Cuban Exile Experience

Miami Dade College

THE PURSUIT OF FREEDOM

With a population of nearly 2 million and counting, Cuban Americans are the third largest Hispanic group in the United States. Florida has the largest concentration in the country, followed by California, New Jersey, New York and Texas.

Cuban Americans have contributed to and thrived in many areas of American life including business, science, academia, the visual arts, music, politics, and literature.

Cuban Americans are proud and passionate people who celebrate their rich culture and traditions and have worked very hard to succeed in many fields and in developing political clout, particularly in Miami, Florida, considered the capital of the Cuban exile diaspora.

But how did the Cuban exile experience begin and how has it impacted South Florida? Meet the Cuban Exile Experience and their pursuit of freedom…

Shortly after Fidel Castro’s Revolution took over Cuba in 1959, his regime made significant policy changes nationalizing large tracts of agricultural land, seizing private businesses to be ran by the Cuban government and aligning himself with the Soviet version of Communism.

Fear of imprisonment, violence, or worse, resulted in a mass exodus of the Cuban people.


In October of 1960 Fidel Castro proclaimed the socialist nature of the Cuban Revolution and nationalized American-owned businesses in Cuba. This prompted the United States to enact a trade embargo against Cuba which remains in effect to the present day.

As a result of Castro’s reforms and the Cuban government’s increased cooperation with the Soviet Union, the United States severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in January 1961.

VIDEO: Havana, Cuba 1961. Cubans waiting for U.S. visas face closed doors at U.S. Embassy after diplomatic break.

Many upper and middle class Cubans fled the country, leaving all their possessions behind believing they would be returning to Cuba after Castro’s surely imminent removal from power.

These Cubans thought of themselves as exiles, not immigrants.

Because of the political climate of the era, Cubans seeking political asylum received a warm welcome into the U.S.

Meanwhile, Castro began a campaign of ridding the island of anyone who did not support his ideologies.

Between 1959 and 1962 approximately 250,000 refugees left Cuba to seek exile in the United States.

In 1961 President John F. Kennedy authorized the Cuban Refugee Assistance Program(CRA).

The CRA was an unprecedented program that provided health, employment and educational services to Cuban refugees upon their arrival in the United States.

Its headquarters were located at the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami.

Miami Dade College’s Freedom Tower is considered the “Ellis Island of the South” for its role from 1962 through 1974 offering relief to the Cuban refugees who sought political asylum from the regime of Fidel Castro.

Please visit our exhibits about Freedom Tower to learn more about the role of this iconic building in the history of South Florida.

Many Cuban parents feared that the communist government of the island was planning to forcibly seize custody of their children to send them to the Soviet Union for their indoctrination.

In coordination with Washington and the Catholic church, the late Monsignor Bryan Walsh, obtained thousands of diplomatic safe-conducts so that Cuban children could be sent, without their families, on commercial flights to the United States.

VIDEO: Bishop Edward Swanstrom, Executive Director of Catholic Relief Services, speaks about plans for stepped up resettlement of Cuban refugees.

The Catholic Relief Services organized a support network that cared for and fostered thousands of children of all ages until they could reunite with their families. In some cases, the children never saw their parents again.


VIDEO: James J. Norris, representative for Catholic Relief Services, states that 35,000 Cuban refugees will be relocated from Miami within a year. Audio in Spanish.

What is now known as Operation Pedro Pan was then the largest recorded exodus of unaccompanied minors in the Western Hemisphere.

VIDEO: Cuban children arrive in Miami and are transferred to Catholic Bureau, Saint Raphael Hall, under the supervision of Father Bryan Walsh. The children live in apartments in Florida City until being placed with families throughout the United States.

On April 17, 1961 Cuban exiles, backed by the United States, attempted to overthrow the revolutionary government. The Cuban-exile invasion force, known as Brigade 2506, landed at beaches along the Bay of Pigs and immediately came under heavy fire.

