The "Cuban Diaspora". The Recent History of a POLITICALLY LOADED Phrase

--  the scattering of the Jews to countries outside of Palestine after the Babylonian captivity. 

-- any group that has been dispersed outside its traditional homeland, especially involuntarily, as Africans during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.


At various times Cubans living in the US were called refugees, émigrés, exiles, or even balseros (raft people).  The term “diaspora” has been around for a long time, but it was not applied to Cuban exiles or émigrés. In the early 1980s the term appeared in the New York Times as a commentary involving some black Cuban musicians. [1]

In 1985, rightwing writer Jon Nordheimer, wrote:

"There is evidence that after a diaspora of sorts the cream of Cuban intelligentsia and professionalism is consolidating in Miami. People who sought education and careers in other parts of the country are now returning in droves, a trend that has speeded up as international banking and trade activity has flourished."

You will notice that the writer wrote "of sorts". The author failed to mention that at the time the Miami economic boom was not really the outcome of intelligence or professionalism as such - otherwise that would have been the case from 1960 on. Rather, the economic expansion in south Florida in the 1980s was primarily driven by cocaine and other illegal activities. Not long after, though, the Cuban entrepreneurs began calling themselves the "Jews of the Caribbean" although they were not ethnically so. [2]

By February 7, 1986 the New York Times published a review of Guillermo Cabrera Infante's book Holy Smoke in which the reviewer stated, "there is also an up-to-date report on the cigars being turned out in the post-Castro Cuban diaspora." In this case, the diaspora term was applied to blue collar workers.  The rule of thumb, though, was to apply the term to successful  business people.

The word diaspora then began to slowly spread but in conflict with an earlier image of a Cuba populated by an "African diaspora." The politically and racially conscious users of the term could not make up their mind whether it applied to the descendants of African slaves, to black Cubans, or to white Cuban entrepreneurs making money in south Florida.a

The heyday of the redefinition of Cubans as part of a diaspora began in 1991 when journalists writing on Cuba began to emulate the ever growing number of Cuban-American academics who already were using the term.  Anne Marie O'Connor wrote about a conference where "The toughest critics were Cuban-born academics from the diaspora of Cubans who fled after Fidel Castro..." [3]  By then, the Instituto de Estudios Cubanos in Miami  made the phrase common in its social and academic gatherings. The Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami also joined. This wasn’t surprising, since its director, Jaime Suchlicki, often used the analogy of 1930s Germany,  comparing what he called the “suffering of the Cuban people” to that of the Jews in the 1930s, and described the behavior of the revolutionists as Hitlerian. The term diaspora had a clearly political and negative connotation.

The image of Cuban-Americans as a "diaspora community" gained influence with the end of the Soviet bloc. From then on no one said “refugees” or even “exiles”. The Cuban-American rightwing lobbyists emulated the Jewish-American lobbies (especially AIPAC) and  spoke of a diaspora as well as a “Castroite Babylonian Captivity”.  Even  the Catholic Church began to use the metaphor for its own political reasons. [4] Jews with a Cuban ancestry made their claim as well in 1993 when Robert M. Levine published Tropical Diaspora: the Jewish experience in Cuba.

 In 1997 the Cuban  scholar  Jorge Duany , then at the University of Puerto Rico,  wrote a very useful study on Cuban national identity, but utilizing the diaspora metaphor. His work was entitled: "From the Cuban Ajiaco to the Cuban-American Hyphen: Changing Discourses of National Identity".  From 2000 on no one was using the terms exiles or refugees or migrants to describe Cubans outside the island; they all were transformed into a Cuban diaspora - which by this point had become a postmodernist term. 

The rightwing Cuban-Americans adopted the term because they wanted to exploit the political image of a people forced out of their country – as in the Jewish story. On the other hand, liberal post- modernists also became identified with “diaspora studies” by which they seemed to mean any kind of migration out of Cuba – regardless of the circumstances or the intent of the migrant. Diaspora thus was politicized by some and depoliticized by others and consequently lost any real meaning in the process.

Then the floodgates opened. Andrea O'Reilly Herrera edited a book that claimed that Cuba was a "nation displaced." Thus any Cuban migrant became a member of a diaspora somewhere. One of the authors in the collected essays wrote a piece entitled "Hablando en Diasporas" or "Speaking in Diasporas" . [5]The Diaspora as synonym for migrant and/or exile had claimed center stage. In its new clothing the migrant or exile became a participant in a sort of "exodus." The term, in fact, became an all-encompassing umbrella. A Cuban musical group – las Krudas – were described in a book as practitioners of diaspora performance. [6] notes, " More recently, we find a scattering of the meaning of diaspora,  which can now be used to refer not only to a group of people, but also to some aspect of their culture, as in "the global diaspora of American-style capitalism." [ 7] Thus any type of migration of people or behaviors can be termed “diasporic”. Hence, there are Australian, Haitian, Dominican or Hawaiian diasporas!

