FIU's 'Cuban Privilege' night was a typical — and yet a valuable — Miami moment
COMMENTARY: By so loudly condemning a book on Cuban immigration privileges, exiles instead prompted Miami to look more deeply into its important findings.
Last Friday night’s forum on Susan Eckstein’s book Cuban Privilege at Florida International University was a moment that made you simultaneously proud and embarrassed to live in Miami.
Why proud? Because, at least for the first 45 minutes, there was a thoughtful point-counterpoint taking place onstage at the Wertheim performing arts center.
Eckstein, a Boston University sociologist, made the accurate claim that, thanks to Cold War politics, few if any groups have ever received the U.S. immigration advantages Cubans have.
Cuban exile scholar Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat rightly responded that it’s improper to call so many of the first Cubans to flee their island’s communist revolution “imagined” refugees, as Eckstein does, who were making a lifestyle rather than life-rescuing exodus. (Anyone in 1959 glimpsing the Iron Curtain or Red China knew it wasn’t smart to stick around Castro’s Cuba.)
FIU invited Gutierrez-Boronat to share the stage with Eckstein because her thesis — that Cubans got to cut the U.S. immigration queue in undeserved ways no one else could — is such an uncomfortable elefante in the room for so many Cuban exiles here. He certainly didn’t disprove that thesis; but he made some valid points that prompted added thinking about Cuban Privilege.
So why embarrassed? Because, inevitably — as in: Toto, we’re back in Miami! — the thinking stopped and the shouting started.
When Eckstein and Gutierrez-Boronat finished, FIU Cuban Research Institute director Jorge Duany had to flip the audience mic on for “questions” that were often berate-bombs aimed at Eckstein. Like Cuban exile radio raptor Ninoska Perez’s nasty grito: “It’s insulting that it’s open season on Cubans when scholars like you come into this community!”
(I admit, though, Ninoska afforded me some fond nostalgia, or maybe PTSD: a reminder of the time I disagreed with her live on Fox News and she called me “an anti-Cuban racist,” something she calls most anyone who disagrees with her.)
But let’s get back to the proud part, because that’s what matters moving ahead, as we try to make sense of the immigration crises we’re facing here and across the country.
One of the dividends of 'Cuban Privilege' is that it forces us to consider just how muddled U.S. immigration policy is — a point best evoked at FIU, ironically, by the book's Cuban exile critic.
One of the dividends of Eckstein’s book, and of the priceless publicity it scored here thanks to all the angry Cuban exile bombast — Duany announced that Cuban Privilege had sold out in Miami, no mean feat for an academic tome — is that it forces us to consider just how muddled U.S. immigration policy is. And one of the chief muddles is the way it segregates “political” refugees who are assumed to deserve sanctuary from “economic” refugees who aren’t.
Ironically, probably unwittingly, it was Gutierrez-Boronat who made the strongest case Friday night that we have to be more open-minded on that front. His rejection of Eckstein’s labeling of first-wave Cuban exiles as “real” or “imagined” refugees speaks directly to what we’re wrestling with today. Namely: is a Haitian or Venezuelan or Nicaraguan or Honduran migrant as genuinely “persecuted” as we so quickly assume a Cuban rafter is?
In this century we’ve seen increasingly that the answer is "yes". That’s because — thanks especially to Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis, the worst in modern South American history — we’re more aware that the economic desperation so many flee is usually a result of political factors, like Venezuela’s monstrously disastrous and dictatorial socialist regime.
Even if refugees haven’t experienced instances of life-threatening political menace per se, the life-threatening economic horror shows they face are themselves a product of political menace.
That was true in 1959 for Cubans and it’s true in 2022 for Haitians and Hondurans, whose own economic abysses have been dug by the gang takeovers of their decrepit states. Can we really, honestly say that the Honduran teenager escaping life under MS-13 — the bloodthirsty, tatted-up gangsters that are the de facto government in much of Honduras — is a less legitimate refugee than the Cuban teenager escaping life under the Cuban Communist Party?
No. Which is why the U.S. has to start developing a more modern — and more equitable — immigration system than the one staring at us from Eckstein’s book.
Eckstein, who pointed out her parents too were refugees, said she wouldn’t deny Cubans the immigration privileges they’ve received. She just wants more thinking, and less shouting, about why those advantages have been denied to everyone else.