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Cubans challenge the claim that they're privileged ... by asserting their privilege

IT'S NOT JUST THE ECONOMY, STUPID Cuban rafters escaping their communist regime (left) and Haitians fleeing their gang-controlled country.
Dave Martin (left)
AP, US Coast Guard
It's not just the economy, stupid: Cuban rafters escaping their communist regime (left) and Haitians fleeing their gang-controlled country.

COMMENTARY: It's great Cubans can present their point of view on a new book about immigration. But it's also about Haitians — whose views need some privilege too.

In October I heard Cuban exile scholar Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat present his new book, Cuba: The Doctrine of the Lie, at Books & Books in Coral Gables. Gutierrez-Boronat and I don’t always agree, but we manage to find common ground; and I nodded at most of the trenchant points he made that evening about totalitarianism’s origins.

Until, that is, I heard him warn the left is a willing welcome mat for totalitarianism in the U.S. — while downplaying what a ripe red carpet the American right has become in that regard. I thought: Maybe it’d be nice to have an opposing commentator up there with him.

In other words, the sort of opposing commentator Gutierrez-Boronat gets to play Friday night at Florida International University’s presentation of another scholarly book, Susan Eckstein’s Cuban Privilege.

Eckstein, a Boston University sociologist, critiques the widely acknowledged immigration advantages Cubans enjoy. Her book may question that Cuban exclusivity; but she applauds what Cubans achieved with it. So Cuban Privilege asks why other desperate immigrant groups are barred from the VIP entrance that’s been open to Cubanos for almost 60 years.

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Her less-than-shocking subject matter has set off air raid sirens in much of Miami’s Cuban exile community — where the mere suggestion that Cubans a) got a special pass to make their way in this country, or b) didn’t deserve it more than others if they did get it, is a de facto racial slur. “Hate-filled” and “anti-Cuban,” as Cuban-American Miami-Dade County Commissioner Kevin Cabrera called Cuban Privilege — without, of course, actually reading the book.

The uproar caused FIU and its Cuban Research Institute, which is hosting Eckstein’s presentation, to move the event from Books & Books to the FIU main campus — and to include Gutierrez-Boronat onstage with her to offer the exile point of view.

Which is fine. The more points of view, the merrier. I’m confident Gutierrez-Boronat will fill that role with the acumen and decorum typical of a scholarly forum.

Did FIU concede a special privilege to Cuban exiles because they swing that kind of palanca, or clout, in Miami? That's like asking if the velvet rope parts for Leonardo DiCaprio at LIV.

But I can’t ignore how atypical it is for a scholarly institution like FIU to make this kind of hurried accommodation. Did FIU cave to exile pressure? Yes and no. The more apt question is: Was the Cuban exile community granted a special privilege because it swings that kind of palanca, or clout, here?

That’s like asking: Does the velvet rope part for Leonardo DiCaprio at LIV? So we’re left with yet another example of the “cognitive dissonance” Joan Didion once described in her book Miami.

To wit: In order to challenge the thesis that the Cuban community has received privileges, said community is asserting its privileges.

Pigeon-holed migrants

But if FIU can make one more last-minute accommodation, here’s how it can save itself from these academy-compromising optics. It should bring onstage with Eckstein and Gutierrez-Boronat a scholar to present the point of view of Haitians. That’s the immigrant group Eckstein concludes got most shafted back in economy seating while Cubans kept getting moved up to executive class because of their politically preferred status as Castro refugees.

Cuban exile scholar and human rights activist Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat at Books & Books in Coral Gables in October.
Cuban exile scholar and human rights activist Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat at Books & Books in Coral Gables in October.

I’d suggest a respected Haitian diaspora academic like University of Miami psychologist Marie Guerda Nicolas. I’ve interviewed Nicolas many times — as I have Gutierrez-Boronat — and I’m sure she’d effectively convey what it’s been like for Haitians, starting in the 1980s, to be pigeon-holed as second-tier “economic” immigrants because the brutal regimes and circumstances they're fleeing (and often dying at sea while fleeing, like so many Cubans) don't flash the communist threat.

I’m certain she could argue that the bloodthirsty, Mad Max gangs that all but rule Haiti right now are every bit as much a political and human-rights reason to escape that country as the Marxist dictatorship is in Cuba. This week’s horrifying BBC reportabout those omnipotent gangsters raping women in front of their families when they take over a neighborhood or town wasn’t an “economic” story.

FIU’s timing would be apropos as well, since the Biden Administration this week expanded Temporary Protected Status to Haitians in the U.S. precisely because of that terror. And on Monday Haitians here will observe the 50th anniversary of the first Haitian “boat people” to arrive in South Florida.

It’s the moment to let Haitians share the stage — and the privilege — in this cognitively dissonant conversation.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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