Some exiles escaped to the sea, while the rest were killed or imprisoned by Castro’s forces. Almost 1,200 surrender and more than 100 were killed. The brigade prisoners remained in captivity for 20 months as the United States negotiated a deal with Cuba. Castro eventually settled on $53 million worth of baby food and medicines in exchange for the prisoners.

VIDEO: live coverage of the return of the Bay of Pigs Brigade 2506 prisoners. On December 23, 1962, just two months after the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a plane containing the first group of freed prisoners landed in the United States.

On October 1962 American spy planes discover Soviet-built missile sites on Cuba.

The next 13 days the world waited seemingly on the brink of nuclear war.

Diplomacy resulted in a peaceful resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the incident impacted the U.S.- Cuban relations during the Cold War.

VIDEO: Aerial news footage of troop conveys moving through the Miami and South Florida region in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

On October 1965, Fidel Castro announced that the port of Camarioca would be opened so that any Cubans desiring to leave for "the Yankee paradise" could do so.

Any boats of Cuban exiles that wished to return to Cuba to evacuate relatives would be permitted into Camarioca. During the month the port remained open, 2,979 Cubans took advantage of Castro's offer. Thousands of migrants who were left at the port were ultimately taken by officially chartered passenger vessels to Florida.

Soon thereafter the U.S. and Cuban governments negotiated what became known as "Freedom Flights" using commercial aircraft to transport those Cubans who wished to immigrate to the U.S. safely.

Between 1965 and 1973, thousands more Cubans fled to the U.S. Many arrived via Pan American World Airways’ “Freedom Flights”.

Pan American World Airways flew two flights per day, five days a week from Varadero Airport, east of Havana, to Miami. Between December 1, 1965 and December 31, 1969, over 175,000 Cubans fled to the United States on what became known as Freedom Flights.

The Freedom Flights continued until 1973, with a brief hiatus from August 1971 to December 1972 when Castro stopped the flights.

An estimated 297,000 refugees came to the United States in these Freedom Flights.

In April 1980 twelve Cubans aboard a bus forced their entry into the Peruvian Embassy in Havana. In a matter of days, over 10,000 Cubans crowded the diplomatic mission seeking asylum. The Cuban government eventually approved the entrance of hundreds of U.S. boats to the island to take the Cuban refugees.

Shrimp boats jammed with refugees sailed from the port of Mariel in Cuba to Key West.

VIDEO: Cubans being rescued by the Coast Guard as they contend with bad weather during the Mariel Boatlift.

Cuban exiles in search for their relatives had to accept on board other Cubans, among whom the Government included several hundred hardened criminals and mental patients. This small fraction contributed to create a social stigma around the "marielitos".

Fidel Castro called them "scum", and now faced with the stigma of criminals among them, the Mariel refugees quickly became a flash point of the discontent in South Florida and the nation.

For many Cuban exiles who had come earlier in more gradual waves, it was a shock to coexist with a generation raised under communism.

However, most of the 125,000 Cubans who came to the United States via the Mariel Maritime Bridge joined the American society.

President Carter declared a state of emergency in regions of Florida affected by the influx of Cuban refugees. In five months, more than 125,000 Cubans left the island during the Mariel Boatlift.

This massive exodus would forever change the ethnic landscape of South Florida, strengthening the Cubanization of Miami and expanding the exile community to more broadly reflect Cuba in terms of race, age, economic and social strata, an political perspectives.

VIDEO: News report on the arrival of Ambassador Victor Palmieri to evaluate strategies and responses to the refugee crisis in South Florida.

In the late 1990s, and the early part of the new century, up to 20,000 Cubans were granted U.S. visas each year.

Thousands more continued fleeing the island and risking their lives in a desperate attempt to reach the United States — any way they could.

Over 35,000 rafters attempted to leave Cuba during the "Balsero" or "Rafter" crisis.

Flimsy rafts of wood and inner tubes overloaded with Cubans floated in the Florida Straits. Most braved the 90 mile journey in rafts or small boats.

An unknown number ended up dead, the overloaded boats overturned on the high seas.

Thousands of these refugees, known as "Balseros" (Spanish for "Rafters"), were initially detained at Guantanamo Bay before gaining entry into the United States.

