Academic Projects

A Study of Cuban Immigration Waves

December 12, 2018


The relationship between Cuba and the United States has served as one of the most complex and unique stories in the modern world. While this history contains plenty of compelling narratives that are unrivaled in comparison to other models of U.S. foreign policy, its most fascinating element is the immigration movement that emerged following the Cuban Revolution. These waves of migration serve as a critical lens through which this complicated relationship is well recognized, as they have shaped the political, social, and economic climates between the two countries to the present day. This essay will outline the major movements, motives, demographics and role in realizing the complicated relationship between the two countries. 

It is important to note that Cuban immigration to the United States has always existed, however the pre-Castro period is characterized by small waves of those in search of better economic opportunity and it is estimated that Cuban population in the United States by 1958 was around 125,000. The period following the revolution, in which Fidel Castro deposed Fulgencio Batista and took control of the island would forever change the course of Cuban history. Its aftermath left a Cuba bitterly divided into those who would support a socialist regime and those who would leave the country. The initial post-revolution exodus set the stage of how the Cuban people might react under a volatile, Castro-controlled island. By examining the major immigration waves that took place in the wake of the first exodus such as, the Peter Pan Operation, Freedom Flights, Mariel boat lifts, and the Balsero Crisis, one can begin to understand just how transformative Castro’s regime would prove to be for the Cuban population.

Initial Exodus

 Even before Castro could implement any policies under his newfound power in 1959, his regime’s platform as a socialist state immediately alienated a significant portion of the Cuban people causing them to emigrate. This first wave of immigration was generally comprised of two main groups: supporters of Fulgencio Batista and members of the upper and middle classes. The motivations to leave for Batista loyalists were clear: when the head of the 1952 military coup lost the support of the United States and decided to flee the island on January 1, 1959, it became apparent that there was no longer a place for them in Cuba. This group largely consisted of military officers, government officials, landowners and businesspersons, and they represented the very first wave of immigration, the majority of whom had no plans to return.

Shortly thereafter, various individuals from the upper and middle classes, embittered by the sudden transition of Cuba’s economic structure from capitalism to socialism, left the country as well. However, in the minds of many from this group, their emigration was temporary as they felt that Castro’s regime was not a permanent fixture. Accordingly, these immigrants left their property with family and friends while they “waited out” the administration, but soon after these first waves, the government imposed a policy of confiscation to all those who left the country. Despite this heightened stake of emigration from Cuba, it did not deter the upper and middle class groups from abandoning the island and settling in Miami, Florida. 

Though this first large exodus reflected poorly on Fidel Castro, it would have long-lasting consequences that even he could not have predicted on account of the demographics of these exiles. Not only were they members of the middle and upper classes, but the majority of them were very skilled and well experienced. In fact, when comparing the education levels of those who left between 1960 and 1962, 12.5% of these immigrants had achieved four or more years of college, while the rest of the population as a whole was represented by just one percent. Moreover, 37% of the household heads of immigrating families were proprietors, managers and professionals, whereas less than 10% of the overall labor force held this distinction. This mass movement came to be known as a Cuban brain drain, as the country lost a significant supply of its qualified specialists. 

The majority of this initial emigration occurred in the first three years following the revolution and it has been estimated that roughly 250,000 left the island during this time. However, as it became more apparent that Fidel Castro would remain in power for an undetermined period of time to both the United States and the people of Cuba, relations strained between the two countries, accelerating immigration later in the 1960s. Castro’s nationalization of American-controlled companies in Cuba and subsequent establishment of relations with the Soviet Union quickly led to the severing of ties between the island and the U.S. In turn, President Eisenhower imposed an economic embargo in 1962 that has remained in place to this day. For those among the Cuban upper and middle classes who were originally hesitant to leave, these events did not breed much confidence in the Castro regime, prompting further immigration throughout the 60s and by the turn of the decade, the exodus of this group had concluded. 