But that begs the question of the explicit political use that the politicians in Washington, DC and Miami have given the term when they use it. By May 17, 2011 the whole world, apparently, had become an enormous Diaspora -- so much so that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke at a three day "Global Diaspora Forum" in Washington, DC.  Apparently the United States’ bag of dirty tricks now includes the creation of “diasporic studies”.

Indeed, the State Department announced the launching of "an innovative public-private partnership platform designed to engage Diaspora communities, the private sector, and public institutions in a collaborative process." [8]

And where there is talk of a Cuban diaspora, there is a pot of gold at one end.  Numerous foundations have jumped onto the bandwagon.  Just at the end of March, Florida International University announced: “In recognition of the growing complexity and multiple locations of contemporary Cuban migrants, the Cuban Research Institute (CRI) will hold a symposium on "The Cuban Diaspora in the World." The main goal of the event is to compare the current experiences of various Cuban communities in Western Europe, North America, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Speakers will survey recent Cuban migration to the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico, Germany, and France. A secondary goal is to examine the potential contribution of the diaspora to national development in Cuba, particularly to the strengthening of the nonstate sector of the economy.” [9][emphasis added.]

Oddly enough, although the term diaspora had its origins with the forceful removal through slavery of blacks from Africa*, the term has a different meaning according to one author. Diana Fulger writes, "racial discrimination was carried out by Cuban exiles to the US, where Afro-Cubans are voiceless within the white, elitist Diaspora." [10]

Yet, the Cuban Diaspora story is somewhat of a departure from the original Jewish one. In the original story of the diaspora, Jews captured in Jerusalem were sent by the Babylonians to work as slaves in Babylon.  To be the equivalent would mean the US is forcibly uprooting Cubans and sending them to work in Miami, New Jersey or Madrid.

A Cuban blogger-philosopher who lives in Miami, Emilio Ichikawa, got it right when he wrote that the image of the Cuban as Jew is a rigged comparison:” los cubanos no son judíos —todas las analogías a este respecto son amañadas— ni  tienen Torá ni plegaria para instruirse en la conmemoración y desencantar el futuro.” [11]

As of May 31, 2018 there were 1,600,000 hits in English on the phrase “Cuban diaspora.” In Spanish the phrase “diáspora cubana” produced  323,000 results.

If The Jews had no right to return to Judea [Palestine?], yet current U.S.  and Cuban legislation allow the Cuban-Americans to return to their homeland, and they do so often –  at least for familial visits or to engage in petty business.  The so-called Jews of the Caribbean even foresee returning to the island in order to invest and get integrated into the reformist Cuba of today  - which has been called a better and shared future.  The phrase is applied to Cubans   in order to engage in what Robert Sandels calls "semantic aggression” – just another of the numerous attacks that the Cuban revolutionaries have had to deal with. In fact, the Cuban “diaspora”  in Florida have numerous airlines flying to the island every single day. Cuba provides them with the appropriate visas [or Cuban passports]. And one of the growing phenomena is that many retired and elderly Cubans from the United States  go to Cuba to spend less than in the US, while getting medical and dental service at no cost or below the prices charged in the United States. 

Finally the online service DING on June 19th, 2018  tells us: “Ding offers millions of Cuban diaspora the ability to buy Cubacel SIM & handsets online for family back home.”

That is diasporic humor for sure.





[1] “Caribbean Festival: A Melting Pot Full of Song and Dance”, NYT, October 11, 1985.

[2] Jon Nordheimer, “Miami Cultures Find Rapport After a Generation of Clashes," NYT, Dec 16, 1985.]

[3] “Castro's Revolution Courting Disaster, Scholars Tell Cubans”, Palm Beach Post, May 27, 1991.]

[4] The rightwing use is best exemplified by Christopher Kean, Diez días en Cuba, mensaje de la disidencia a la diaspora, New York: Freedom House, 1992. Similarly, the book by Thomas A. Tweed entitled Our Lady of the Exile: Diasporic Religion at a Cuban Catholic Shrine in Miami , 1997 exploited a Catholic angle.

[5] Andrea O'Reilly Herrera, ed. Cuba: Idea of a Nation Displaced, State University of New York Press, 2007.

[6] Ronnie Armstead, “Las Krudas, Spatial Practice and the Performance of Diaspora,” Meridian, April 2008.



[9]  Cuba Research Institute, The Cuban Diaspora in the 21st Century, Florida International University, 2011.

[10] Diana Fulger, “The Colors of the Cuban Diaspora: Portrayal of Racial Dynamics among Cuban Americans,” Forum for Inter-American Research, August 2012.

[11] Emilio Ichikawa, “La idea del tiempo opositor,” emilioichikawa Blog, January 21, 2013. His statement is:  “- los cubanos no son judíos -todas las analogías a este respecto son amañadas- ni tienen Torá ni plegaria para instruirse en la conmemoración para desencantar el futuro.”

Nelson P Valdés is Emeritus Professor of Sociology