BU Today

Arts & Entertainment

From Miami with Love

CAS prof says newer Cuban immigrants are having a big impact back home

"In Cuba, most Cubans," Susan Eckstein says, "are more concerned about their economic situation than their political situation."

These days, the news about Cuba is mostly speculation about what might happen in a post-Fidel world, but what we don’t read about is how much the island nation has changed and how much of that change is driven largely by Cubans now living in the United States. It’s not the exile community, the Cuban refugees who fled in the early ’60s as Castro embraced Communism, leading the transformation, says Susan Eckstein, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of sociology. Instead, it’s immigrants who have arrived more recently, drawn to America by economic opportunity rather than political freedom, who are driving a wedge in Cuban society between the ideals of the revolution and the desire for material goods.

Since 1996, an agreement between the Cuban and U.S. governments has allowed some 20,000 Cubans to immigrate legally each year. “These new Cuban immigrants are much more like immigrants from Latin America as a whole,” says Eckstein. “They are not refugees.”

Unlike earlier waves of exiles, who are now generally well-off and politically connected, the recent immigrants have very little economic or political power in the United States, but they maintain close ties to their homeland, sending money and visiting whenever they can.

“They are not deliberately trying to change Cuba,” says Eckstein, who has written several books on Cuba and Latin American political movements. “They are trying to help their families. But the cumulative effect is that the remittances are undermining the state economy. The state is losing control of the economy and society, and new norms and values are coming in.” Eckstein cites the case of a Cuban-trained doctor who now works in a Miami-area factory. He sends dollars to his family, giving them access to a lifestyle that even Cuba’s professional class cannot attain.

Eckstein sees a Cuban government caught in a double bind: it wants the dollars, because of the country’s desperate need for hard currency. “But,” she says, “there are consequences it can’t control. Now, people in Cuba who have remittance networks are a new class, bringing new inequalities.” Among those inequalities are greater racial disparities. Eckstein says that blacks, who gained most from the revolution, are now at a disadvantage, because their families are not in the diaspora, sending money back to family members.

The engine of change within Cuba — mostly lower-class immigrants in the United States and their family members who stayed on the island — is ironic, Eckstein says. The most strident anti-Castro Cuban-Americans were the wealthy, educated class.  But those people have very little influence in Cuba now, even as they practically dictate U.S. policy toward the country. “They have been very effective formulating U.S.-Cuban policy as they like it,” she says. “The only explanation is the role of the exile community and the importance of Florida in national politics — it’s the fourth largest state and the largest swing state — so no party has written it off. And that gives the Cubans leverage. Since 1992, every presidential election cycle they have been able to get policies they want implemented.”

Eckstein is persuaded that the changes in Cuba will not slow down, given the family connections that newer immigrants maintain. “Still,” she says, “at some point it’s got to crack, it’s got to open up more. But how and what form it would take remains to be seen. There’s also the question, what are the exiles going to do? Will Cuba get politicized? A lot is so politically contingent.”

“In Cuba, most Cubans,” she says, “are more concerned about their economic situation than their political situation.”

This article originally appeared in the summer issue of Bostonia magazine.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at tmcneil@bu.edu.