Cuban Immigration: A Nation in Search of a State

A Nation in Search of a State is the title of a brilliant book by Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat that captures the plight of the seemingly unending waves of Cuban immigration. Although in everyday practice the words “nation” and “state” tend to be used as synonyms, they represent different notions. A state is a geopolitical unit; a nation is a cultural and ethnic group.

The concept of a nation-state infers that its population shares a common language, history, culture, and thus constitutes a nation. A legitimate nation-state relies on its geopolitical unit — the state — to promote national unity in economic and cultural life. These concepts can abet our understanding of the Cuban immigration phenomenon and its relationship to the Castro-state and the Cuban-American community.

Since the Cuban revolution in 1959, approximately 20 percent of the Cuban population has fled the Cuban state, and the immigration trend has accelerated in recent years, overwhelmingly to the United States. This fact alone should serve to question the legitimacy of a regime that has promoted, not the unity, but the separation of the Cuban nation. The Castro-state has not been designed to attend the well-being of the Cuban citizenry, and the Cuban nation has expressed its political preferences voting the only way it can, by leaving.

Legitimate nation-states shape the state from the nation. Castroism has sought to shape the nation from the state. A legitimate nation-state speaks on behalf its citizenry and seeks to protect them anywhere in the world independently of their political views. But since its inception, the Castro-state has done just the opposite. It has sought to stigmatize those leaving the island as no longer being part of the Cuban nation.

This brings us to the current plight of Cuban nationals seeking to leave the Castro-state. Imagine for a moment thousands of US citizens stranded and mistreated in a foreign country as they, escaping perhaps from a great depression in the United States, attempted to make their way towards their perceived utopia.

Would the US government seek to protect them, or would they be discarded as undesirable political enemies? The latter is what the Cuban regime has done with Cuban nationals for over 50 years.

A legitimate nation-state defends its nationals without regard for their political affiliations. This understanding informs the historic Cuban American exile community as it speaks on behalf of new Cuban immigrants that they think “are not like us.”

But a nation is a changing idea. A nation is always in the process of reevaluating its constituent elements. Each generation will affirm some, and discard others. And so it is with the new immigrants.

Those leaving the island today may appear more like economic immigrants than political exiles, but this is a blurred distinction when applied to those leaving a totalitarian state that exerts engulfing control over both political and economic matters.

Many, it can be assumed, were at one time supporters of the Castro regime. Some may even retain selected affinity for the statism under which they grew up. Nonetheless, they are part of the Cuban nation.

For the Cuban immigrants of today — in fact, for most Cubans on the island — the Cuban-American community is their symbolic state, and their concrete economic state. Cuban immigrants are a nation repudiated by the Castro-state, but always embraced without an ideological litmus test by the historic exile community, albeit sometimes with reservations.

Cuban Americans have made the United States their de jure nation state, while becoming themselves the de facto state for the Cuban nation.

With this comes the citizen’s responsibility to articulate that abuses to US law and generosity must be vigorously condemned and criminal activity prosecuted. And yes, laws and regulations may need to be modified to fit the new reality of the Cuban nation as it continues to flee the Castro-state.

Cubans in exile are best understood as a nation without a state, as an exclave that remains spiritually attached to Cuba. It is a nation that, with the passing of time, becomes more ideologically committed to individual freedoms. And so it will be with the latest immigrants, because nationhood is not a place, and the two fundamental mainstays of nationhood are nostalgia and solidarity.

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