Cuba is the largest Caribbean island, occupying 42,800 square miles between 19 and 24 degrees north latitude. The nearest countries include the United States and the Bahamas to the north, Haiti to the east, and Jamaica to the south. The northern coast of the island is high and rocky. Flat plains stretch along the southern coast. In 2002, the population was estimated at 11,184,023, 96 percent of which is made up of whites and mestizos. Prior to Fidel Castro’s rule, the majority of the population practiced Roman Catholicism. Christopher Columbus landed at Cuba in 1492 and found native inhabitants. Spain held the island until 1898, excepting the British occupation of Havana from 1762 to 1763. Uprisings against Spanish rule began in 1868 and culminated in a full-scale revolution in 1895. Although Cuba was a Spanish colony until 1898, the island’s close proximity to the United States made its economic and political stability a matter of concern to the U.S. government. In the wake of its first war for independence in 1868, thousands of Cubans sought refuge in the United States, with most settling in New York City or Tampa, Florida. The U.S. drove Spain out of Cuba in 1898, but poor economic conditions and repressive political regimes continued to drive refugees across the 90-mile channel that separated Cuba and the United States. Frequently, they would return to Cuba as political and economic conditions changed. The United States withdrew troops in 1902, but since 1903, it has leased land in Guantánamo Bay for a naval base. During the first half of the 20th century, American investors continued to be heavily involved in Cuba’s sugar-based economy.
In 1952, former president Fulgencio Batista took control of the government and established himself dictator, with tacit support of the U.S. government. During his regime, about 10,000 Cubans were naturalized as U.S. citizens. Beginning in 1956, Fidel Castro led an open rebellion against the increasingly harsh and corrupt government. Batista fled in 1959 and Castro assumed leadership of the country and consolidated power under the Communist Party. Mass emigration, principally to the United States, followed. An estimated 700,000 left during the first several years. Within his first year in power, Castro nationalized the majority of the country’s industries and began to accept aid from the Soviet Union and other communist nations. In 1961, the United States–supported invasion of Cuba by Cuban émigrés at the Bay of Pigs proved to be a disaster, further heightening tensions between the two countries. The United States followed with an export embargo in 1962. Later that year, the United States discovered that Cuba was harboring Soviet nuclear missiles. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy warned Cuba of impending military consequences and imposed a military blockade to prohibit Soviet warheads from reaching the island, which led to the eventual withdrawal of the missiles. Cuba’s cold war involvement in Central America and Africa, including sending military troops to aid a civil war faction in Angola from 1975 to 1978, further strained relations with the United States. Between 1959 and 1980, almost 1 million Cubans emigrated from their Caribbean island home to the United States, where they enjoyed preferential treatment by the U.S. government as victims of Castro’s Communist regime. The Mariel Boatlift of 1980 represented a turning point in U.S. policy toward Cuban immigrants. In response to a severely strained economy, in April, Castro opened the port of Mariel to allow more than 125,000 Cubans to leave for the United States, including 24,000 with criminal records. This influx of poor Cubans, having little to do with cold war politics, destroyed an already declining belief that Cuban immigrants should be treated differently than others, and their immigration was thereafter gradually normalized and brought under ordinary immigration control. Castro relaxed his strict policy in 1994, following national demonstrations and the exodus of thousands of Cubans on homemade rafts trying to float to Florida. The United States imposed economic sanctions in 1996 following the destruction of two exile planes operating against Castro. Relations improved again in 1999. In 2000, Cuba and the United States fought an international legal battle over Elián González, a young boy whose mother died in an attempt to bring her son to Miami, but whose father resided in Cuba.
After Castro’s revolution, most Cubans came to the United States in one of four waves of migration, adding to some 50,000 Cubans or those of Cuban descent already living in the United States. In the immediate aftermath of Castro’s takeover (1959–62), more than 200,000 came to settle in southern Florida, particularly in the Miami-Dade County area. In keeping with earlier Cuban refugees, most believed that a future turn in political fortunes would allow them to return to their homeland. In order to ease their transition and establish a clear commitment to resisting communism, the administration of Dwight Eisenhower established the Cuban Refugee Emergency Center (1960). Many of these early postrevolution immigrants were part of the corrupt, toppled Batista government; most were men and women of the middle and upper classes, including government officials, industrialists, bankers, and professionals; and most were of European descent. President Kennedy built upon Eisenhower’s policies, establishing the Cuban Refugee Program (February 3, 1961), which provided a wide range of social services to Cuban immigrants, including health care and subsidized educational loans. The United States also suspended parts of its immigration policy, waiving numerical restrictions on the number of visas that could be issued to Cubans. During 1961 and 1962, 99 percent of all waivers were granted in order to provide for “refugees from communism.” Castro at first allowed relatively unhindered emigration on regular commercial flights from Havana, the capital. These were not stopped even in the wake of a disastrous U.S.-backed invasion attempt by Cuban émigrés at the Bay of Pigs (April 1961). With the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, however, Castro closed airports to commercial traffic, and the United States actively sought to isolate Cuba by seeing that commercial flights did not resume. Although visa “waivers” continued to be issued, it became almost impossible for Cubans to emigrate because of the American attempt to isolate Cuba from the world community.
