Expert Commentary

Cuban-Americans: Politics, culture and shifting demographics

2014 selection of studies that explores the complex history, political convictions and changing nature of persons of Cuban origin living in the United States.

(Library of Congress)

The announcement in late 2014 that the United States and Cuba would resume relations has brought renewed focus to the complex and politically fraught history of the two countries. Cuban-Americans have long held intense feelings about their ancestral country, and deep issues of identity will continue to evolve as the political situation shifts.

One incident in recent years, perhaps, crystallizes the complications of identity. In May 2013, former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who is of Mexican descent, stated that Texas senator Ted Cruz, of Cuban origin, should not “be defined as Hispanic.” The discussion centered on Cruz’s anti-immigration position and Richardson later clarified his remark, saying he meant that Cruz shouldn’t be defined as “just a Hispanic.” Still, the dispute was a reflection of the deep cultural and political divide between the two communities, a split highlighted earlier at the 2012 national conventions: To give its keynote address, the Democratic National Committee chose San Antonio mayor Julian Castro, who is Mexican-American. The Republican National Committee chose Cuban-American senator Marco Rubio of Florida to introduce candidate Mitt Romney.

The history of Cuban migration to the U.S. is dramatically different than that of other immigrant groups. In 1910, the number of Cubans living in the U.S. was estimated at a little more than 15,000. When Fidel Castro took power in 1959, the Cuban-American population in the United States exploded: 215,000 arrived in the years immediately following the revolution. A 2013 article in Daedalus by Marta Tienda and Susana M. Sanchez, “Latin American Immigration to the United States,” gives a history of Cuban immigration to the United States. Since President Obama announced renewed ties with Cuba in December 2014, the number of Cubans entering the U.S. via ports of entry has increased 78 percent, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. In fiscal year 2015, 43,159 Cubans entered the U.S. via ports of entry compared to 24,278 in fiscal year 2014.

In 1966 the U.S. government passed the Cuban Adjustment Act, which codified a fast-track path to permanent residency for Cuban exiles, essentially providing immediate naturalization regardless of quotas and visa procedures. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuban migration to the U.S. accelerated: In 1994 alone, 33,000 Cubans were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard. In response, U.S. and Cuban governments worked to establish a solution that would prevent Cubans from risking their lives at sea. The result, in 1995, came to be known as the “wet foot, dry foot” policy: Any Cuban who successfully arrives on U.S. soil is accepted; those stopped at sea are repatriated. The policy remains in effect today. A 2011 article in Connecticut Public Interest Law Journal explores the preferential immigration treatment provided to Cuban migrants. A report by the Congressional Research Service, “Cuban Migration to the United States: Policy and Trends,” looks at past policies and potential future directions.

Latinos of Cuban origin are highly politically active — they’ve created one of the nation’s strongest ethnic lobbies, the Cuban American National Foundation — and they have a higher average income than any other Latino group. These two characteristics have been attributed in part to the consequences of the Cuban revolution for the island’s elites. According to pollster Fernand R. Amandi, the “first waves of Cuban immigrants fleeing the Castro revolution came from the top echelons of society: the successful, the highly educated and the politically active.” According to the Pew Hispanic Center, while 48 percent of all eligible Hispanics voted in the 2012 election, the rate was approximately 67 percent for Latinos of Cuban descent.

Cubans-Americans are not only more politically active than other Hispanics, they’re also more conservative: A 2012 report by the Pew Hispanic Center found that more than 70 percent of Latino voters supported Barack Obama, but Florida’s Cuban-American voters split, with 49 percent supporting Obama and 47 percent in favor of Mitt Romney. But attitudes are changing: Second- and third-generation Cuban-Americans feel more connected to their adopted country, and the newest arrivals come for economic opportunity rather than political asylum. There continues to be a growing debate about American foreign policy toward Cuba within the Cuban American community, with some groups actively speaking out against prevailing policies. A 2009 study by Benajamin G. Bishin, “Miami Dade’s Cuban American Voters in the 2008 election,” explores at length the changing nature of the Cuban electorate.

In September 2015, the Pew Research Center provided an updated statistical profile of Hispanics of Cuban origin. An estimated 2 million live in the United States, accounting for 3.7 percent of the overall Latino population in 2013. Of all the Latino groups, Cubans are the most regionally concentrated, with nearly 70 percent of the population in Florida. While 37 percent of U.S. Latinos are foreign born, nearly 60 percent of U.S. Cubans were born outside of the United States. More than half of Cuban immigrants arrived later than 1990, and more than half are U.S. citizens. The median age for Cubans in the United States is 40, compared to the overall U.S. median age of 37 and the Hispanic median age of 27. Cubans in the U.S. are more proficient in English: 60 percent speak the language proficiently, compared to 35 percent of the overall Hispanic population. They’re also better educated: 24 percent of Cubans ages 25 and older have obtained at least a bachelor’s degree compared to 13 percent of the total Hispanic population. In addition, Cubans are less likely to be poor. One-fifth live in poverty. Meanwhile, a quarter of all Hispanics do.

Below is a selection of studies that explore the history, political convictions and culture of persons of Cuban origin in the United States.



“Exile Politics and Republican Party Affiliation: The Case of Cuban Americans in Miami”
Girard, Chris; Grenier, Guillermo J.; Gladwin, Hugh. Social Science Quarterly, March 2012, Vol. 93, Issue 1, 42-57. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6237.2011.00835.x.

Abstract: “Objectives: We test the hypothesis that exile politics — measured by support for anti-Castro policies — contribute to the overwhelming preference for the Republican Party among South Florida’s Cuban Americans. Results: Among Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade County, measures of exile politics account for a recent downward shift in Republican registration, as well as for much of the variation in Republican registration by race and age. Also, measures of exile politics partly explain differences between Cubans and non-Cubans with regard to partisan preference.”


“The Political Incorporation of Cuban Americans: Why Won’t Little Havana Turn Blue?”
Bishin, Benjamin G.; Klofstad, Casey A. Political Research Quarterly, September 2012, vol. 65, No. 3, 586-599. doi: 10.1177/1065912911414589.

Abstract: “This article examines the political implications of the changing demographics of the Cuban American community. Over the past decade, pundits have predicted a massive shift in Cuban American voting behavior owing to demographic changes in the community. The authors find evidence that the attitudes of Cuban Americans have undergone significant changes, driven largely by the increased number of post-Mariel (1980) immigrants. The authors also find, however, that these dramatic changes have not yet been reflected at the ballot box, nor are they likely to be soon, owing to the slow process of immigrant political incorporation.”


“Miami Dade’s Cuban American Voters in the 2008 Election”
Bishin, Benjamin; Cherif, Feryal M.; Gomez, Andy S.; Lofstad, Casey. Working paper, Social Science Research Network, March 4, 2009.

Abstract: “In this paper we describe the behavior and attitudes of Cuban American voters in the 2008 election by presenting data from the 2008 Miami-Dade County Exit Poll (Bishin and Klofstad 2008). Our findings suggest that while the seismic shift in the political preferences of the Cuban American community predicted by the national news media was not realized, modest changes in vote preferences and more dramatic changes in attitudes toward U.S. Cuba foreign policy did occur. In general, these results are consistent with our expectations articulated in previous research, in which we held that large scale changes in Cuban American’s voting preferences were unlikely to occur since they seem most likely to be driven by replacement of older Cuban American voters by younger, more recent immigrants and their relatives….”


“Cuba: U.S. Policy and Issues for the 113th Congress”
Sullivan, Mark P. Congressional Research Service, June 2013.

Abstract: “Cuba remains a one-party communist state with a poor record on human rights. The country’s political succession in 2006 from the long-ruling Fidel Castro to his brother Raúl was characterized by a remarkable degree of stability. In February 2013, Castro was reappointed to a second five-year term as president (until 2018, when he would be 86 years old), and selected a 52-year old former Education Minister Miguel Díaz-Canel as his First Vice President, making him the official successor in the event that Castro cannot serve out his term. Raúl Castro has implemented a number of gradual economic policy changes over the past several years, including an expansion of self-employment. A party congress held in April 2011 laid out numerous economic goals that, if implemented, could significantly alter Cuba’s state-dominated economic model. Few observers, however, expect the government to ease its tight control over the political system. While the government reduced the number of political prisoners in 2010-2011, the number increased in 2012; moreover, short-term detentions and harassment have increased significantly.”


“President or Dictator? A Comparison of Cuban-American Media Coverage of Cuban News”
Peterson, Geoffrey; Lopez Ortega, Etzel; Rojas, Giney; Callahan, Kara. American Political Science Association, 2012.

Abstract: “This paper examines the content of the Spanish-language press in two cities and compares how various newspapers portray various elements of Cuban political culture. Our findings indicate there are significant differences in the tenor of the coverage between the English and Spanish news outlets. We also find significant differences between the two Spanish-language news outlets, with the Miami-based newspaper being significantly more negative in their portrayal of Fidel Castro and the Cuban political system compared to the coverage targeting the Cuban-American population in New York City. Overall, we find significant evidence to show that the coverage of Cuban politics varies dramatically across sources.”


“The Personal Is Political: The Cuban Ethnic Electoral Policy Cycle”
Eckstein, Susan, Latin American Politics and Society, spring 2009, Vol. 51, Issue 1, 119-148 doi: 10.1111/j.1548-2456.2009.00042.x.

Abstract: “This article documents a U.S. Cuban foreign policy cycle that operated in tandem with the presidential electoral cycle between 1992 and 2004. During these post–Cold War years, when Cuba posed no threat to U.S. national security, influential, well-organized Cuban Americans leveraged political contributions and votes to tighten the embargo on travel and trade, especially at the personal level. U.S. presidential candidates, most notably incumbent presidents seeking re-election, responded to their demands with discretionary powers of office. When presidential candidates supported policies that made good electoral sense but conflicted with concerns of state, they subsequently reversed or left unimplemented Cuba initiatives. After describing the logic behind an ethnic electoral policy cycle and U.S. personal embargo policy between 1992 and 2004, this article examines Cuban American voter participation, political and policy preferences, lobbying, political contributions, and the relationship between the ethnic policy and presidential election cycles.”


“Paradise Lost: Older Cuban American Exiles’ Ambiguous Loss of Leaving the Homeland”
Perez, Rose M., Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 2013. doi: 10.1080/01634372.2013.817496.

Summary: “To explore the experience of leaving Cuba, two Cuban American émigrés interviewed 20 Cuban exiles aged 65 or older, who left Cuba between 1959 and 1971. The interviews were conducted in New York and New Jersey using a phenomenological approach (Moutsakas, 1994). Themes included feeling betrayed by the Revolution, the inevitability of leaving, the expectation of a temporary refuge, and longing and idealizing the past. The psychological presence that participants expressed, along with an endless sense of loss, resonates with ambiguous loss theory (Boss, 2006) — themes that have yet to be explored in the literature and that have research and practice implications.”


“The Cuban Experience in Public Health: Does Political Will Have a Role?”
Pagliccia, Nino; Alvarez Perez, Adolfo. International Journal of Health Services, Nov. 2012, Vol. 42, No. 1, 77-94. doi: 10.2190/HS.42.1.h.

Abstract: “The role of political will in public health has been largely ignored. In Cuba, however, for the past 50 years, political will has been the ultimate, encompassing intersectoral action in public health. The excellent achievements in population health in Cuba during these 50 years have been widely recognized. Researchers have sought to explain this “Cuban paradox” by focusing on a large array of public health factors, including health promotion, primary care activities, and intersectoral action on health determinants. These factors constitute necessary but not sufficient conditions to achieve good health outcomes. This article defines political will and uses the experience of Cuba to illustrate the potential role of political will in public health.”


“The Politics of Perception: An Investigation of the Presence and Sources of Perceptions of Internal Discrimination Among Latinos”
Monforti, Jessica Lavariega; Sanchez, Gabriel R. Scoial Science Quarterly, March 2010, Vol. 91, Issue 1, 245-265. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6237.2010.00691.x.

Abstract: “Utilizing data from the 2002 Kaiser/Pew Latino National Survey of Latinos, we explore the presence and motivating factors of perceptions of internal discrimination within the Latino population in the United States through descriptive statistics and multivariate regression analysis. We find that 84 percent of Latinos in the survey sample believe that Latino internal discrimination is problematic, and also find support for our theories that perceptions of internal discrimination are greater for those who are less integrated into U.S. society, as well as for Latinos who self-identify as black.”


Keywords: Hispanic, Latino, research roundup

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