Cubans Flee to Florida and Receive Assistance Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the wake of the Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution, hundreds of thousands of Cuban refugees fled to the United States, most of them initially to Florida.

Summary of Event

The story of the Cuban refugee flows of the 1960’s begins inside Cuba, which, during the late 1950’s, experienced a revolutionary change in regimes. After several years of guerrilla operations, Fidel Castro vaulted from his position as the leader of a small ragtag army to the unquestioned leadership of Cuba, toppling Cuban Revolution (1956-1959) former dictator Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar Batista y Zaldívar, Fulgencio in January of 1959. Within months, Castro reorganized the Cuban army, arrested and executed members of the former Batista government, suspended elections for four years, and initiated an agrarian reform that saw millions of acres of land expropriated from its previous owners by the government. During 1960, Castro gradually and more openly embraced communist Communism;Cuba Economic systems;communism ideology. He established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, nationalized all private schools, stamped out the free and critical press, expropriated foreign-owned oil refineries and American sugar holdings in Cuba, and began to purge Cuba’s judicial system. Refugees;U.S. immigration policy Refugees;Cubans Immigration;United States [kw]Cubans Flee to Florida and Receive Assistance (1960’s) [kw]Florida and Receive Assistance, Cubans Flee to (1960’s) Refugees;U.S. immigration policy Refugees;Cubans Immigration;United States [g]North America;1960’s: Cubans Flee to Florida and Receive Assistance[06290] [g]Caribbean;1960’s : Cubans Flee to Florida and Receive Assistance[06290] [g]West Indies;1960’s: Cubans Flee to Florida and Receive Assistance[06290] [g]United States;1960’s: Cubans Flee to Florida and Receive Assistance[06290] [g]Cuba;1960’s: Cubans Flee to Florida and Receive Assistance[06290] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;1960’s: Cubans Flee to Florida and Receive Assistance[06290] [c]Humanitarianism and philanthropy;1960’s: Cubans Flee to Florida and Receive Assistance[06290] Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;and Cuba[Cuba] Castro, Fidel Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;and Cuba[Cuba]

The revolutionary changes that swept Cuba during this time were generally perceived as having benefited the lower classes at the direct expense of the propertied elites of the nation. Given the generally high level of political repression and the rapid and sustained attacks against the wealthy, many of Cuba’s professional and business elites fled the country. By the middle of 1960, some 87,000 Cubans had sought asylum in the United States, chiefly in the Miami, Florida, area. Within three years, another 170,000 followed them, and the numbers continued to mount throughout the 1960’s to a total for the decade of about 500,000. That total continued to climb in several waves. By the end of the 1980’s, the United States had accepted more than 800,000 Cuban refugees onto its shores since the inception of the Castro revolution.

Although refugees’ motivations for flight from Cuba have changed over the years, some persistent patterns explain why large numbers chose to flee. In the early waves, imprisonment and the threat of imprisonment motivated some to flee, while others objected to the intrusiveness of the revolutionaries and their followers who joined Castro’s neighborhood Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. Formed by Castro in 1960, these committees encouraged Cubans who supported the communist revolution to perform surveillance functions on their neighbors and to report those who spoke out against the revolution or failed to show enthusiasm for it.

Apart from these more direct forms of political persecution, many of the early escapees fled because they had lost their jobs or property and thus could no longer earn a livelihood in Cuba. Others were simply opponents of communism or of the tactics employed by Castro’s revolutionaries. A substantial number of the earliest escapees were professionals, doctors, lawyers, and educators. As time passed, family reunification and economic betterment became major factors motivating flight, and larger numbers from the middle and lower-middle classes joined in the exodus.

Relations between Cuba and the United States deteriorated during 1960. President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded to the perceived threat of growing communism by halting imports of Cuban sugar and embargoing exports to Cuba. In January of 1961, the United States broke diplomatic relations with Cuba. Moreover, with growing numbers of militant Cuban exiles pressing for U.S. assistance to topple the Castro regime, Eisenhower initiated plans for the Bay of Pigs invasion, plans that were carried out in April of 1961, several months after President John F. Kennedy took office. The invasion was a colossal failure, and, far from toppling Castro, cemented his hold over Cuba.

