The year 2016 has brought transformation and instability to nearly every corner of the globe, and the Caribbean islands have been no exception. This year, the Obama administration has made significant headway towards the reestablishment of diplomatic and commercial ties between the United States and Cuba, bringing an end to over 50 years of antagonisms. Though this development has generated optimism about the Caribbean’s economic and political future, it has been counterbalanced by the worsening debt crisis in Puerto Rico and the US federal government’s lukewarm attitude towards intervention on Puerto Rico’s behalf.
As each island’s population grapples with the consequences of decades of exploitative, post-colonial policies, bloated governments fraught with corruption, and an inability to spur healthy economic development at home, thousands of Puerto Ricans and Cubans are being forced to make a choice: will they remain in their homeland and continue to hope for a better future, or emigrate to the United States and actively pursue one? A great many Cubans and Puerto Ricans have ultimately decided on the latter course of action, and the result has been the onset of some of the highest emigration rates in each nation’s history.
The economic and political consequences of this exodus are profound. As all of those wealthy and educated enough to make a living in the United States—including doctors, lawyers, academics, and entrepreneurs, among countless others—move to the United States, where can those remaining look for the knowledge, leadership, and innovation necessary to rebuild their societies? An additional question surfaces in the wake of this mass migration: how will large-scale emigration of Puerto Ricans and Cubans from their homelands shape the cultural identity of these populations, both in the Caribbean and stateside?
Every immigrant community is forced to balance its desire to maintain cultural traditions from the homeland with the need to integrate into a host country. For Puerto Rican and Cuban communities in the United States, the pull homeward is almost impossible to ignore, given how close their homelands are to the regions of the US in which they live. While distance may pressure immigrants from other countries to readily embrace assimilation, Puerto Ricans and Cubans are constantly faced with the reminder of what they have left behind.
The term “diaspora” is most often linked to the Jewish or Armenian diasporas, as the histories of these groups best fit our typical conception of the phenomenon. Columbia University’s own William Safran, a prominent scholar in this field, has gone so far as to posit a set of conditions that must be met in order for a population to be considered in diaspora. Among these are the obvious—physical dispersal from a homeland—as well as more subtle attributes, such as refusal to assimilate with the “host” country, idealization of the homeland, and the hope of eventual return.
While Safran’s definition cannot be viewed as absolute, it does provide a useful benchmark for evaluating the diasporic characteristics of a community. According to this point of reference, both the Puerto Rican and Cuban communities in the United States are populations in diaspora. Each population has taken on diasporic characteristics in different ways—economic, social, political, and even geographic factors have influenced the ways in which Puerto Ricans and Cubans relate to their places of origin, as well as to the United States.
While differing circumstances have compelled each population to leave their home for the United States, the root causes are strikingly similar and grounded in centuries of colonialist policy. Immigration to the United States from Puerto Rico has been frequent since the island first came under US rule after the Spanish-American War in 1898. Puerto Rico’s territorial status allows its residents to move to any other US territory without a visa or passport, which makes life in the United States fairly accessible for Puerto Ricans seeking greater economic or educational opportunities. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the island’s underdeveloped economy and widespread political strife over the issue of Puerto Rican independence compelled citizens to emigrate en masse.
Not until the implementation of Section 936 of the United States Tax Code, which afforded a tax exemption to all profits originating in the United States territories (as opposed to those originating in the states), was the Puerto Rican economy robust enough to provide jobs and stable incomes to a majority of its citizens. But the victory was short-lived; the Puerto Rican manufacturing industry was almost entirely dependent on a section of the tax code that was deeply unpopular, as citizens stateside considered it a way for big corporations to cheat on their taxes. In 2006, the boom came crashing down when Section 936 was repealed. Puerto Rico has been suffering a severe economic recession ever since, and the economy continues to shrink each year. Consequently, emigration is on the rise and has only increased more dramatically since the Puerto Rican government defaulted on its debt payments in 2015. Thus, the expansion of the Puerto Rican diaspora due to high emigration rates can be directly linked to the US federal government’s actions in relation to the island’s resources and citizens.
