‘The Ideal Would be to Give All Migrants the Same Thing Cubans Have Enjoyed’

Covers of some books in which Eckstein has written about Cuba. (Collage)

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14ymedio, Havana, 8 DecemberA heated controversy in the Cuban-American community of Miami surrounds the book Cuban Privilege (Cambridge University Press, 2022), by American academic Susan Eckstein, which will be presented this Friday at Florida International University (FIU). [Open link to see video of event, which was held in English.]

Although the book is a history of the immigration policies that different US presidents – both Democrats and Republicans – have implemented with respect to Cuba, starting in 1959, the text has been described as “hate speech” by several activists.

In fact, a sector of Cuban-Americans in Florida will wait for Eckstein this Friday in the vicinity of the FIU to “boycott” the presentation with a protest, endorsed by Miami-Dade commissioner Kevin Marino Cabrera himself, who believes that Cuban Privilege “fosters hatred of Cuban exile.”

For Daniel Rodríguez, a professor of history at Brown University and the son of Cubans, Miami’s reaction stems from a misunderstanding and a superficial evaluation of Eckstein’s book. “They haven’t even read it,” he assures 14ymedio.

In October, Rodríguez was in charge of the book presentation at the Watson Institute, in the city of Providence (Rhode Island, USA). During the lunch after the event, Eckstein approached him and said, “Did you like the book? As a Cuban-American, did you feel attacked?”

Rodríguez’s response – whose mother immigrated to the US in 1967, with the so-called Freedom Flights, and married a rafter who escaped from the Island in 1970 – was clear: “I have to be honest,” he replied. “This book is not going to be liked in Miami.” His suspicion was fulfilled.

A few minutes of reading are enough to understand the proposal of the book: since 1959, the United States has granted privileges to the Cuban diaspora, which no immigrant community has enjoyed, especially from the Caribbean and Central American context, and particularly Haitians and Dominicans.

“She is not blaming Cubans for enjoying privileges, but rather points out that the Cuban situation has been more favorable than that of other migrants. Even the Cuban-Americans themselves know that. It is incontrovertible,” he explains.

Professor Rodríguez knows these benefits well. In addition to his parents, he had an uncle who crossed the border from Mexico, several cousins ​​who came through Canada and other relatives who sailed for the US in 1980 from the port of Mariel. After these “extreme” trips, he affirms, they immediately found the “open roads” to settle in a country that received them well.

The planned protest for Friday, he believes, is a “problematic and sad reaction, but also very interesting” from a sociological point of view. Although Eckstein does not intend to make judgments about the nature of US immigration policies, but rather merely describes them, the interpretations have been virulent.

“The debate has to do, rather, with the word ’privilege’,” he says. “What is being rejected is a term and a misconception of the book’s approaches.”

Several activists point out that the book defends the interests of the Democratic Party, or that it was even “dictated from Havana” to harm the Cuban exile, which usually votes for the Republican Party in Florida, one of the “swing” or decisive states in the presidential elections.

This is another error of approach, explains Rodríguez, since Eckstein criticizes both Democratic and Republican presidents, and postulates that immigration policy has not been determined by partisan interests but by deeper causes. “The book doesn’t even focus on the Cubans in Miami,” although it takes them into account in a special way, because of their political influence at the national level.

Cuban Privilege asks the reader specific questions: What has motivated the granting of benefits to Cubans? Why have these benefits not been extended to other communities from dictatorship or totalitarian countries? How do US immigration policies towards Cuba fit in the context of the Cold War? And, most importantly, how much weight do Cuban-Americans have in determining US policy?

The text is particularly useful, says Rodríguez, when it comes to chronicling how the Cuban diaspora became an influential power group and how it began to become aware of itself as a political actor. “These processes are also part of the history of Miami,” analyzes the academic.

“The ideal situation would be to offer all migrants the privilege and legalization that Cubans have enjoyed,” he says, citing one of the final proposals in Eckstein’s book.

However, Rodríguez points out, a full understanding of the book does not mean giving up criticizing it, as the FIU proposes, which will feature the Cuban intellectual Orlando Gutiérrez-Boronat to counterpoint Eckstein in the presentation.

More thorny issues will have to be reviewed, such as the apparent rejection of Cubans by other migrant communities in the US –especially Haitians – and also the supposed “right to self-determination” that Eckstein defends for Cuba, ignoring that the country is a dictatorship that rejects democratic processes.

But while it is true that Eckstein has written and spoken in the past about Cuba in drastic terms, a critique of the contents and postulates of Cuban Privilege  – a text, above all, of a historical and sociological nature – should be possible outside of the political views of the author.

All this can and should be discussed, says Rodríguez, but from a starting point of rationality and logical debate. However, he believes, Miami has become a difficult place to raise these kinds of controversies at a deep level. “There is no room for criticism and the defense of different positions, nor for postulating a complex discourse,” he laments.

When it comes to Cuba, Rodríguez summarizes, “there is a lot to analyze and think about, but we need the space for that… In the FIU presentation it is intended to carry out an open criticism and discuss freely with the author. If these spaces do not exist in Cuba, we must create them here.”


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