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Academics ponder the future role of Cuban diaspora
CubaNews / October 2010

By Larry Luxner

Three Cuban-born academics recently presented a Washington audience with facts and figures outlining the huge economic potential of the Cuban-American community in effecting change on the island.

“The Present and Future of the Cuban Diaspora,” held Sep. 10 at the Inter-American Dialogue, featured Uva de Aragón and Juan Antonio Blanco of Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute, and Emilio Morales of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy.

Aragon, who spoke first, said Cubans who emigrated to the United States between 1960 and 1980 were mainly political refugees.

“In the context of Cuban history, there’s been a tradition that those who want change go to another country,” she said. “The two best examples are José Martí, who lived in the U.S. while preparing for Cuba’s war of independence against Spain, and Fidel Castro, who prepared his revolution from Mexico with support from Cuban exiles in the U.S. opposed to Batista.

“This explains why a percentage of people from those waves of emigration still support the embargo, even though they don’t think it works,” Aragon explained.

“They succeeded in everything except the one thing they came to do: overthrow Castro. But many of those Cubans have died, and those like myself who came here very young have changed our way of thinking as the years have gone by and wounds have healed.”

In 1991, she said, 86% of Cuban exiles in South Florida supported the embargo; by 2008, only 45% supported the embargo. Like-wise, in 1991, 68% of exiles opposed dialogue with the Castro regime; today, 35% oppose dialogue. In addition, only 38% of exiles today are against selling food to Cuba, and just 28% oppose medical sales.

“Exiles who came here after 1995 act more like a diaspora. Their relationship with Cuba is more in tune with other diasporas like Mexico and Central America,” Aragon explained. “They don’t have the same political baggage.

“Interestingly, 25% of Cuban exiles here possess a bachelor’s degree, compared to 12% for all Hispanics in the United States and 27% for Americans in general.

With regard to earnings, average U.S. household income now stands at $52,000, while for families of Cuban origin, average household income is $42,000.

“There’s a reservoir of people who are educated, with income and credit, and many of them are sending remittances to Cuba,” the FIU professor explained.

But they’d also be engaged in the future of their country if conditions were appropriate, and could reverse some of the island’s brain drain. Like the Taiwanese in China, they could be an element to help rebuild Cuba’s social and economic fabric.”

Already, the impact of remittances to Cuba over the last 15 years has been “amazing,” says ASCE’s Morales. He outlined the development of the so-called “reverse pyramid,” in which a barman, taxi driver or bellboy at a resort hotel might earn 30 to 40 times the regular income of an engineer or surgeon.

As a result, consumer buying habits have been transformed throughout Cuba.

“A population that was used to receiving and buying no-frills products now values brands when making buying decisions,” he said. “A 2006 study showed that brands played a prominent role in the buying decisions of 42% of consumers. Cubans were able to identify 711 brands, of which 56% were foreign and 44% domestic.”

In addition, new class differences have emerged based on Cubans’ buying power in hard currency.

Nearly 70% of the country’s 11.2 million inhabitants have access to hard currency in one way or another, and remittances, said Morales, “have become the key support and survival of most of the population.”

Over the last decade, an average of 50,000 Cubans have emigrated every year. Some two million Cubans now live abroad, and the United States is the main source of remittances. Another 225,000 Cubans are likely to emigrate over the next five years.

Morales said there are already over one million cellphones in use in Cuba, where service costs an average of 20 CUCs per month.

“And despite the fact that the government controls Internet access, in 2009 there were 800,000 computers in state institutions and almost one million email accounts, as well as 200,000 individuals with direct Internet access,” he noted.

“In addition, 70,000 PCs were in private hands. Despite the restrictions, thousands of Cubans subscribe to social networks.” As of 2007, there were 10,000 retail stores throughout the island — and now there are even more. There’s also a strong black market in real-estate that generates daily transactions of houses and apartments selling for anywhere from $500 to $200,000.

The lifting of all U.S. travel restrictions on Cuban exiles in 2009, he said, has resulted in a 120% jump in travel.

“The cost of airfare diminished because there were more direct flights, leaving more cash in the hands of travelers,” he said. “Also, the cost of sending packages dropped from $15 per pound to $6-8 per pound, and the lifting of restrictions on remittances also influenced total amounts. Now the new authorized limit is $5,000 at any one time.”

He added: “Cellphones will remain a key factor in determining the total volume of remittances. By 2013, there will be 1.4 million cellphones in Cuba, generating total revenues of 700 million CUCs.

FIU’s Juan Antonio Blanco said the Cuban exile is “similar to other diasporas in the sense it’s an extension of the Cuban nation beyond its borders. Now with globalization, we are witnessing what used to be minor migrant enclaves transformed into large communities that are sometimes larger than the total population of the country [they left].”

What makes Cuba’s diaspora unique, he said, is that “these people need an entry or exit permit to enter or leave their homeland. This is something other diasporas do not require. When they leave the country — unless the state has some vested interest in this person — these people will have their passport stamped ‘permanent exit’ and they cannot return to their homeland.

“This means that in practice, they become not a migrant community but an expatriate community. They cannot invest in their country as other diasporas do, and they have limitations when visiting their homeland.”

Also, under Cuban law, exiles can stay on the island for up to 60 days, and must pay a fee to extend their visit.

“This prevents Cubans from following the extended pattern of behavior of circular migration. Cubans cannot do that,” he said.

“The houses they left behind were taken away, so they don’t have any place to go when they return.”

In addition, said Blanco, “remittances so far have been basically for consumption. They cannot capitalize or invest their money and make it produce more money. They cannot open a restaurant. This creates links of dependency. Instead of incentives, the relative depends on you for survival and becomes a parasite. It doesn’t do any good for the moral or work ethic of the population back home.”

Even worse, famous Cubans who leave the island permanently are erased from official Cuban history, unlike celebrities from other countries throughout Latin America.

“Does anyone think of Rubén Blades as a defector because he lives in New York instead of Panama? Does anyone in the Dominican Republic think of Sammy Sosa as a defector because he decided to play in the big leagues?” asked Blanco, lamenting that Cuban media ignores those who left, like Gloria Estefan, Andy García and Celia Cruz.

“They are treated as defectors, whether or not they actively engage in politics. That happens to almost everyone who has left Cuba and is not welcomed back,” he said.

“Perhaps the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States could be enormously facilitated,” Blanco suggested, “if the Cuban state would be at peace with its own diaspora, be ready to close this chapter and accept that these people are migrants.”

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