As U.S.-Cuban relations deteriorated, the number of exiles from Cuba to the United States increased. By the end of his administration, Eisenhower had concluded that the United States should pursue an open-door policy toward Cuban exiles, essentially admitting all Cubans who sought refuge in the United States. Politically, this policy was seen as a way to deprive Castro of his most educated and productive subjects and to embarrass his regime. From a humanitarian perspective, the upshot was that thousands of potential persecutees found safe haven in America.

After a brief downturn in 1963 and 1964, during which time the number of exiles fleeing Cuba amounted to little more than fifteen thousand in each year, the number of exiles shot back up to an annual level of fifty thousand. This resumption of high exile rates was directly related to Castro’s decision in 1965 to promote exile rather than hinder it. He invited Cubans in the United States to come to the port of Camarioca to pick up their relatives by boat. Thus began the Camarioca exodus, which was later mimicked by Castro during the Mariel boatlift exodus of 1980. During and after 1965, large numbers of Cubans, many of whom already had families in Florida, opted to leave Cuba by boat or air with the sanction of the Castro regime. Indeed, by November of 1965, the United States and Cuba had formally entered into an agreement that eventually saw more than 350,000 Cubans transported to the United States through governmentally sponsored and safe, rather than clandestine and hazardous, means.

The fact that a substantial Cuban community existed nearby in southern Florida even prior to the refugee movements contributed to the decision of many Cubans to seek asylum in the United States. The local Cuban community and civic leaders in southern Florida were generally responsive to the assistance needs of these refugees. When it became apparent that the flow could persist indefinitely at a high rate, however, state and local officials began to agitate for a more substantial federal role in both assistance and relocation to take the pressure off local resources. Federal involvement began under Eisenhower, who sought congressional approval for admittance of the Cuban exiles and special programs for admission of unaccompanied children under the Cuban Children’s Program. In December of 1960, federal money began to flow from Washington into the Cuban Refugee Emergency Center in Miami.

Kennedy built on Eisenhower’s policies by formally announcing the creation of the Cuban Refugee Program Cuban Refugee Program, U.S. in the early months of his administration. This program was placed under the stewardship of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, U.S.;immigration . It substantially expanded federal involvement in providing assistance for health, welfare, and education services to local governmental authorities and private voluntary organizations for the benefit of Cubans. Also initiated as part of this program was a highly successful relocation program designed to take the pressure off Florida by resettling Cubans in other parts of the United States. By the end of 1972 alone, this program saw nearly 300,000 of Miami’s 450,000 Cuban refugees resettled in virtually every state in the union. In 1962, the federal government pumped nearly $40 million into the Cuban Refugee Program. Ten years later, the total approached $140 million annually.

There can be little doubt that the generous federal assistance, combined with state and local resources and the ceaseless efforts of countless private voluntary organizations, speeded the integration of the Cuban exiles into the American economy. The resettlement program, often implemented by private organizations and churches, saw Cubans settled in communities throughout the United States. Thus, although most early Cuban exiles left their homeland with the expectation that they would soon return, many found that their new lives in the United States were quite comfortable. As a second and third generation was born and reared in the United States, many original exiles eventually took American citizenship. This process was further abetted by the realization that the Castro regime was well ensconced and unlikely to reform its policies. The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the consolidation of Castro’s power in Cuba, and the longevity of his regime further contributed to the assimilation of many Cuban exiles in the United States.


The flight of Cuban exiles had several significant effects both in Cuba and in the United States. Cuba lost most of its highly educated and professional classes during the first year or so of the exodus. The loss of brainpower and skills had two different but related effects. First, Cuba’s economic development was no doubt set back by decades, especially when the refugee loss was coupled with the imposition of socialist economic policies.

Second, the flight of these classes made it possible for Castro to consolidate his hold over Cuba and to initiate his revolutionary programs without what would have been predictable resistance from educated elites. The exodus, then, simultaneously facilitated the implementation of communism and deprived the country of its most talented people. The gradual decline in economic productivity and in the standard of living in Cuba was a predictable long-term consequence of the refugee exodus, of communist economic policy, and of Western economic retaliation. On the other hand, more positive aspects of Cuba’s revolution could be seen in the increased rates of literacy and the broader access of poor Cubans to basic, if limited, health care.

