Connecting History

Connecting History logo


Milestones logo

Hot off the Press

Book Reviews logo

History Talk

History Talk logo

Cuba in Focus–Again

by Henry Butterfield Ryan on May 7, 2000

Henry Butterfield Ryan

            Elian Gonzalez has focused Americans' attention on Cuba again, even
       on Fidel Castro, whom most of us had almost forgotten — most, that is,
       except the million-plus Cuban-Americans. Not only do Cuban-Americans
       remember him vividly, but also, during the last 20 years, in the face of
       overall American apathy, they have virtually dictated U.S. Cuba policy.

            So who are the Cuban-Americans? Not simply assorted nuts, as many
       Americans think. They are approximately 1.2 million people, some 800,000 in
       and around Miami, some 80,000 in New Jersey's New York City suburbs, and
       the rest scattered, mostly in large cities.

            Their migration to this country began when Castro overthrew
       dictator Fulgencio Batista, who fled Cuba on New Year's Day 1959. It has
       continued unabated. Many of today's most prominent Cuban-Americans arrived
       in the years immediately after Castro's takeover. Some of them, like
       Florida's two Cuban-American members of Congress, were children then.
       Castro put many of the ancien regime to the wall; the rest fled.

            Many others escaped also then, people who had hoped he would bring
       democracy to Cuba. They include such figures as Andres Nasario, a former
       guerrilla leader in the Escambray Mountains, who helped Castro overthrow

            Soon the exiles and the U.S. government joined in a powerful common
       cause to dump Castro, who, in the peak Cold War years, had allied Cuba with
       the Soviet Union. But the exiles' relationship with Washington began badly.
       Outstanding among the CIA's many futile efforts to get rid of Castro was a
       disastrous invasion effort at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 using Cuban-exile
       troops. The memory still rankles with Cuban-Americans, who feel President
       Kennedy did not support them nearly adequately.

            Furthermore, Washington never tried to invade again with any kind
       of force. Kennedy promised the Kremlin he would not do so if the Soviet
       Union would pull out its missiles in the 1962 crisis. Successive
       administrations renewed the promise. So when Miami's Cuban-Americans
       stomped on U.S. government toes over Elian, their shenanigans contained an
       element of payback.

            Cuban-Americans have not been able to reverse Washington's
       hands-off-Cuba stance, but they have spearheaded its policy of isolating
       Castro. The powerful and conservative Cuban-American National Foundation,
       the political heavyweight of the many Cuban-American groups, has guided
       them in that effort.

            As interest in Cuban matters waned in the U.S., the foundation's
       influence on Cuba policy increased. When President Clinton in the last two
       years eased restrictions slightly on contacts with Cuba, the foundation
       opposed his moves, even though Cuban-Americans were the main beneficiaries.
       A spokesperson said the foundation believed there should have been some
       kind of quid pro quo.

            Slowly, however, the view of the Cuban-American community is
       changing, partly because Cuban immigration has changed. Many arrivals since
       the early 1980s have shared the motivation of thousands of fellow migrants
       from other Latin American countries — economic betterment. Compared with
       the earlier exiles, whose families would be running Cuba today were it not
       for Castro, these recent arrivals have lost less in property and status.
       They are more willing to countenance links with Cuba.

            Meanwhile, new Cuban-American organizations have been formed, such
       as the Cuban Committee for Democracy, which despise Castro but encourage
       improved links between the United States and Cuba. Like a growing number of
       Americans, the committee opposes the 40-year-old U.S. embargo on Cuba,
       pointing out that it has neither toppled Castro nor turned him to
       democracy, and that it hurts the Cuban people. The National Council of
       Churches and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce share that opinion, the latter
       for obvious reasons. Castro has opened Cuba to foreign private investment;
       Chamber members would like to take part.

            Meanwhile, although Americans still need U.S. government permission
       to visit Cuba legally, many go illegally through third countries. Cuban
       authorities, eager for tourists, don't stamp their passports. And more and
       more are going, approximately 200,000 annually, of whom about two-thirds
       are Cuban-Americans. Many Americans go on tours of all kinds — to study
       the ecology, for example, or the architecture, or to attend Spanish courses.

            Our policy has had 40 years to effect a change in Cuba and has
       failed. Today, it has no reason to exist. From a security standpoint,
       Castro is no threat without the Soviet Union propping him up, as formerly,
       with billions of dollars every year. From the standpoint of helping the
       Cuban people, Washington's policy has not done so yet. Quite to the
       contrary, it makes their lives worse, as embargoes usually do.

            Ironically, Cuban-American efforts to keep Elian here have focused
       many American's attention on our bankrupt Cuba policy, which may help relax
       its restrictions — to the chagrin of Elian's Miami relatives. Meanwhile,
       Washington's policy makes everyone's life harder except possibly Fidel

Henry Butterfield Ryan is a writer for the History News Service. He is also an associate of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University, and a Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge.