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Neither patria nor muerte. Will Russian emigration repeat the fate of Cuban emigrants?

Denis Bilunov

For sixty years, all new generations of Cuban immigrants have fled the communist regime to the United States. They have not dissolved into American society, yet they have become a visible force inside it. All these years Cuban immigrants have dreamed of returning home to build a new Cuba, but so far it has been impossible.

ALL CARDS
  • Escape from Castro

  • Faces of the Diaspora

  • Sixty Years of Waiting

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Escape from Castro

About half a century ago the American economist Albert Hirschman wrote a book called “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty”, but its meaning is more accurately translated as “exit, protest and loyalty.” Hirschman's triad is often referred to when it comes to emigration for political reasons. As one can easily guess, in this model, “departure” contrasts with “protest,” which is extremely relevant today when Russians are actively “voting with their feet” against the Kremlin regime and the war. It is not uncommon for participants in today's online polemics to feel that something exceptional is happening to all of us. Meanwhile, there are many examples of such “exoduses” in history, and one of the most obvious for Hirschman when he wrote his book was the flight of Cubans from the Castro regime.

Between 1.5 million and 2 million Cubans (i.e. 15-17% of their total number in the world) live in the United States, well over half of them in Florida, where they are the largest ethnic group in some of the cities, most notably Miami. Many of them are second or even third generation U.S. citizens. The Cuban community is very influential and plays an independent role in U.S. domestic politics, not to mention its star representatives, such as Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

Although some Cubans moved to the US in search of a better life long before the 1959 revolution, the diaspora in Florida grew to its current size and prominence after Fidel Castro came to power. Some of the emigrants of the first post-revolutionary wave were wealthy people, who managed to partially monetize their assets before nationalization, and open businesses in the new place. But the bulk of them had to start almost from scratch. For example, Jorge Mas Canosa, later a millionaire and chief lobbyist for the U.S. hardline vis-à-vis Castro regime, made his living washing dishes and delivering milk in the first months after leaving Cuba. Moreover, racial discrimination was still rife in Miami, as it was in other Southern cities, and it was common to see signs that said “no blacks or Cubans”.

On the other hand, U.S. authorities were accommodating from the beginning: Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson had successively passed several laws that allowed Cubans to legalize themselves relatively quickly. Later in the history there were many dramatic twists and turns: Castro almost blocked departures, then made attempts to send criminals and the mentally ill to the United States, and the Americans tightened the entry rules - but somehow, after 1959, compared to other Latin Americans, Cubans always had more opportunities to emigrate to the United States. The flow never waned, as reflected, for example, in such iconic novels as Wendy Guerra's “Everybody Leaves” and Zoe Valdes' “Café Nostalgia.”

In the early years, Florida Cubans seriously hoped for a quick return - and although the chances of toppling Fidel plummeted after the failed counterrevolutionary landing in Cochinos Bay (1961), the phrase “next year in Havana” entered the lexicon of emigrants firmly and permanently. Most of them have friends and relatives in Cuba, keep in touch with them, send them money, medicine, etc., help them travel abroad - and still expect to return to Cuba and restore democracy sooner or later.

After the revolution, former Castro associates, who for various reasons had become disillusioned with their leader, began joining the emigrants. The most famous episode of this exodus was the 1987 escape of Brigadier General Rafael del Pino, the hero of the Battle of Playa Girón and famed commander of the Cuban Air Force during the Angola War. Del Pino brought his family to a military airfield, put them in a Cessna plane, got behind the wheel and flew toward the United States, where he landed safely in Key West.

Less fortunate was Pedro Fuentes-Cid, a revolutionary who actively supported Fidel against the pro-American dictator Batista, but did not forgive his turn toward communism and the USSR. In early 1961, he and his associates began to prepare for an armed attack against Castro, but their plan was exposed. Fuentes was arrested and sentenced to 60 years in prison. As he himself told The Insider, it was a great relief because he expected to be shot.

Weapons seized by the authorities from Fuentes-Cid's group (photo from his personal archive)
Weapons seized by the authorities from Fuentes-Cid's group (photo from his personal archive)

It was a miracle that Fuentes survived the Cuban camps, spending 16 years in hard labor, but then he was paroled and after some time, with great difficulty, made his way through Venezuela to the United States, where his wife and son, whom he had not seen until then, were waiting for him. In Florida, Fuentes received a law degree and opened a private practice. He now has many grandchildren and great-grandchildren fully integrated into American life, but all of them, he said, have not given up hope of returning to Cuba.

