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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Myth of the Golden Exile

A former colleague, Cuban American, who works as a professor wrote an article that appeared in an academic journal a few years back entitled "Cuban Americans and the Myth of the Golden Exile". She shared with me how some of her research was reviewed by fellow Cuban American collegues in South Florida who were less than pleased with anyone writing about the topic of the Cuban American poor or the ineffables, as she called them.

I kept her paper for some time thinking it might come to be of use in my own research. Later I found myself working for several Cuban American community organizations where I peformed my own research. Maintaining interest in the topic, in an (aborted) doctoral program I researched some updated statistics on the income and other socio-economic indicators of Cuban Americans.

As has been often cited, Cuban Americans have a higher average income than some, but not all Hispanic subgroups. Cubans also are significantly older than any Hispanic subgroup or even the overall U.S. population. When income is adjusted for the age disparity, the income disparity between Cuban Americans and the overall Hispanic population disappears.

Other less publicized and very distressing information surfaced when reviewing U.S. Census 2000 statistics. Cuban Americans, compared to other Hispanics have a higher percentage of our population that earns less than $20,000 per anum, and a significantly smaller percentage graduating high school and completing four year degrees. Far fewer young adults (between 18 and 30) participate in the workforce. Conversely, there is a higher proportion of Cuban Americans that earn more than $50,000 per anum compared to other Latinos and that group tends to be among older Cuban Americans. Poverty among the elderly however is also significantly higher than the overall average for Americans.

What these statistics seem to point out is that Cuban Americans have a wide economic and social divide and deep problems of poverty. The difference in the economic reality for later arrivals, now the majority of Cuban population, and a segment of earlier arrivals (and presumably their descendents) is increasingly stark.

So what caused the conflict between data and perception? Why then the “myth of the golden exile”? Is it because older arrivals control the political conversation, through media and various positions of punditry? I suspect that while this is part of the reason, it is likely more complex. Most Cuban Americans live in an environment of isolation, most notably in South Florida, where there is little chance for comparison. Not only are they subject to a media dominated by a singular voice, there is little opportunity to contrast one’s self with others.

Cuban Americans seldom if ever view their domination of the local political apparatus with other cities or counties that have experienced massive “white flight”. This population has little opportunity to witness Blacks or other Hispanics in elected office locally or in city and statewide office. Cubans witnessing this phenomenon thus construe their reality into a singular instance of minority success.

Non-Cubans contribute to this false picture. Right wing conservatives see another handy instance of a “model minority”. They also use the more reactionary policies of a section of the group as cover for their own support of policies, especially towards Cuba, that may be unpopular. Undoubtedly, structures exist that cycle government funding for “pro-democracy” programs aimed at Cuba, which line the pockets of an element of the exile community only to be returned to campaign coffers. I suspect that there are more than a few non-Hispanics that also see the model minority construct as yet another way to divide a rapidly growing Hispanic community in the U.S. that is assuming a Pan-Hispanic identity.

Since the mid 90’s (with the established domination of local Cuban politicians) the Cuban American political elite has been at least nominally responsive to the community. With what could be seen as the death knell of the White community in Dade County following Hurricane Andrew, it could be said that the Cuban American elite has created opportunities for the larger community, much in the way that the Black elite created opportunities for their community in many Black controlled municipalities. The general increase in poverty may be owed to a decreasing economy. (It should be noted that Miami-Dade saw its slowest population growth in six decades.)

Poverty has long been a reality for many Cuban Americans arriving in the two decades following the Revolution despite the unique advantages of the Cuban American Adjustment Act and an assortment of supportive programs for the newly arriving exile. Hialeah, Little Havana and other heavily Cuban areas are areas of high concentration of poverty.

