 8 shows, an overwhelming majority of Cubans in Miami (Eighty percent of post 1995 migrants) believes that the embargo has not worked very well or at all. Perhaps because of this belief in the inefficiency of the embargo, a large majority of Cuban-Americans are willing to use the embargo as a negotiation chip for other policies that might be more effective in promoting changes on the island. Fifty-eight percent are willing to vote for a candidate who proposes to replace the embargo with a policy that increases support for small business owners in Cuba (Figure 9) and eighty one percent are willing to support a candidate who devices a way to increase pressure on the Cuban government over human rights’ concerns as a replacement to the policy of embargo (Figure 10).

The controversial issue of travel also responds to migratory pressures, as the trend line shows (Figure 11). In 2014, approximately sixty-nine percent of Cubans in Miami supported unrestricted travel to Cuba for all Americans (Figure 12). Newcomers are more interested in restoring freedom to travel for all residents of the United States.

A major change in diplomatic policy toward the island is supported by the majority of the population. Approximately 68% supported the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the Cuban government. Young Cubans as well as newcomers and Cuban-Americans are the most convinced of this change (Figure 13). When registered voters are asked if they would vote for a candidate who supported establishing diplomatic relations, most young and new arrival Cuban-Americans answered that they would like to do so. (Figure 14)

A major change in diplomatic policy toward the island is supported by the majority of the population. Approximately 68% supported the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the Cuban government.

Remittances are an important feature of the diaspora/homeland relationship. Figures 15 and 16 present respondents categorized by the annual amount sent to relatives on the island by time of arrival. Again, we see the importance of the new immigrants in economic transactions. Newcomers send more remittances than any other category (65%) and send a higher average amount than other groups—31% send over $1000 a year (Figure 16). This commitment to the development of the Cuban economy is also reflected in attitudes towards new investment opportunities on the island created by the structural economic changes underway in Cuba. Significant numbers of Cuban Americans show a desire to support and take advantage of investment opportunities on the island (Figures 17 and 18).

Ultimately, Figures 19 and 20 present the data most important to the process of changing national policy toward Cuba. Although the Republican Party, traditionally regarded as the most intransigent toward a policy change is decreasing absolute control over Cuban-American voters (Figure 21), newcomers are not represented in the register of voters in sufficient numbers to play an important role in altering policy toward Cuba. Only 31% of newcomers have become citizens. Once they become citizens, however, the most recent arrivals follow the pattern of previous waves and register to vote; 83% of the eligible post-1995 arrivals are registered.


Any synthesis of Cuba Poll surveys leads to the same conclusion: demographic changes are driving the ideological changes of the Cuban community in Miami, but the ideological changes will not be reflected in electing politicians who reflect these changes until new waves of immigrants join the second-generation Cuban-Americans in expressing their wishes at the polls. When this happens, the exile ideology will give way to a new ideology based on the recognition that the Cuban diaspora is an extension of the nation with responsibilities and duties to the civic, cultural, economic and political development not only of Miami-Dade County, but in Cuba.

This is important because the trends could signal the end of the tendency to see the community as ideologically monolithic and uncompromising, and the emergence of the “new transnational ideology of diaspora” directed at establishing and maintaining relationships with the island. If it is true that the old exile ideology has exerted a major influence not only in the development of an immigrant community, but also on the foreign policy of the United States, the bearers of the new ideology will wield similar power.

Just like Reagan mobilized the Cuban-American community in the 1980s around national enterprise of destroying “the evil empire” of the Soviet Union, so can the contemporary Cuban community be mobilized around the more creative endeavor of contributing to the development of a 21rst century Cuba. Regardless of the actions of institutions, however, Cubans in the Miami area are changing and for them a future with permanent links to the island is the only option.
Guillermo J. Grenier, Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology and Graduate Program Director in the Department of Global & Sociocultural Studies in the School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University.

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11 thoughts on “The Cuban-American Transition

  • How did that work out during the mid-term elections?

    Not so good for centre-left Democrats. Obama has burned the liberal brand.

  • You are over-selling the significance and meaning of the generational change in Cuban-American political opinion. That Obama was more popular than Romney (49% vs 47% according to this poll by Pew:, that shift had more to do with personal popularity of Obama over Romney, or policy issues unrelated to Cuba. Most people found Obama more likeable than Romney, and they supported his economic platform in a state hard hit by the financial crisis. On Cuba related policy issues, neither Presidential candidate campaigned on a platform for lifting the embargo without positive change in Havana.

    In Florida’s 26th Congressional District, Republican challenger C. Curbelo defeated Democrat Joe Garcia, who was perceived as being “soft on Castro”.

    Cuban-American politicians, of either party continue to support a hard line against the Castro regime. For instance, Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat, continues to oppose lifting the embargo and is quite critical of Obama’s surprise deal with Raul Castro.

  • Hello John. That is fundamentally the Republican trap across the nation. The Tea Party extremists will hold the Reeps hostage throughout the primary season. The Reeps will be forced to nominate a far right Presidential candidate who will get clobbered by a center left Democrat. The Reeps will still control Congress and the embargo will still be in place.

  • Both you and John are willfully ignorant of Cuban history and the fight against Batista.