After dramatic U.S. Coast Guard rescues, and months in limbo at dusty camps in the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, 35,000 Cubans settled in Dade County.

VIDEO: Cuban "Balsero" or "Rafter" refugees leaving their camp at the Guantanamo Naval Base, on their way to resettlement in the United States. ,

On Thanksgiving Day 1999 Cuban child Elián González is picked up off the Florida coast after the boat in which his mother, stepfather and others had tried to escape to the U.S. capsized.

A tug-of-war between his father in Cuba who fought for his return and his Miami relatives who wanted to raise him in the United States escalates to a bitter international custody battle.

VIDEO (April 2000): Demonstrations erupt in Miami after the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) raid to retrieve Elián González and return him to Cuba.

On April 23, 2000 in a pre-dawn raid, armed U.S. federal agents smash their way into the Little Havana home of Elián González relatives.

The INS agents take the sobbing 6-year-old boy from a bedroom closet and fly him to a reunion with his father outside Washington.

President Jimmy Carter visited Cuba in 2002, becoming the first U.S. president in or out of office to visit the island since the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in power.

During his visit, President Carter met with prominent opponents of the Cuban government and human rights activists Elizardo Sánchez and the late Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas.

Mr. Payá, known far beyond Cuba for his criticisms of the island's socialist government, was killed on a car accident in July 2013 that many believe was premeditated. Cuba has brushed aside all demands for an international probe that would reveal the truth behind the incident.

Later in 2011 President Carter and his wife Rosalynn made a second visit to Havana invited by Raul Castro.

VIDEO: May 2002, Former President Jimmy Carter visits Cuba and meets prominent dissidents.

A poll revealed in December 2008 suggested a majority of Cuban-Americans living in Miami wanted an end to the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Shortly after, the Obama administration lifted restrictions on family travel and remittances to Cuba and reinstated "people-to-people" exchanges allowing U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba for cultural and educational purposes.

VIDEO (December 17, 2014): President Obama announces major changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba, including taking steps toward reestablishing diplomatic relations and easing more restrictions in trade and travel.

In 2015 the United States and Cuba officially restored diplomatic relations and opened embassies in their respective capitals.

VIDEO (August 14, 2015): Former Secretary of State John F. Kerry presides over the official reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Cuba.

In a three-day historic visit to Havana in March 2016, President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president since 1928 to visit Cuba. After bilateral meetings with General Raúl Castro, both leaders held a joint press conference right in the Revolutionary Palace.

In the exchange, broadcasted live on Cuban state television, Castro was pressed with questions – for the first time ever – about human rights and the political prisoners whom the government rounds up almost daily — yet denies even exist.

Described as a message to the Cuban people about his vision for the future of Cuba, former President Barack Obama delivered remarks at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso in Havana, Cuba (March 22, 2016).

Obama's speech was nationally televised to the 11 million people on the communist-controlled island.

Since 1980, the Cuban-origin population in the U.S. has more than doubled, growing from 822,000 to 2 million over the period. At the same time, the foreign-born population of Cuban origin living in the U.S. grew by 78%, up from 636,000 in 1980 to 1.1 million in 2013.

The number of Cubans entering the U.S. spiked dramatically since President Barack Obama announced a renewal of relations with the island in 2014. That year, 24,278 Cubans entered the U.S. The amount increase in 78% in 2015 to 43,159 migrants.

Another change was the port of entry. This latest wave of Cuban immigrants didn’t come only by ocean, but entered the U.S. through the Mexican border. Thousands made the long difficult trip by land from as far as Ecuador.

In 2016 alone 56,406 Cubans entered the United States.

Miami Dade College's Cultural Affairs
Credits: Story

- Miami Dade College Cultural Affairs Department

- Lynn and Louis Wolfson II Florida Moving Image Archives

Additional Sources:

Florida State Library
Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of the Interior
United States Coast Guard
U.S. Customs and Border Protection
The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Office of Cuba Broadcasting
The PEW Research Center

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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