The second great wave of migration began in autumn 1965, when Castro opened the port of Camarioca to anyone seeking to bring relatives out of Cuba and promised not to prosecute those who gathered for the purpose of immigration. President Lyndon Johnson responded by declaring that “those who seek refuge here in America will find it,” immediately undermining the limitations established by the newly passed U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act (1965). After heated debate, Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment of Status Act (1966), exempting refugees who had been admitted as parolees without a visa from the requirement of traveling to a third country to formalize their status. This measure established a legal distinction between Cuban and all other immigrants from the Western Hemisphere, based on America’s cold war ideology. As a result of these policies, almost 300,000 Cubans entered the United States between 1965 and 1973, most on chartered “freedom flights.” This wave of migration was more diverse racially than the first and included a much higher percentage of women, as Castro had forbidden skilled workers to emigrate. It also included up to half of Cuba’s doctors, lawyers, professors, and other professional groups. In order to ease the burden imposed by Cuban immigrants in Florida, the Cuban Refugee Resettlement Program was established in 1961, providing transportation and financial assistance to refugees who would immediately relocate. Between 1961 and 1978, more than 300,000 Cubans were resettled, mostly in New York, New Jersey, California, and Illinois.
After seven years of hostility toward emigration (1973–80), a worsening economy pushed Castro to reverse his policy, leading to the migration of 125,000 Cubans during the Mariel Boatlift. Whereas America’s ideological commitment to deter communism overrode all other considerations in the 1960s, the governmental consensus in favor of granting Cubans special immigration status began to break down in the 1970s. The resulting U.S. Refugee Act (1980) required Cubans to meet the same “strict standards for asylum” as other potential refugees from the Western Hemisphere, placing them in the same category as Haitians who had been arriving illegally in large numbers throughout the 1970s (see Haitian immigration). Facing a weak economy, on April 20, 1980, Cuban president Fidel Castro opened the port of Mariel to emigrants and encouraged “anti-social elements” to leave. Within five months, more than 125,000 Cubans had been transported to the United States, including 24,000 with criminal records. At first the marielitos were treated as refugees, but by June 20, the administration of President Jimmy Carter enacted sanctions against those transporting Cuban migrants and confirmed that Cubans would be coupled with Haitians as “entrants (status pending)” rather than as refugees. Fearing both an exodus of skilled technicians and deterioration of relations with the United States, on September 25, Castro closed the harbor at Mariel to emigration. Negotiations by the Carter administration and the following administration of Ronald Reagan in the wake of the Mariel Boatlift led to agreements in the mid-1980s that came close to normalizing immigrant relations between the two countries. Cuba agreed to accept 2,746 “excludable” Mariel Cubans, and the United States agreed to issue up to 20,000 annual “preference immigrant visas to Cuban nationals,” though only about 2,000 were issued each year between 1988 and 1994.
With the ending of Soviet subsidies following the breakup of the Soviet Union (1991), the Cuban economy neared collapse, driving increasing numbers of balseros (emigrants on rafts) attempting to reach American shores. Between 1985 and 1990, only a few hundred balseros arrived each year. In 1991, the number increased to more than 2,000, and two years later, to 3,656. In 1994, Castro ended his policy of pursuing Cubans seeking to flee to the United States, leading to the departure of 37,000 Cubans during August and September. Faced with a potential repeat of the Mariel influx, the Clinton administration ordered rafters to be intercepted and sent to refugee camps at Guantánamo Naval Base or in Panama. On May 2, 1995, the U.S. government ended its policy of automatically admitting Cuban refugees, stipulating that future Cuban immigrants would be required to apply according to normal procedures. By an agreement signed on September 9, 1995, the United States agreed to a minimum annual level of Cuban immigration at 20,000, excluding relatives of U.S. citizens. In return, the Cuban government reinstated border controls in order to prevent illegal departures. Between 1992 and 2002, about 225,000 Cubans legally immigrated to the United States. Of Canada’s 4,940 Cuban immigrants, more than half arrived between 1996 and 2001.