From 1965-1974, the United States and Cuban governments administered the Vuelos de la Libertad or Freedom Flights. The two governments jointly determined who would migrate and, as a result, emigration during this period was coordinated, orderly, and focused on family networks. The immediate family of exiles already in the United States received priority.
Certain categories of Cubans — young men of military service age, professionals, and technical and skilled workers — were not permitted to leave the country.
Unlike preceding flows which consisted of upper and upper-middle class Cubans, this wave of emigrants was largely working class and “petite bourgeoisie” — employees, independent craftsmen, small merchants, and semi-skilled workers.
Only 12% of this second wave of migrants were professionals or managers as compared to 31% of migrants leaving Cuba in the early 1960s. In fact, 57% of the arrivals in the United States were blue-collar, service, or agricultural workers.
The thousands of Cubans anxious to leave their homes and start a new life were an indication that, by this time, large sectors of the middle class had discovered that they lacked the effective political institutions, ideology, and experience with which to defend their interests.
As Castro veered leftward, growing numbers were willing to uproot their families.
Yet while the Cuban exodus was organized and concerted with planes leaving daily from Varadero to Miami, it was not an easy process for prospective emigrants. Life became quite difficult for those who had declared their intention to leave. Individuals lost their jobs, were ostracized as enemies, and were forced to do hard labor in agriculture.
The case of one individual is illustrative. He states that he applied to leave Cuba in 1962, but was not allowed to leave until 1966, by which time he was suffering from malnutrition, diabetes, and high blood pressure as a consequence of his decision to leave:
We had applied for an exit permit. This meant that I would lose my job at the newspaper. We had planned for a few months of unemployment. It was unavoidable . . . Then, slam . . . The door closed and I was inside. Unemployed. We finally left in 1966. Can you imagine that? Four years knocking around doing “volunteer work” on weekends in order to get the food allowance. We lost our belongings. Everything we owned was sold or traded for food. We ended up living with my friend Jacobo who took us in at great risk. I lost eighty pounds in those four years.
Despite continuing difficulty, however, migrants continued to seek exile. In fact, 41% of all Cubans who migrated to the United States after the revolution left the island during the years of the airbridge.
Emigration served the purposes of both Cuba and the United States. From Castro’s perspective, the exodus served the positive function of externalizing dissent. And for the United States, the ‘open door’ policy of welcoming refugees from communism served to legitimize Cold War foreign policy.
In the end, emigration of dissenters served to further consolidate the revolution. Now Castro’s most important challenge was to work out the ground rules for Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union.
Castro’s relations with the Soviets were often stormy for, despite its dependence on the USSR, Cuba was not a complaisant satellite.
In the mid 1960s, Castro balked at siding with the USSR in the Sino-Soviet dispute for leadership of the world communist movement.
In 1968, the Soviets were forced to withhold petroleum shipments to win Castro’s approval of their invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Castro was contemptuous of the communist parties that Moscow sustained in Latin America, perceiving that many Latin American communists were timid middle-aged intellectuals who had no interest in making revolution.
The Cubans argued that the policies of their revolutionary government were unique, and not patterned on Soviet policy.
The Cubans argued that they were driven to adopt socialist structures by the logic of their own indigenous reform agenda, especially the requirements of the Agrarian Reform Law. They further argued that Cuban leadership employed socialist mechanisms early, not in reaction to hostility from the US, but as a response to national economic needs. Of course, these economic needs were, in part, a function of the US trade embargo.
Those sympathetic to Cuban nationalism have argued that:
. . . the Cuban embrace of Marxism-Leninism, no less than the decision to ally the island with the Soviet bloc, was a different kind of strategy, and must be seen as a function of North American policy. Faced with the threat of extinction from a vastly superior adversary, Cuban leaders took the steps necessary to guarantee their survival.
Photgraph by Photograph by Gideon