“Cuban immigrants have privileges in the United States that no one else enjoys”: interview with the author of “The Cuban Privilege”
- Atahualpa Amerise @atareports
- BBC News World
Few times has an academic work caused as much controversy in Florida as the last book by the American sociologist Susan Eckstein did.
Eckstein (1942) is a professor in the Department of Sociology at Boston University, specializing in relations between Cuba and the United States.
In an interview with BBC Mundo, the academic assures that she researched for six years to write her work Cuban Privilege: The Making of Immigrant Inequality in America (“Cuban Privilege: The Making of US Immigration Inequality”, Cambridge University Press, 2022).
The book analyzes the evolution of the rights and benefits that Cubans arriving in the US have enjoyed by law since 1959 -the year of the triumph of Fidel Castro’s Revolution- unlike immigrants from other Latin American countries and the Caribbean.
When Eckstein arrived in Miami to present this book, right-wing sectors of the Cuban diaspora declared war on him, forcing one of his talks at a bookstore to be suspended due to security concerns.
Dozens of people staged a protest outside Florida International University (FIU), where the keynote talk on the play was held.
The event also took place in a hostile environment, with constant accusations against Eckstein of complicity with the Cuban regime.
Did you expect that reaction?
Not at all. It totally took me by surprise.
I’m just an academic; I’m used to talking to other academics and no one else pays attention to what we write. He had given talks about this book all over the country and some were interested, others were critical… all in a friendly atmosphere.
But when I came to Miami a local politician wrote a viral tweet saying that I am full of hate, that I am a provocateur and anti-Cuban, things that I am not. He later recognized that he had not read the book, but still, that whirlwind was formed that he did not expect.
Because ofsay a book a this matter?
I have studied Cuba for many years, I wrote several books and the next natural step was to try to understand the US immigration policy towards Cuba, which has contributed to immigration and the evolution of the island after the Revolution.
Also, I was intrigued by the privileges that only Cubans have, which are unique and obtained over the years.
In its construction site compares Cuban and Haitian migrants.
I was interested in Washington’s different treatment of both of them, who live on two neighboring islands. Haitians are deported, while Cubans receive special refugee status.
It is difficult to argue that Cubans deserve more than Haitians. Haiti is the poorest country in the hemisphere, there is a lot of violence and now it is basically stateless. That Cubans had those privileges, and Haitians did not, suggests that it is not simply a matter of justice.
What is the “Cuban privilege”?
It refers to the rights or benefits that the US has granted Cuba over the years. These privileges have been political, economic and social. The term tries to define this unique situation for Cubans.
Like a Cold War story. President Eisenhower (1953-61) cannot tolerate a revolution 90 miles from his territory and begins to receive Cubans assuming they are going to return to Cuba. The authorities try to train them for the Bay of Pigs invasion (1961).
When that fails, they stay and get more special benefits under the most generous refugee program in US history, from free college to vocational training or job placement, which exclude immigrants from other countries.
If you were Cuban, just by coming to the US you already acquired refugee status.
Why those benefits?
The goal was to try to overthrow the Castro regime. First, to deprive Cuba of its best and brightest human capital so that it would not survive. This failed, because the regime trained a new group of people.
In addition, those trained in the US would be good candidates -and with a political position favorable to Washington- to return and lead Cuba after the supposed fall of Castro.
And how did the “privilege” evolve?
John F. Kennedy (1961-63) massively expanded the refugee program. Then Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-69) passed the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 allowing any Cuban in the US to obtain permanent legal status and US citizenship. This law was the most decisive and is still in force today.
Another important change was with President Clinton (1993-2001), who began to repatriate Cuban migrants intercepted at sea under the law known as “Dry Feet, Wet Feet.” Until then they were rescued and welcomed in the United States.
In your book you maintain that the majority of Cuban migrants who settle in the US as refugees are not really refugees.
They are not really refugees. In fact, after the revolution, Cuba did not let its political prisoners out, so it was very difficult for the real victims of the Castro regime to get asylum outside the country.
Those who came did so generally for family reunification, something that was much more difficult for migrants from other countries to achieve.
Let’s go back to the controversy over your book. Some activists in Miami accuse her of sympathizing with the Cuban government.
That is completely irrelevant to my book. This book is not about Cuba, but about US immigration policy, period. It is a comment whose sole purpose is to defame me.
I have been criticized for saying that Cuban migrants are not really refugees. I have read the UN definition of what a refugee is and I have also read how, over the years, the US has changed its criteria on refugee status exclusively for Cubans.
I write what happens, it is not my personal vision. My book is not a manifesto but an academic work to which I have dedicated 6 years of research.
His critics argue that Cubans cannot be compared with people from other countries in the region because, unlike thisas, have been living under a dictatorship for more than 60 years that restricts economic and political opportunities. What do you reply to that?
I am not trying to justify the policies of the Cuban government, but Cuba is not the only country that suffers from a repressive regime, and even so, Cubans have privileges that no one else has.
I am more in favor of extending those rights to other immigrants than eliminating them for Cubans. They receive those benefits and return a contribution to society, right? Well, don’t grant benefits only to Cubans. It’s not fair to others.
Another dart thrown at it: unlike other countries, Cuba penalizes illegal departures and, especially in other times, repressed or marginalized those who returned after having fled. Isn’t that reason enough to consider them all refugees?
I don’t think this argument holds up today. Decades ago it could be valid, but not anymore. Cuban policy towards those who leave has varied over time.
When political tension rises, the government even allows people to leave in a veiled way. This happened in the Mariel crisis of 1980 and we see how it is happening now as well.
You affirm that, at a certain moment, foreign policy passed into the background and domestic policy in the US became the engine of Cuban privilege. How did this happen?
At the end of the Cold War, foreign policy ceased to be an argument to privilege Cubans. The above benefits helped Cubans acquire education, wealth, and political rights.
And the community was concentrated in Florida, which rose to prominence in US politics by becoming the third most decisive state in elections.
Republicans and Democrats consider it key to win Florida to come to power and for that they need the vote of Cubans, whom they try to attract by granting more and more benefits to their community.
How has the “Cuban privilege” influenced the US?
Although the initial goal of the measures was not met, Florida and Miami in particular benefited from the capabilities brought by the Cubans.
Among other things, they have helped turn Miami from a small city to a major global metropolis.
On the other hand, local African-Americans suffered in the process, because Cubans received favorable treatment in the academic and labor worlds. It wasn’t intentional, but part of the Cuban privilege came at the expense of native Americans, and African-Americans in particular.
Above all, it has contributed to Cuba losing a lot of human capital, by favoring emigration.
Today many people want to leave the country. And I wonder what will become of Cuba; if the country is going to continue being a disaster as it is today, lacking trained human resources to generate wealth.
ANDin the In the last year, more than 250,000 Cubans have fled to the US, a historical record. How has the “Cuban privilege” influenced this exodus?
In his last week in office, Barack Obama (2009-2017) put an end to the exclusive entry rights of Cubans under transitory freedom, so that migrants from the island began to resort to a new route: submitting asylum applications. .
Because asylum cases often take years to resolve, after a year Cubans used the Cuban Adjustment Act to become legal permanent residents.
President Biden recently extended to two years the right of entry on temporary release to Venezuelans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Cubans, but only the latter can, per year, resort to the Cuban Adjustment Act to consolidate their long-term rights in the United States .
And also, once in the US, only Cubans qualify to receive welfare benefits.
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