Of all ethnic groups classified as "Hispanic," Cuban Americans have been seen as a model minority. Compared to groups such as Mexican-Americans or Puerto Ricans, Cubans are seen as an economically-successful sub-group. Furthermore, Cuban Americans are generally regarded as a socially-homogenous group which has parlayed their population and economic might into political clout.
This paper examines the various cultural, political and economic factors that have contributed to the Cuban American success story. This paper argues that counter to popular belief, Cubans are far from a homogenous ethnic group. Rather, it was this group's shared sense of exile and its mobilization of large numbers of immigrants that paved the way for their socio-economic and political clout.
This paper takes a historical approach to the growth of economic and political power of Cuban Americans. It looks at how Cuban exiles slowly shifted focus from anticipating their return to the homeland in the years following the revolution, to working with and eventually becoming part of the established elite in Miami. This paper also discusses how Cubans slowly carved a new identity, as Cuban Americans. This transformation further paved the way for the development of the Cuban American elite, first in business and later, in politics.
Review of literature
Much of the work regarding Cuban Americans in Miami take a historical approach and center on the development of a "Cuban American identity" in exile. Miguel Gonzalez-Pando's The Cuban Americans, for example, belies the supposedly homogenous nature of Cuban exiles by discussing the different experiences of white and non-white Cubans upon their arrival in the United States. In addition to his discussion of diversity, Gonzalez's book makes several insightful comments regarding the rise of Cubans to prosperity in Miami and other areas of South Florida. According to Gonzales, the reliance of Cubans on informal networks and their preference for private sector work helped contribute to their prosperity.
In his more recent Reinventing Socialism, Max Azicri conducts a study of how Cubans are redefining socialism in Cuba today. While the book focuses on the economy in Cuba, it also offers several perspectives regarding the growing clout of Cuban-American business people and lobbyists. Azicri is more interested, however, in the effect of these Cuban American elite on Cuba itself. According to Azicri, Cuban American lobbyists have been able to pressure the United States government to impose heavy sanctions on the Castro regime.
Other articles focus on the relatively small number but growing political clout of the Cuban American community. In her article "Cuban Americans: Small Numbers, Big Voices," Cheryl Russell compares the differences in population and political power of Cuban Americans and Puerto Ricans. Cubans, Russell asserts, are only a small part of the country's Hispanic population, a mere 1.4 million compared to nearly 3 million Puerto Ricans and 21 million Mexican-Americans. However, as seen in the handling of the Elian Gonzales case and the courting of the Cuban vote in Miami, the Cuban American population continues to exert stronger political power.
This paper builds on these studies to look at the various political, economic and cultural factors behind the prosperity of Cuban Americans. It argues that a combination of these factors, plus the relative concentration of Cubans in a small geographic space, have contributed to the growing economic prosperity and economic clout of the Cuban American populations in the United States.
Geography and population
The concentration of Cuban Americans in South Florida is an important factor in their economic and political prosperity. As noted earlier, the Mexican-American population numbers 21 million, more than 20 times the Cuban population. However, unlike Mexican-Americans who are spread all over states such as California and Texas, an estimated 73% of the Cuban population lives in the South. Two out every three people of Cuban descent still live in Florida. Additionally, majority of the Hispanic population in metropolitan Miami is Cuban American (Russell).
In addition to their concentration in south Florida, Cuban Americans are also very different from their other Hispanic counterparts. Many recent Hispanic immigrants from Mexico, for example, are often younger and have little education. As a result, many Hispanic populations end up working minimum wage jobs, living in low-income areas and form an underclass. However, most Cuban Americans have been in the United States for at least two decades. Most of them are older, and at least 25% of them have a bachelor's degree (Anton and Hernandez, 39-44).
These different statistical factors have a significant effect on the income and political potential of Cuban Americans. The higher level of education means that the Cuban American population generally earns more income than their Hispanic counterparts. The Cuban American population is also generally older, accounting for a greater percentage of the adult Hispanic population.
Because of these factors, local politicians could not simply ignore the Cuban American constituency, the way other Hispanic groups often get ignored. Their importance was further underscored during the Elian Gonzales case, wherein the demands of the Cuban American community gained national and even international prominence.
From exiles to citizens
Like most political exiles, the attention of most Cuban Americans in the 1970s was focused on an anticipated return to their home country. As a result, few Cubans in Miami took the time to become citizens. Corollary to this, there were few Cuban Americans holding public office (Garcia 28).
All this began to change in the mid-1970s, when Cubans began to recognize the importance of adapting to their host society. The entrenchment of the Castro regime eroded many Cuban people's desire to return to their homeland. Instead, Cubans in Miami worked towards citizenship and exercised their voting privileges. Among Hispanic populations, voter registration rates and voter turnout was highest among Cuban Americans (Garcia 47).
This growing movement towards American citizenship during a time when immigration laws were much laxer was another important factor in the growth of Cuban Americans as an economic and political power. Their participation in the political process was further galvanized by their common desire to overthrow the Castro regime (Alvarez et al.). These goals further encouraged the participation of Cuban Americans in the American political process.
The 1980s and 1990s saw the growing participation of Cubans in public life. By the late 1980s, Miami had a Cuban mayor, and three city commissioners were of Cuban descent. Cuban Americans were also making their presence felt in the private sector. Several bank presidents in Florida were of Cuban descent, as was the president of Florida International University (Anton 86).
The hatred of Fidel Castro proved to be a galvanizing factor for Cubans in the United States. By now, Cubans were no longer exiles, but were entrenched as members of Florida in general and Miami in particular. The anti-Castro organizations formed a natural basis for Cuban American organization. The geographic proximity and their common goals thus gave Cuban Americans a natural outlet for organization. This time, however, their efforts no longer focused on removing Castro or returning to Cuba. Instead, the entrenched Cubans turned their attention to improving the quality of life of Cubans in Miami and the United States.
This new orientation could be discerned in the formation of the Spanish American League Against Discrimination (SALAD) and the Cuban American Planning Council. SALAD focused on helping Cuban American candidates seek political office on a local, state and even national level. The 1980s saw Cubans focus their attention on their new homeland, the United States (Alvarez et al.).
In summary, the changing concept of a Cuban American identity helped galvanize the Cuban American population into a cohesive group. Thus, despite their different ethnicities and social classes back in their native country, the Cuban population always shared a strong sense of solidarity. This solidarity, first focused on toppling the Castro regime and later on increasing Cuban American presence in local politics and economy, was an invaluable factor in increasing their clout in the United States.
Miami politics and economics
The proximity of Miami to Cuba and the city's unofficial status as the capital of Latin American further solidifies Cuban American dominance. Cuban Americans thus have a much greater chance of taking advantage of what Glick Schiller calls "transimmigration." Schiller states that transimmigrants can develop their own identities "within social networks that connect them to two or more societies simultaneously" (185).
This transimmigrant identity can have two major benefits for the Cuban American identity. First, this identity provides a strong sense of cohesiveness for Cuban Americans. Second, the aging of Castro and the growing possibility of a Cuba that allows capitalism can only increase the economic clout of Cuban Americans. The prosperous and entrenched Cuban Americans in Miami could only benefit from the opening of the Cuban island to capitalist expansion and enterprise (Eckstein and Barberia 802).
In summary, conventional wisdom has credited Cuban American prosperity to their social homogeneity. However, this is only part of the picture. Unlike other Hispanic groups, Cuban Americans have benefited from a strong social cohesion, brought about by a common goal to topple Cuba. This commonality paved the…