The Gateway to the Americas: That’s how Miami’s business and civic leaders would grandly if sporadically label the city in the middle of the last century. In reality, the slogan was wishful thinking, little more than the stuff of promotional brochures.
Contrary to the historic image as a sleepy tourist town that seems to hold sway today, Miami was at the time already a dynamic city, having grown dramatically after World War II. But it looked steadfastly north as it absorbed waves of New Yorkers, Midwesterners and Southerners both white and black who were drawn to settle in Miami by — what else? — climate and opportunity.
Then came the Cuban Revolution.
Fidel Castro’s march to Havana at the head of an army of bearded revolutionaries in the early days of 1959 would turn out to be the single most consequential event in Miami’s short history. Over the next five decades, Castro’s increasingly repressive and eventually economically bankrupt regime would send successive new waves of enterprising Cuban refugees to Miami, transforming the fledgling metropolis into a true international city that looks both south and north, though likely in ways those civic leaders of the 1940s and ’50s never imagined.
It’s one of the ironies of history that the late Castro, the Cuban revolutionary hero-cum-tyrant who died Thanksgiving weekend at age 90, was the unintending father of today’s Miami — a cosmopolitan, polyglot, multicultural global city that serves as an uber-capitalistic nexus of finance, trade and culture between the United States and Latin America and the Caribbean.
And it all goes back to the enclave centered on Little Havana and Calle Ocho that the first waves of Cuban exiles established in the 1960s, historians and sociologists who have studied the exodus say.
Mostly educated members of Cuba’s elite and middle classes, these largely disenfranchised exiles — with a substantial assist from a U.S. government eager to showcase the American system’s advantages over Cuba’s Communist regime — used their skills and experience to build local businesses, providing ready-made employment for each group of new arrivals, before branching out into larger enterprises and banking and international trade. From that base, Cuban exiles would accomplish something almost unheard of, rising to a dominant political and economic power and reshaping a big U.S. city within a single generation.
It helped that the early exiles were what Florida International University sociologist Guillermo Grenier, himself a Cuban exile, calls “the right kind of immigrants” — overwhelmingly white and educated, many already familiar with Miami and the United States and its business mores — who arrived in massive numbers at a propitious time.
Immigration was opening up for non-Europeans, refugees from the Cold War were welcome, and starting in 1966 the Cuban Adjustment Act, an extensive refugee assistance program and generous federal small-business loans gave exiles a priviliged immigration status and a marked economic leg up. The U.S. population and economy, meanwhile, were beginning a historic shift to the Sunbelt and the civil rights legislation barred discrimination against minorities, Grenier notes.
Miami, a developing city primed for growth and without a deeply entrenched elite, was fertile ground for a determined group of newcomers, he said.
“Cubans didn’t so much make Miami as Miami was ready to be made,” Grenier said. “You had a perfect cauldron with this environment where immigrants with the characteristics of Cubans would have to mess up big time not to thrive. And we did thrive.”
By dint of sheer numbers, mostly controlled by Fidel Castro’s decision to open or shut the tap for Cubans looking to leave the island, the exiles were sure to change what was then known as Dade County, which had a population of just under one million. About 135,000 Cubans came just in the first two years after the Revolution, followed between 1965 and 1973 by 340,000 more on the twice-daily Freedom Flights, most of them members of Cuba’s middle and working classes.
The 1980 boatlift launched when Castro opened the port of Mariel to anyone wanting out of Cuba would later bring 125,000 others — for the first time including many Cubans who had grown up in Communist Cuba — in a matter of months. In summer of 1994, after Castro allowed 32,000 people to flee on rafts, a bilateral migration accord that ended the crisis reopened a steady flow until this day, with the U.S. government agreeing to grant a minimum of 20,000 visas to Cubans every year. About 550,000 Cubans have received visas under the program since 1996, Grenier said.
Most of those refugees have ended up in Miami, including many who initially settled in Puerto Rico, New Jersey or the numerous other accidental shores around the world where Cubans landed after exile.
“No matter how hard the U.S. government has tried to resettle Cubans elsewhere, they gravitate back to Miami,” said Silvia Pedraza, a Cuban-American sociologist at the University of Michigan who has written extensively about the Cuban exodus.
Today more than a third of Miami-Dade’s population of around 2.7 million is either Cuban-born or of Cuban descent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Over the decades, Cubans have been joined in Miami by other political refugees and immigrants from around Latin America and the Caribbean, including Nicaraguans and Colombians, who found the Spanish-speaking culture hospitable and have also contributed significantly to the city’s internationalization.