The history of Cuban immigration to the United States is markedly different from that of Puerto Rico but has notable commonalities, particularly with regards to the United States’ role in driving emigration. While Cuba was officially granted independence after the Spanish-American War, the Platt Amendment of 1901 effectively rendered the country subject to US rule. For 60 years, the United States used Cuban land and resources for the sugarcane industry and reaped enormous profits.
A series of corrupt US-backed leaders headed the government until 1959, when the Communist Revolution, led by Fidel Castro, resulted in the rapid deterioration of diplomatic relations between the two nations. The nationalization of industry that accompanied the revolution alienated U.S. businesses, and the US government responded by imposing a series of harsh sanctions that prohibited almost all US economic activity in the country.
Cuba’s economy was largely reliant on the US sugar industry and, as a result, collapsed following the implementation of US sanctions. Limited numbers of political and economic refugees were able to move to the United States in subsequent years to avoid the political unrest and economic turmoil, and some were granted US residency through an immigration program referred to as the “Cuban Lottery”. The origin story of the Cuban diaspora echoes that of Puerto Rico. Economic policy and aggressive political intervention from the US federal government contributed to the destruction of the Cuban economy and motivated thousands of Cuban citizens to leave their homeland behind in hope of a more stable life in the United States.
In discussions of Puerto Rican assimilation into United States culture, it’s important first to address the complex relationship between the two places. Officially, Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States, and all Puerto Ricans are born with US citizenship and the right to move freely within all US territories. Puerto Rican culture, however, is thoroughly distinct from that of the continental United States, and includes strong Spanish, African, and Taíno influences not present in America. Thus, while we cannot refer to Puerto Rico as a homeland and the United States as a host country from a political perspective, the two regions are differentiated from each other culturally.
Puerto Ricans have carried that distinct culture to the United States, establishing enclaves in New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago, and countless other cities that retain the practices and values of life in Puerto Rico. “Nuyorican” communities in Brooklyn, the South Bronx, the Lower East Side, and Spanish Harlem in New York City generally speak the same language, eat the same food, maintain the same religious practices, and participate in the same recreational activities as they would in Puerto Rico. While these communities have inevitably adopted some American customs, on the whole, they seek to transplant the practices they left behind to their host country and resist total assimilation into the culture of the United States.
Cuban immigrants in the United States are far more likely to actively assimilate into American culture. Cubans living in the US have higher average incomes, are more educated, and are more comfortable speaking English than other Hispanic groups in the US. Notably, the Cuban American population is in general far more politically conservative than other Hispanic and Latino populations in the US. Cubans are often staunch supporters of business enterprise, capitalism, and the free market—economic notions that are much more welcome in the United States than they are in communist Cuba. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2002, 64 percent of those Cubans registered to vote identified as Republicans, compared to 22 percent who identified as Democrats. While there has been a shift towards the national average—by 2013, only 47 percent identified as Republican and 43 percent as Democrat—Cubans still stand far to the right of other Hispanic groups.
The differing degree of assimilation among Puerto Ricans and Cubans in the US can largely be attributed to the environment from which each population hails. The Cuban desire to assimilate likely stems from the fact that most Cubans left the island under extreme political or economic duress of the Castro regime. Those who chose to leave are those whom the political and economic structure of communism did not favor. It is no surprise, then, that they do not idealize their homeland or make efforts to maintain their connection with Cuba, as other diasporic populations often do.
Cuba’s proximity to the United States renders the idealization of Cuba even less likely. Because Cuba is so close to Florida, where a majority of Cuban immigrants reside, it does not take on the symbolic status of a mystical “land of milk and honey” for those who have emigrated. Given that many of these immigrants have also arrived fairly recently, the painful experiences endured in Cuba are too fresh in their memory to allow a common mythology about their homeland to develop.
Puerto Ricans living in the US, in contrast, feel some ambivalence but little animosity towards their homeland. Many understand that the US federal government is culpable for much of the political and economic strife on the island and, consequently, do not feel the need to distance themselves from the local government in Puerto Rico. Furthermore, Puerto Rico is geographically far from the region in which Puerto Rican immigrants typically live: the Northeast. As such, Puerto Ricans living in the US tend to romanticize life in Puerto Rico. For many, return is impossible, and thus the homeland becomes la isla de encanto, a romantic myth in the Puerto Rican-American imagination.
