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A new account of Florida's historical Cuban diaspora seeks to put today's immigration story in context

In this May 1980 file photo, refugees from Cuba stand on the deck of their boat as they arrive at a rainy Key West, Fla. In the Mariel Boatlift, more than 100,000 Cubans fled the island by sea in the space of just six months.
In this May 1980 file photo, refugees from Cuba stand on the deck of their boat as they arrive at a rainy Key West, Fla. In the Mariel Boatlift, more than 100,000 Cubans fled the island by sea in the space of just six months.

Cuban immigration is once again making headlines. Just days ago, Governor DeSantis activated the National Guard to deal with a new wave of Cubans coming to Florida. But a Tallahassee writer's new account of the decades of Cuban relocation to the Sunshine State suggests this is an old song with only slightly different lyrics.

The number of immigrants coming to the U.S. through the southern border with Mexico is increasing. It’s higher today than it’s been at any time in the past five years. That’s according to U.S. Immigration and Border Protection. The agency reports the number of southern border immigrant encounters in the last few months of 2022 was just over 230,000 per month. The agency is projecting it will see 250,000 people this month alone. The volume of the political rhetoric associated with that situation is also on the rise. But, in many ways, the nation - and especially Florida - has been there before.

"The pivotal day of course was 1959 when Fidel Castro took power in Havana and began the exodus of Cuban exiles that has continued to this day. And they had a transformative effect on the state culturally, economically, politically. And I believe you can't understand Florida if you don't understand the Cuban exiles because they've been such an integral part of making the state what it is today."

That is David Powell. He's a Tallahassee writer, whose latest work is entitled "90 Miles and a Lifetime Away." It documents the mass immigration of Cubans to Florida in the course of the last 63 years. Powell's book focuses on the sudden flood of people who fled the island and poured into South Florida following Fidel Castro's overthrow of the Batista regime.

"People in Miami really didn't quite know how to deal with it at first. The City and non-profits and churches were the ones who assumed the responsibility for providing services to these exiles because so many of them came over here destitute. They weren't allowed - the vast majority of them - to take any of their belongings, assets or money. They came here with a couple of changes of clothes and pocket money."

And, similar to today's immigration situation, Powell pointed out there was even outright hostility to the influx.

"The locals at the time, and Miami in particular, were kind of flummoxed and there was a fair amount of resentment towards them. Because they got here and there began to be changes in the way the city felt and operated."

On top of everything, said Powell, is the ultimate political impact the Cubans would have. At first in South Florida and ultimately the state as a whole.

"Prior to that, South Florida had been, particularly in Miami-Dade County, heavily Democratic. So the political complexion of that whole community began to change, simply because the Cubans were so oriented to the Republican Party, the vast majority of them."

That GOP allegiance continues to this day. Of course, citizenship and the right to vote would be a while in coming for the Cuban exiles. Because, just like so many immigrants who come to the U.S. across the southern border today, the first Cuban refugees had no legal status.

"They didn't have green cards. They were allowed in with visa waivers. The government left them in, although the vast majority of them did not have the kind of visas that were required then and typically are required now. It was not until 1966 that congress that we had hundreds of thousands of Cubans who were living in this country, all on what was called 'parole.'"

And that wasn't the only difference in how the federal government treated Cuban immigrants versus people from other lands.

"Young Cuban refugees, exiles who were in this country and could demonstrate they met the need standards, could get a loan from the federal government to go to college."

Many of those loan recipients, noted Powell, went on to become real movers-and-shakers in Florida. And it seems the federal government didn't exactly discourage even more immigration from Cuba after the initial surge.

"Castro was letting Cubans leave and they were coming over on those boats starting in 1965. And President Johnson said, 'I want to avoid a humanitarian crisis in the Straits of Florida. I'll charter airliners and bring them here at our expense."

All this begs the question, would all these Cubans have come to the United States had there been no repressive communist dictatorship in their homeland? Among the more than 50 people Powell interviewed for "90 Miles and a Lifetime Away" was a former Florida governor and U-S Senator. A guy named Bob Graham.

"And his answer was, 'I think if Fidel Castro hadn't been a part of the equation, eventually they would have come anyway. But they wouldn't have been coming because of the political situation on the island. They'd have been coming here for economic opportunity in the United States just as so many other people in Latin America and the Caribbean continue to come to this country."

The truth of that assessment, according to Powell, is that now, 6 years after Castro's demise, Cubans keep coming. And now they're coming alongside all those other immigrants.

"250,000 Cubans will come to the U.S. this calendar year. 250,000 of them! 30,000 came in the month of October alone. They no longer come on airplanes to Miami. They fly to Nicaragua and then they come overland up through Central America and Mexico and they arrive at our southwest land border."

A journey that began more than 6 decades ago, as chronicled in David Powell's book.
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