  • Sen. McCarthy was a loon. No one has ever compared me to him. Just because I oppose the Castros does not make me right-wing. On the contrary, I like things like freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, multiparty elections and free WiFi. Everything that the Castros oppose. John Goodrich is opposed to “male-dominated nuclear families”. Read that sentence again. Are you defending him? Really?

  • Johns also willfully ignorant about the reasons behind the revolution vis-a-vis Castro / average Cuban

  • The long-ago Senator McCarthy era was one of the darkest periods in American history when anyone who dared to challenge right-wing, anti-democracy political tactics was labeled a “commie,” just as Moses labels sane comments by John Goodrich. Any democracy-loving American is well aware that such things as Cubana Flight 455 and Congressional laws that benefit Cubans at the expense of everyone else is not exactly what the Founding Fathers intended for this nation. Beyond doubt, the Cuban Revolution and Revolutionary Cuba say a lot more about the U. S. than they say about Cuba, as repeatedly proven by propagandist such as Moses who appear to believe that repeating the same refrain over and over will convince everyone of its veracity. Some maybe, but not everyone.

  • So let me get this straight. You want a world that is atheist, anarchist, what you call “communist” and with families run by women? Didn’t Abbott and Costello’s “Abbott and Costello Go to Mars” (1953) pretty much cover that? Is that where you got that idea?

  • The Republicans are in a trap in Florida, as Mitt Romney demonstrated. To win the Republican primary, a candidate must be very hard line, opposing the right to purposeful travel of Cuban Americans and now for the rest of us. Posturing to reverse normalization will also be required.

    The problem is that in the general election these positions are poison, not least for Cuban Americans who do not want to lose their easy access to family at home. Thus President Obama’s substantial improvement from 2008 to 2012 from 35 to 47% of the Cuban American vote.

    While not decisive in statewide totals, the erosion of once secure Republican votes can make the difference.

    Romney tried to back away from his primary position by insuring that travel was not included in the Republican platform but former Rep Diaz-Balart wouldn’t let him get away with it.

    John McAuliff
    Fund for Reconciliation and Development

  • Thanks for being among the few who, in recognizing fact, did not term Cuba a socialist or (C)communist state .
    I believe the shift in opinion among Cuban-Americans as to the efficacy of the embargo is somewhat muddled by the fact that Cuba was indeed impoverished by the embargo as was the intention of the embargo so, in that respect the embargo succeeded.
    What it did not succeed in doing was breaking the spirit and will of the Cuban people to retain their revolution -such as it is : a system that is totalitarian in both the economy and in the government.
    The Cuban revolution was all about rejecting neo-colonialism and the poverty and inequities that flow from it. The grossly ignorant folks in the U.S. may not know this imperial history but the Cubans LIVED it and their resistance to it is both real and persistent.
    So we get all this blather about ” democratizing” Cuba when democracy is the LAST thing U.S. foreign policy works toward and the historic record is both clear and irrefutable on this point.
    So when it is said that the embargo did not work, it refers only to the fact that the Cubans have steadily refuse to bring back free-enterprise capitalism to replace their state capitalism . The poverty caused by the embargo is quite evident although greatly ameliorated and made bearable by the social distribution of the state. Any other comparable but free-enterprise capitalist country under similar pressure would have folded long ago
    Although the Cuban state apparatus can exploit the Cuban people , the board of directors of a U.S. corporation cannot and this is what drives U.S. foreign policy and has since the U.S./European invasion of the nascent Soviet Union; to overthrow or prevent socialist ( economically democratic) societies .
    IMO , future U.S. policies vis a vis Cuba will be determined by whether or not the Cuban government makes moves toward that dreaded democratic society as the word communist in the party name would seem to indicate is/was their intention .
    Should Raul & Co initiate serious moves toward a democratic society especially in the economic sphere where it really matters to the U.S. controlling oligarchy, the U.S. hostilities will both persist and increase under some bullshit pretext as is the norm.
    If R&Co. stay the totalitarian route, they will be assured of a close friendship with the USA and all but a few of the superannuated die-hards in Miami who, as shown in the poll graphs are rapidly losing influence . Stay this totalitarian course and there is little the imperialists can find fault with especially in comparison to the four totalitarian systems in the U.S. that mold thinking in the USA.: Religion , capitalism, oligarchy and the normally male-dominated nuclear family structure.
    All US claims to be working toward a democratic Cuba or a democratic world is unsupported by 95%+ of its foreign policy history of intervening in and stopping democratic and humanitarian movements in the past 100 years.
    As a favorite cartoon put it:
    “Oh sure they lied about this and this and this and this and that and this and that and this and this and this and this ..” .ad infinitum
    but, you know, I believe them about this.

  • American politics rises and falls on three basic ingredients. Money, votes, influence. Any political consultant worth his salt will tell you that lacking any one of these three is not fatal but makes pushing your agenda difficult. Lacking any two of the three is a death knell to winning. The “moderate” Cuban agenda may be gaining votes, but so far lacks measurable influence and has done very little fundraising. At the same time, the Cuban right which has supported their agenda well beyond their numerical strength still has considerable money and influence and at least half the votes. At least in the near term, the “Cuban agenda” will continue to lean right.

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