As diplomatic relations with Cuba are restored and economic sanctions eased, the desire to return to the homeland has begun to gain traction among Cubans in the US, though it remains remote for their Puerto Rican counterparts. The prospect of return, once scorned by those who felt let down by their own government, has become newly attractive to a second generation of Cuban immigrants who have no first-hand experience of life in Cuba. The desire to return is grounded in the improving economic and social conditions, rather than an idealization of the homeland. Under Raúl Castro, the government has begun to incorporate elements of 21st century capitalism into Cuba’s communist society. As the private sector grows and human rights violations begin to wane, many Cubans who emigrated with no intent of returning have begun to reconsider. Return to Cuba appears to be an increasingly viable course of action.
Puerto Ricans, however, are unlikely to entertain ideas of returning while the island remains in a state of economic turmoil. The reasons for this are clear: Puerto Ricans in the United States have established communities that wed the practices, beliefs, and values of Puerto Rican culture with those of American culture. To be a part of a Puerto Rican community in New York or Chicago is not the same as being part of a Puerto Rican community on the island. For many, the connection they feel to the hybrid cultures they have formed in the US is stronger than the affinity they feel for the island.
Additionally, while enterprise and investment are on the rise in Cuba, Puerto Rico’s economy has a long way to go to rebound from recession. The PROMESA Act—which enacted austerity measures to curb government spending and authorized the creation of a board to oversee the country’s debt restructuring—is a sign that progress may be on the horizon. At the same time, many argue that placing the future of the island in the hands of the US Congress (in which Puerto Rico has no representation) and an executively appointed board (which may be more sympathetic to bondholders’ interests than to those of the Puerto Rican people) will only further propagate the same neocolonialist practices that engendered the debt crisis. As long as Puerto Rico’s economic fate remains ambiguous, most stateside Puerto Ricans will likely stay put.
In some ways, the distance between Puerto Ricans and Cubans in the US and those in the Caribbean has become so pronounced that full reconciliation between the two communities seems impossible. Yet recent political and economic developments may turn the tide for the two diasporas. In Cuba, it appears that time has healed wounds. As the years have passed, the proportion of US-born, relative to foreign-born, Cubans has grown, giving rise to a generation of Cuban-Americans whose relationship with the nation is much less strained than that of their parents and grandparents. This generation is bearing witness to the reestablishment of diplomatic ties with Cuba, and the abolition of economic sanctions may follow. As Cuba begins to look outwards for the first time in decades, economic development and a gradually de-radicalizing government may lead many Cubans to return home.
The path for Puerto Ricans is less clear. The PROMESA Act is intended to provide a lasting solution to the island’s economic woes, but skeptics have called it a “band-aid on a bullet hole.” Austerity measures have historically had mixed effectiveness, and there is no strong evidence that they can provide long-term solutions to the issues Puerto Rico is facing. The Act also includes other stipulations to spur economic activity among businesses that come at a huge cost to Puerto Rican people, such as lowering the minimum wage to as little as $4.25 for some workers.
With regards to its political status, Puerto Rico is in a catch-22: neither statehood nor independence is likely for the foreseeable future because of the crumbling Puerto Rican economy, yet its current commonwealth status ensures the island will be unable to find an effective solution to its economic woes. Forced dependence on the United States, borne of restrictive trade, has crippled the island’s economy, and a lack of representation in Congress leaves Puerto Rico unable to enact policy that can develop the diverse and healthy economy it so desperately needs. Time will tell whether the PROMESA Act can make good on its promesa to the Puerto Rican people, but, for now, it seems that the Puerto Rican diaspora will only continue to grow.
Despite the tragedy inherent in the fragmentation of these cultures, there remains a ray of hope. Puerto Rican and Cuban communities in the United States have had access to educational and professional opportunities that would not have been afforded to them had they remained in their homelands. This generation of educated, empowered Caribbeans can use their station to advocate on behalf of those who were not able to make the journey to the United States. They can work to ensure that, one day, the education, stability, freedom, and opportunity available to them in the United States will be available to every Cuban and Puerto Rican, regardless of where they have made their home.