Operation Peter Pan

While Castro’s socialist platform spurred the beginnings of this first immigration movement, the United States’ policies towards in Cuban affairs shook part of the trust that the Cuban population held in Fidel Castro. This theme of American intervention in Cuba provoking emigration of the local population to the United States became the foundation of the immigration waves that followed the initial exodus. In fact, the other early-1960s migration from Cuba came as a direct result of United States strategy.

 Operation Peter Pan took place between the years 1960 and 1962, a period in which more than 14,000 unaccompanied children were discreetly transported by airplane from Cuba to the United States. This event represents largest the recorded exodus of unaccompanied minors in the western hemisphere, however this distinction does not begin to underscore its importance. In reaction to Cuba’s newly-minted alliance with the Soviet Union, the American government became fearful of Castro’s attraction towards communism and began to formulate plots to undermine his power. Of all the actions the United States took during the 1960s to do so, Operation Peter Pan was arguably the most controversial.

The main goal of this operation was to stimulate emigration from the island by preying on Cuban parents’ anxieties about the well being of their children. Backed by the approval of President Eisenhower, the CIA proposed a plan that would spread propaganda throughout the island of a Castro government project to remove parents’ custody over their children for communist indoctrination. It was intentionally carried out in secret as not to raise suspicions to its validity and proved to be just as effective as its design. In only eight months after circulation of these rumors began, the Catholic Welfare Bureau deployed the first flights carrying minors from Cuba to Miami in December of 1960, until the program was dissolved two years later.

However, just as important as the establishment of this project was its continuation and President John F. Kennedy, director Monsignor Bryan Walsh, and volunteers alike, fearing the threat of media coverage to this program, went to great lengths to keep the children out of the news. The way in which the United States tactfully approached this largely successful covert operation underscores the scandalous nature of this political chess move against Cuba and the willingness of the government to take any measures necessary to sabotage the Castro regime, especially among the Cuban population. The vast majority of the families who sent their children came from humble backgrounds. Roughly half of them were reunited with family upon arrival, however, among those who were not, 70% were boys over the age of 12 and became independent soon after. The legacy of these Pedro Panes remains widely contested as some defend the United States for giving Cuban families a choice of how they wanted their children educated, while others condemn their use of these children as pawns in a larger game. However, the majority of Pedro Panes themselves reflect on this operation that successfully established anti-Castro sentiment among a young generation, as a positive one they are thankful for.

Freedom Flights

By the middle of the 1960s, the economic reform policies passed under Castro began to take effect. As expected under his socialist regime, the poorest members of branches of the Cuban population benefited from the expansion of schooling and medical program, but unforeseen to Castro, the middle class began to deteriorate. This sudden shift prompted the government to disburse food rations and applied considerable pressure upon the Cuban population, which began to induce doubt in the Castro regime. In a brazen display of faith in his socialist programs, Fidel Castro announced that anyone who wanted to leave the country could do so. However, this gamble backfired and his 1965 proclamation opened the door to negotiations with President Lyndon B. Johnson that led to the Freedom Flights that would deliver some 260,000 Cubans to the United States over the next seven years.

Despite being arguably the most diplomatic agreement reached between the two countries since the revolution, these Freedom Flights greatly favored the United States as the Castro regime struggled with the avalanche of Cubans who signed up for the popular program. In fact, by early 1968, over one million people were on the waitlist, in spite of the prospect of being fired from their job for doing so. Those who emigrated during this movement composed all demographics of the population from educated professionals to blue-collar service workers even to farmers. This immigration wave, the first of which that was representative of the Cuban population as a whole, dealt a damaging blow to the economy, prompting Castro to suspend the program in 1973. The legacy of Freedom Flights serves as arguably the most important, if not telling, migration movement from Cuba to the United States because of just how symbolic it was of anti-Castro sentiment within the island. It stands in stark contrast to the other waves that were largely sparked by American intervention, on account of the choice that was given to the Cuban people. Its popularity reached all classes and backgrounds of the population and signaled to both the United States and Castro that his regime was vulnerable to the anxieties of Cubans and susceptible to other emigration movements. 