At 83, Pedro Fuentes-Cid is socially active, active on social media, and has supported the Ukrainian struggle since the first days of the invasion
At 83, Pedro Fuentes-Cid is socially active, active on social media, and has supported the Ukrainian struggle since the first days of the invasion

Faces of the Diaspora

With a high level of politicization, the Cuban diaspora does not have one leading organization or unquestioned opinion leaders. The first-wave emigrants and their children are relatively influential: usually they are successful economically and historically affiliated with the U.S. Republican Party. In the 1980s, the Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF), created by the aforementioned Mas Canosa, played a significant role, but since his death in 1997, Fuentes believes the organization has significantly lost ground. In his opinion, the new leader of the nation will be the nominee of the protesting people in Cuba itself. In recent years, however, Rosa Maria Paya, 33, daughter of famed Cuban dissident Osvaldo Paya, who died in what may have been a staged car accident in 2012, has come to the fore. After her father's death, Rosa Maria and her mother moved to the United States, though Paya still visits Cuba from time to time. She is now one of the most prominent speakers in the Cuban diaspora, her organization Cuba Decide (“Cuba Decides”) advocating for a national referendum on the restoration of a multi-party system and the rule of law.

Rosa Maria Paya in exile continues the cause of her dissident father who died in 2012
Rosa Maria Paya in exile continues the cause of her dissident father who died in 2012

So far, the Communist regime has managed to show amazing resilience. Castro was able to manage a major crisis after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Soviet aid. In 2008 he handed the reins over to his brother Raul because of illness. After Fidel's death in 2016, many hoped for change, especially after Miguel Diaz-Canel, a relatively young successor to the Castro brothers, became president in 2019. But Diaz-Canel continued the old policies with all the charms of an administrative communist economy - shortages of goods, poverty, and repression. In July 2021, a wave of mass protests swept across Cuba, triggered by food and medicine shortages caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Nothing like that had happened on the island for years, but the authorities brutally suppressed the riots, killing several people. The protesters' slogan Patria y Vida (“Homeland and Life”), symbolically opposed to the famous revolutionary Patria o Muerte (“Homeland or Death”), has gone viral among the Cuban diaspora - and especially among young people. An interviewee from Canada told The Insider that her daughter, who has never been to Cuba, enthusiastically participated in solidarity actions, got a Patria y Vida tattoo, and dreams of changes in her historical homeland no less than her parents.

At the same time, some Cuban immigrants - especially in Europe and Latin America - are wary of the United States. For example, The Insider’s respondent in Mexico, while eagerly describing the various problems and flaws of current life in communist Cuba, expressed considerable doubt that the diaspora in Florida could influence the country's future. In his opinion, the historical guilt of the US “imperialists” towards Cuba (as towards many other Latin American countries) was too great. And now, official Washington - and therefore the Cubans who are associated with it - does not care about the problems of their southern neighbors, but only about their own interests. Of course, the regime is fueling and exploiting this anti-immigrant sentiment in every way possible.

Sixty Years of Waiting

Many people around the world, especially those who grew up in the Soviet system, are still under the charm of the romantic revolutionary images of Fidel, Che Guevara, and their associates, which is why comparisons between the Cuban dictatorship and the current Kremlin clique seem a little bit stretched to some. Meanwhile, the Cuban military intervention in Angola alone is impressive in its scope: over 13 years (1975-1988), some 370,000 Cuban soldiers and officers were there (the total strength of the Cuban army is now 50,000 men). The bloody civil war, in which Castro supported the pro-Soviet leaders Neto and Dos Santos, took the lives of many tens of thousands of Angolans. The “revolutionary aid” of Havana's Comandante left its mark also in Ethiopia and, of course, in several Latin American countries. In Cuba itself, the regime annihilated between 11,000 and 14,000 “contras,” according to various estimates.

The story of the Cuban exodus to the United States is made up of the tragedies of tens of thousands of separated families, dramatic escapes with grave risks to life, the longing of the departed for a mangled homeland - a longing paradoxically replicated in new generations of emigrants - and the impressive strength of people who managed not only to preserve their collective identity in a new place, but to make it valuable to their host country. Cuban Americans have made, and continue to make, significant contributions to the economy, politics, and culture of the United States – without losing their ties to, and influence over, their historic homeland, in contrast with the Hirschman model.

Cuban Americans have made significant contributions to U.S. economics, politics, and culture

Clearly, for people who have recently left Russia, the example of 60 years of Cuban exile looks daunting. However, the likelihood of such a long-term prospect is well above zero, and even the Kremlin regime’s heavy defeat in the Ukrainian war may not guarantee a return. It is worth noting that Saddam Hussein, after his complete defeat in the first Gulf War in 1991, managed to stay in power for 12 long years. Given this fact, the experience of Cuban exile, at the very least, deserves close study - and it might be a worthy model for the Russians who have left their country.

For now, however, the majority of the opposition’s main speakers in the Russian segment of the Internet are consciously or intuitively focused on “Russian” politics as opposed to the “emigrant” politics that is viewed as something secondary and petty by definition. The mirage of “next year in Moscow” will not give Russian emigrants any peace for a long time to come.

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