The effects of the Cuban migration on the United States were various and considerable. Local health, education, and welfare services in Florida were overwhelmed by Cuban arrivals. To offset the pressure on local and state agencies, the federal government spent more than a billion dollars in refugee assistance and resettlement programs. This intergovernmental cooperation was accompanied by cooperation between government and private voluntary agencies, thus contributing to the further development of institutional mechanisms for responding to later refugee situations.

More than 800,000 Cuban exiles benefited from this assistance. They settled throughout the United States, although the highest concentrations remained in Florida. Cubans have proved in the long run to be highly productive members of American society, although frictions are to be found between Cubans and other minority populations, especially in the Miami area, where competition for blue-collar and low-skill employment is often intense. These social tensions, however, are largely offset by the substantial contributions Cubans have made over time to their new country.

The Cuban refugee flow of the 1960’s should not be seen as an isolated or temporary event. Cuban support for and American opposition to revolutionary movements in Latin America have precipitated or exacerbated conflicts in the region, most notably in Central America and Grenada. Many of these contests in turn generated large numbers of refugees and displaced persons while endangering the human rights of thousands. Nor was the effect of the original Cuban exodus during the 1960’s limited to that decade alone. Cuban migration to the United States has been a long-term phenomenon with occasionally intense periods of exodus. Refugees;U.S. immigration policy Refugees;Cubans Immigration;United States

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fagen, Richard R., Richard A. Brody, and Thomas J. O’Leary. Cubans in Exile: Disaffection and the Revolution. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1968. Chronicles the political context of the Castro revolution and assumption of power and the refugee exodus precipitated by it. Based on extensive fieldwork and interviews, it is especially insightful in identifying the factors that prompted Cuban exiles to flee from their homeland. Includes notes, appendixes, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gallagher, Patrick Lee. The Cuban Exile: A Socio-Political Analysis. New York: Arno Press, 1980. This case study, a reprint of the author’s Ph.D. dissertation of 1974, explores the impact of Cuban exiles in the Miami area as well as the social, political, economic, and psychological experience of Cubans in exile. It focuses on the 1960’s experience of Cubans in Florida. Includes appendixes and a bibliography. No index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Larzelere, Alex. The 1980 Cuban Boatlift: Castro’s Ploy—America’s Dilemma. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1988. Although this extensive treatment of the Mariel boatlift does not provide much historical context of the earlier refugee movements of the 1960’s, it does describe and assess one of the later phases of the Cuban refugee flow. Contains extensive references, a bibliography, an index, and appendixes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loescher, Gil, and John A. Scanlan. Calculated Kindness: Refugees and America’s Half-Open Door, 1945-Present. New York: Free Press, 1986. This sometimes overly critical and partial account of American refugee policy nevertheless provides useful insights into the domestic politics of refugee admission policy. The Cuban case is dealt with in chapters 3, 4, and 9, principally in an effort to show how an admissions double standard evolved: Cubans received preferred treatment, while other migrants from noncommunist regimes were handled restrictively. Includes a bibliography and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Masud-Piloto, Felix Roberto. With Open Arms: Cuban Migration to the United States. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1988. An excellent, brief, highly readable and balanced treatment of the Cuban migration to the United States, this book sets the refugee exodus in a broad historical context. Well documented. Includes tables, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. From Welcomed Exiles to Illegal Immigrants: Cuban Migration to the U.S., 1959-1995. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996. The author’s follow-up to the previous work, focusing on the changing attitude of the United States toward Cuban refugees over the three and one-half decades following the Cuban Revolution. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zolberg, Aristide, Astri Suhrke, and Sergei Aguayo. Escape from Violence: Conflict and the Refugee Crisis in the Developing World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Chapter 7 of this excellent work devotes substantial attention to the Cuban revolution and the exile phenomenon. It also treats some of the consequences of these events for the United States and the region. Extensive notes and an index are included.

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Categories: History