Mariel Boat Lifts

Following Castro’s disbandment of the Freedom Flights, the latter period of the 1970s saw low levels of immigration between the two countries save for the transfer of Cuban political prisoners and the reunion of spouses and parents who had previously been denied exit visas. However, that did not deter the many other Cubans, who were unable to leave on the Freedom Flights, from pressuring the government to allow them to emigrate. These tensions further increased after a 1979 Castro policy that allowed more than 100,000 exiles to return to the island, who widely communicated the economic opportunities offered in the states. A year later, this pressure finally culminated in more than 10,000 Cubans storming the Peruvian embassy in Havana seeking political asylum from the government.

Once again, Castro conceded to those who wished to leave and announced that the port of Mariel would be opened as long as they had someone to pick them up. However, having learned from his mistake in green-lighting the Freedom Flights, Castro saw this migration wave as an opportunity to enact political revenge upon the United States. He instructed Cuban officials to force exiles, who were picking up family members, to also include the “deplorables” of Cuban society, such as inmates, mental patients, prostitutes and homosexuals. These boat lifts delivered roughly 125,000 Cubans to Key West and this group primarily comprised young, working-class men with little education.

The result was a public relations disaster for President Jimmy Carter and his administration. Media reports cautioning the arrival of the Marielitos exaggerated the criminal quality of this group and began to sway public opinion of these refugees, driving widespread hysteria towards these Cuban immigrants. Meanwhile in Havana, Castro proudly celebrated this landmark event as a means of ridding the island of its criminals and anti-revolutionaries who he referred to as “scum.”  The aftermath of the Mariel boat lifts left a deep divide among the Cuban population living in the U.S. As the ideological argument to admit Cuban exiles as refugees quickly lost support, the “old” immigrants who had come in prior migration movements, looked down upon the “new” ones who had unintentionally marred their collective reputation. 

Balsero Crisis

If the Freedom Flights were seen as the United States winning the “battle” against Cuba and its population, the Mariel boat lifts would be Cuba’s winning of the “war,” as it pertained to the immigration struggle between the two countries. Accordingly, the Balsero Crisis of 1994 represents an epilogue of sorts, in which the United States was forced to take a final stance on Cuban immigration as public backing of these exiles had largely disappeared, despite the Cuban Adjustment Act still being in place.

In the years leading up to this final large-scale migration wave, Cuba suffered from an economic recession following the loss of the Soviet Union’s financial support after its collapse in 1991. Again, the Cuban population’s pressure to emigrate quickly began to build up and manifested itself in another exodus period of three years in which almost 14,000 Cubans arrived in rafts off the coast of Florida. This migratory movement came to a head after a one-month period during August of 1994, in which more than 30,000 Cuban rafters were intercepted at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard. However, President Clinton and his administration saw this event as a potential foreshadow to what could become a Mariel boat lifts disaster all over again and ordered these rafters to be transferred to be held in U.S. military bases in Guantanamo and Panama until they reached a solution.

Back in Havana, the Cuban government was challenged with riots regarding this immigration crisis and also aimed to resolve this disaster. Unified together by the Balsero situation, the United States and Cuba agreed upon policy that would grant visas to 20,000 Cubans each year to ensure safe and orderly migration. Soon after, the Clinton administration began screening and resettling these Balseros, the majority of whom were well-educated professionals who went on to build success lives in South Florida. In the aftermath of this resolution, President Clinton revised the Cuban Adjustment Act to prevent any similar events in the future and replaced it with the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that had been in place until 2017. It instructed that in order for Cuban immigrants to remain in the United States, they must make it to the American shore, while those who are intercepted on the waters between the two countries would be immediately sent back to the island.


These immigration waves of Cubans fleeing to the United States and the events that have sparked them reveal the ways in which these exiles represent the influence of foreign policy in the relationship between the two countries. Moreover, the migration movements also serve as a measure of the Cuban population’s faith in the Castro regime and help to outline the historical moments in which this confidence was shaken. Whether these doubts were caused by American political intervention, economic recession in Cuba, or the prospect of better opportunity elsewhere, these histories of migration are reflections of the unique stance toward immigration the United States took in its effort to undermine Cuba under Fidel Castro.