But it was Cuban exiles who first established extensive business ties with the rest of the hemisphere, looking to diversify and expand their enterprises through trade and finance, Pedraza and other experts say. U.S. companies, too, recruited Cuban exiles with business experience — sometimes garnered while working for Americans in Cuba — to staff, run or expand operations in other Latin American countries.
The experience of Pedraza’s father is illustrative. Alfredo Pedraza, who had studied at MIT, worked for tire-maker B.F. Goodrich in Cuba, and after leaving the island became the company’s sales manager in Bogotá for 12 years before settling in Miami for good, the Michigan professor said. In Miami, he helped an Ecuadorean firm establish what’s proven a lucrative trade sector — shipping fresh shrimp by air from Ecuador to the United States.
“Miami is in many ways a Latin American city and it’s open to all of Latin America,” Silvia Pedraza said. “There are connections of all sorts.”
At the same time, as Miami’s Cuban enclave expanded and diversified, Latin American businesspeople looking to invest or park their capital securely in the United States — especially at times of political or economic crisis in their homelands — increasingly looked to Miami, where they could bank and conduct business in Spanish while enjoying familiar food and customs. So did American and European businesspeople looking to connect to Latin America.
Those advantages helped Miami vault over competitors for Latin American commerce and shipping like New Orleans and Tampa, said sociologist Alejandro Portes, a Cuban-born Princeton professor emeritus with a distinguished-scholar appointment at the University of Miami.
“That Miami rose up to prominence as a global city has a lot to do with the arrival of the Cubans, but also because their presence created an attractive opportunity for others,” Portes said. “For the well-to-do in places like Argentina, it’s much more convenient that Miami has a savvy business community that speaks Spanish, than to go to New York and conduct business through a translator or in broken English.”
That success didn’t come without a battle, said Portes, co-author of “Miami: City on the Edge,” a definitive account of the city’s transformation through the early 1990s. Cuban exiles initially met resistance from Miami’s business and political establishment. But even as they asserted themselves economically, and exerted clout through organizations like the Cuban American National Foundation and the Latin Builders Association, Cuban exiles used their numbers and concentrations to begin electing political leaders from among their own, eventually supplanting the city’s “Anglo” business and political leadership, he said.
“This was a fairly enlightened leadership that opened and procured the internationalization of the city as a financial center,” said Portes, who is now writing a sequel about Miami’s rise to international prominence since the 1990s. “Out of those battles came a series of stages that have transformed the city into one of the key players in the global economy, and way beyond its past as a winter tourist destination.”
But absorbing hundreds of thousands of Cuban refugees also carried significant costs. The crashing waves at times led to considerable disruption, including crime waves and fiscal and political crises, tense clashes over the primacy of English and, over time, a dramatic “white flight” that’s left Miami-Dade’s non-Hispanic white population a distinct minority.
The timing of the exiles’ arrival also proved unfortunate for the county’s African-American population just as the civil rights struggle might have opened doors and opportunities to blacks. They saw the road to advancement closed off as hundreds of thousands of Cubans arrived to fill jobs as waiters, maids, bellhops and cooks in hotels and restaurants that were once the province of blacks.
To this day, relations between Cuban Americans and the city’s native-born blacks and Haitian immigrants remain standoffish at best, and residential segregation is among the most pronounced in the country, the sociologists say.
The rise of the city’s internationally oriented economy that Cuban exiles wrought, a significant segment of it concentrated in development, has also created what some experts have termed a growth machine that exacerbates economic divisions and inequality in Miami, not to mention transportation and congestion problems — all which Portes says the city’s current leadership seems unequipped to address.
“The traditional black areas of town have not been beneficiaries in any significant way of the economic expansion of the city. The winners are the developers, the growth machine, the builders, the bankers and those people who live in condominiums in Brickell and Downtown,” Portes said. “The city is living the consequences of its own success.”
No longer a southern city, Miami is also no longer Havana north. Cubans’ success has attracted competition from entrepreneurial Venezuelans, Brazilians and even — in a final turn of irony — Russians, who are building, banking and living, at least part of the time, in the city. The increasing diversity has diluted the sway of the Cuban political and economic class, Portes says his new research suggests, leaving no clear or decisive leadership group in place.
“There are lots of transients, lots of people who come and go, and there are few of what you might call true Miamians, people who are civic spirited,” Portes said. “It exists, but is not very large.”
And so the story of Miami doesn’t end with the Cuban exiles, he suggests. But as Fidel Castro is borne to his final resting place in the city of Santiago, in Miami, too, it’s not clear who’s now going to be in charge.