Nor were those who arrived necessarily those who were escaping the Revolution because of their anti-leftist political stance. The ambitious (and opportunists) of the left that supported the Revolution found no space in the tightly knit circle of the Revolutionary leadership. Many that held various middle level and low level offices in the Batista regime left Cuba for fear of being (wrongly) associated with the excesses of the regime. It is important to note that the American presence in Cuba created a whole class of people whose professions and skill set provided subsistence. The upheaval to the economy following the Revolution and the highly tenuous political conditions only made the United States that more attractive for those in the middle and lower end of the economic spectrum. Following this logic, Cuban Americans of the older generation were thus not necessarily the singularly upper class, ultra rightist and ultra conservative, as depicted.

The Miami Cuban American political machine’s local practice of appealing to poor and elderly voters in the Cuban community through social programs and community spending will immediately verify this. Miami Cuban American politicians take every opportunity to tout local public spending programs they support offering healthcare, transportation and food programs at the many Cuban American serving family and senior centers. It is impossible to imagine any conservative Republican agreeing with either the funding or promotion of these sort of programs. It is also impossible to imagine an affluent community needing so many of these centers.

Nevertheless there is a cultural divide, among Cuban Americans and other non-Cuban Hispanics, or more particularly Hispanics outside of Miami. Non-Cuban Hispanics are likely to look at positive reflections of their community with cynicism. Almost all internal and external reporting is done through the prism of addressing pathologies and falures. Non- Cuban Latinos accepted the "lesson of the squeaky wheel" from African American community leaders. Cuban Americans are likely to focus on and respond well to positive reports from community based and mainstream media.

Some in the Cuban American elite, the U.S. government, and the mainstream media found it convenient to create a monolithic and often highly inaccurate portrait of the early Cuban exile- wealthy, educated and committed capitalists with ultra rightist politics. It helped that the shibboleth that had to be uttered upon entry to the U.S. was a denunciation of leftist policies rather than Fidel Castro and the Revolutionary government. Revolutionary Cuba also found it politically expedient to promote this characterization of a rich Miami mafia. Classism is an easy way for Castro's Cuba to explain away the exile community.

Pragmatically speaking, mischaracterization of the reasons for exile may have been necessary to prevent hostility from American society towards early Cuban exiles. Of course Castro Cuba's lack of political space and U.S. support for Bautista should have been enough to convince any and all Americans that Cubans were and are deserving of refugee status. But we are now in a new era.

The myth has transformed itself into a perverse reality. There is a wealthy, ultra-right wing cabal that now forms the political leadership of the Cuban American community. It is not connected to the grass roots Cuban American community and its struggles. It has its support in a national ultra-right wing machine led in this state by Field Marshal Jeb. And because of the Myth, there is little opposition to point out how dangerous this is.

The adoption of the political paradigm of the Republican far right wing in the U.S. that we are witnessing among Cuba American leaders cannot be acceded to with a wink and a nod. This monster of our own creation no longer answers to us. Whether it be the intolerance of the so-called Christian Right, immigration laws or revision of bankruptcy laws, corporate pension raiding, anti-unionization, attacks on fair wage provisions, anti-affirmative action, opposition to minority set asides in government contracting, refusal to act against lending discrimination, cuts in education, healthcare, housing, mass transit, social security and a litany of other policies that attack our community’s middle class and poor- we can no longer afford the myth of the golden exile and the politics of dishonesty.

Interesting research, especially for us Cuban Americans:

First let me say this. A very good friend that works at the Cuban National Council always says to me that speaking about Cuban American poverty even in the middle of a Cuban American ghetto is useless. We are too proud. He noted that for all the CNC does and all the studies that it puts out Cuban Americans don't want to hear about their reality. He also noted that Cuban American leaders will go out of their way to cherry pick and distort figures. For example, one could point out that Cuban Americans residents of Miami or Miami-Dade have a much higher average income than Miami or Miami-Dade residents overall. But that would be misleading because most of the remaining residents are poor Blacks, poor, illegal Hispanics and incidently, not a few poor White elderly residents on fixed incomes. Again one could point out that there is a high proportion of Cubans that have attended college compared to other Hispanics. This would be misleading because an extremely high proportion of Cuban Americans are above 50. Non-Cuban Hispanics have an extremely high proportion of the population under 20. That is why demographers always adjust for age. Also, Cuban Americans are much less likely to have a four year or graduate degree, pointing out that attending college (especially in Miami-Dade where so many attend MDC's various programs) is different from graduating with a bachelors degree. To give a last example of the affect of non-age adjusted statistics, Cubans Americans with our low birthrate are much more likely to be adults (in the job market) whereas non-Cuban Hispanics
are likely to be young children thus obviously unemployed.

