As we have seen in our post on Cold War Cuba: Middle Class Flight, emigration affected Havana in very personal ways.
For example, a woman’s access to abortion after 1959 was limited because almost all obstetricians and gynecologists were among the doctors who fled the country. Many women resorted to self-induced abortions and the maternal death rate increased dramatically.
Approximately half of all teachers emigrated.
Education was further disrupted when private schools were nationalized and 2,700 nuns who had taught young women of the upper and middle classes left the island.
Families were torn apart when, in many cases, men or children fled, hoping to be reunited with their families at a later date. Other families were deeply split on ideological and political grounds.
Middle-class flight between 1959 and 1963 was in part spontaneous, in part state sponsored.
For the Cuban government, emigration was a relatively cost-effective means through which to eliminate vast sectors of the opposition, and the government facilitated their departure.
The Eisenhower administration welcomed refugees from Cuba in order to further US political objectives against the revolution. The administration had two goals:
- First, to destabilize Castro’s government by draining it of vital human resources
- Second, “to discredit the regime by encouraging the flight of thousands from a ‘Communist’ to a ‘free’ country.”
A major project was the Cuban Children’s Program. Donald P. Baker, writing in The Washington Post, called this “a scheme to rescue Cuban children supposedly escaping Communist indoctrination.”
Over a period of twenty months, 14,000 Cuban children between ages six and eighteen were brought to Florida.
Emigration did, indeed, amount to the exportation of counter-revolution. As such, it foreclosed any possibility of a sustained and extensive internal challenge to the regime.The flight of the opposition served to strengthen the revolutionary consensus within the island.
Castro pronounced the benefits of the exodus saying:
If some more want to go to Miami, let them go to Miami! Each time that a boatload of parasites leaves — whether for Spain or for Miami — the Republic comes out ahead. What do you lose, working men and women? What do you lose, men and women who live in slums, who live in shacks, who live in the poor sections of town? What do you lose when a parasite leaves? One less beefsteak eater, one less driver of a fancy car, one drinker less . . . and if he has a good apartment, that apartment will go to a working family that has lots of children.
At the same time that much of the opposition was fleeing the island, the government took action at home against anyone suspected of opposition to the regime, including priests, foreigners, and ordinary men and women, in and out of government. Virtually no suspected opponent of the government remained free.
Counter revolutionaries as well as gays, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other unfortunates who did not fit the revolutionary profile were imprisoned with minimal recourse to legal procedures.
Individuals caught fleeing the island in rafts or boats were imprisoned.
No one knew the exact number of political prisoners, but it was widely assumed that in the 1960s it was in the tens of thousands. Louis Perez argues that by the end of April 1961, an estimated 100,000 persons were imprisoned or otherwise detained.
future organized opposition to the revolution developed outside of Cuba, largely in the United States. Almost entirely dependent on funding and support from the Central Intelligence Agency, Cuban exiles became instruments of North American policy without the means of organizing into a genuine opposition force, unable to articulate autonomous strategies, and incapable of developing objectives independent of US policy needs.
Photograph by Lisa Reynolds Wolfe.