(Sources US 2000 census survey, Miami Beacon Council, College Board. Note: South Americans and Central Americans are lumped into a Census category despite having very different community profiles and indicators.)

Percentage of Hispanics over 16 making less than $10,000 by national origin: 37.4-Mexican; 40.5-Puerto Rican; 41.1-Cuban; 30.8- Central and South American.

Percentage of Hispanics over 16 making less than $50,000 by national origin: 4.6-Mexican; 5.7- Puerto Rican; 8.9 Cuban; 6.0 Central America and South American.

The Cuban American population is appreciably older than the entire population and almost twice as old by median age as other Hispanic groups.20% of Cubans are over 65; 14% of Whites and 5% of Hispanics overall.

Conversely, the number of Cuban American youth, under age 18 as a percentage of the the overall Cuban American population is 21%, less than Whites and substantially less than other Hispanics. Non-Cuban Hispanic youth, under age 18, makeup over 40% of this grouping. Hispanic adults with a degree represent by national origin: 23%-Cubans; 12%Puerto Ricans; 8%Mexicans; 17%Central and South Americans and 30% Whites. Conversely of those with less than a 9th grade education is 22% for Cubans; 18% Puerto Ricans; 34% Mexican Americans; 23% for Central and South Americans and 5% Whites.

Cuban Americans have a much greater internal disparity in income and eduation . Cuban youth are receiving degrees and diplomas at a comparatively low rate while Cuban adults over 50 have diplomas and degrees at a higher rate than Hispanics overall. (I included two year degrees.) My impressions are that the Cuban American population has a much greater disparity in income and education. The younger population seems to be experiencing a precipitous drop in education and income levels. I am not sure if this is related to time of arrival, geographic and racial factors.

Another area that I found interesting was the fact that home ownership was very high among Cuban Americans in South Florida, almost the same as the White population in Miami-Dade and Broward counties but 14 percent lower than the overall American average. Yet Hispanics of all origins have a high rate of home ownership in Florida. In the 2000 Census this may have beena function of low housing costs in Florida (something that has changed in the past five years.)

Of the three largest Hispanic groups in the United States, 58% of Cuban-headed homes nationwide were owned, compared with 48% of Mexicans and 35% of Puerto Ricans. Among the White population 72 percent owned homes. Much of that is due to where these different groups settle. The majority of Cubans live in Florida, where housing prices and the cost of living are lower than in the Northeast and Midwest, which has a large Puerto Rican population.

There is a spike in the number of Cuban American adults that earn over $50,000 versus other Hispanics and without age adjustment there are a higher proportion of Cuban American indivduals with incomes over $50,000 than the overall U.S. average. This info comes from the "U.S. Census, Current Population Survey March 1999, PGP-2 PPL-124 a". I also suggest Daniel J. Perez-Lopez's study for the particulars. DEMOGRAPHIC AND SOCIOECONOMIC CHARACTERISTICS OF CUBAN-AMERICANS: This again points out to pronounced income disparity in the Cuban American population.

Another part of my research covered the rate of attendance in top tier colleges. I found Cuban Americans were proportionately the second least represented among Hispanics in Top Tier Colleges while Puerto Ricans were highest using the CB composite ranking system that very much mirrors some of the college rankings by popular publications such as Newsweek and Princeton Review. My assumption is that this is also owing to geographic dispersal of Hispanics by country or origin.

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