On January 25, Trump signed an executive order denying federal funding to Sanctuary Cities. The very next day, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez ordered county officials to comply. While Miami was never officially considered a Sanctuary City, the move sent waves of shock and disbelief across the country. How could an elected official who is an immigrant himself be the first to comply with such aggressively anti-immigrant policy?
“In light of the provisions of the Executive Order,” Giménez wrote to city officials, “I direct you and your staff to honor all immigration detainer requests received from the Department of Homeland Security.”
In a country where Latinos are largely marginalized, reading news like this about someone with the last name “Giménez” creates a certain cognitive dissonance. While it may seem baffling, Giménez’s decision is not surprising at all considering the skewed political context he emerges from.
I was born and raised in Miami and am the daughter of Cuban immigrants. Growing up, I remember feeling constantly disappointed and demoralized by the politics of my family members. The dogmatic conservatism of some relatives (confusingly, even Brown people from working class backgrounds), the complete disengagement from civic life among privileged liberal family members of European descent, and the pervasive reproduction of racism, sexism, and classism from both.
I grew up hearing a very one-dimensional story about why my family, and many other Cuban families, came to the United States. “We came here to escape the evils of Communism and the dictatorship of Fidel Castro. We lost everything, but look at us now.” This story comes packaged with a romanticized image of Cuba before the Revolution, a beautiful flourishing paradise that was destroyed by Fidel Castro. Miami Cubans often claim with pride that they have recreated the glory of pre-Revolutionary Cuba in Miami.
Yet Miami is one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States, with the highest rate of income inequality, where the oppressive weight of patriarchy hangs heavier than the humidity in the air, and global elites park their taxable assets in empty condominiums. What is so glorious about that?
In addition to the delicious Cuban coffee and rich cuisine I grew up loving, Cuban Americans have also recreated some of Cuba’s worst social problems in Miami. To understand how this happened, it is necessary to look beyond Miami’s prevailing one-dimensional stories and engage with more complex histories about Cuba and Cuban Americans.
Throughout the 19th century, Cuba struggled to achieve economic and political autonomy, first fighting to declare independence from Spain only to become occupied and controlled by the United States. As a result, Cuba experienced frequent periods of economic collapse, instability, and violence, while colonial dynamics of racism and patriarchy persisted. It was in this context that Fulgencio Batista emerged as the ruthless, corrupt dictator who was the primary catalyst of the Cuban Revolution. Batista was a military leader who unofficially controlled Cuba for several years before becoming its president. In his early days as president, Batista passed progressive reforms consistent with the island’s foundational struggles for liberation. He later sided with U.S. interests and staged a coup once it became clear he stood no chance at maintaining power by popular vote. In this period, Cuba was a playground for the American Mafia and was plagued by incredible inequality, felt most acutely by women and people of color.
In the initial years of the Cuban Revolution, a broad progressive coalition representing many interests united under the shared goal of ousting Batista. It wasn’t until after the revolution won in 1959 that Fidel Castro publicly declared himself a Communist and introduced plans for redistributing wealth on the island, being influenced by Che Guevara and his brother Raúl Castro during their years of guerrilla struggle. This move was met with popular support from many disenfranchised Cubans and resistance from Cuban elites. During this time, members of Cuba’s economic and political elite started relocating to Miami. These were affluent people, business owners, landowners, and other people of means who were threatened by the Cuban Revolution’s radical redistribution of wealth and power. Among this group were also supporters of Fulgencio Batista.
This historical context is important when it comes to considering the role that many Cuban Americans have played in shaping Miami’s political landscape. While most Cubans lacked access to basic needs like education and healthcare prior to the revolution, the Cubans who migrated to Miami early on largely benefitted from the social inequalities of the time, and in some cases from outright corruption.
Although there is plenty of room to critique the Cuban Revolution despite its many achievements, the perspectives that inform those critiques matter. In Cuba, groups like the Critical Observatory are challenging the revolution to live up to its promise by decentralizing decision-making power on the island, coming to terms with colonial dynamics that have survived in the revolutionary government, and making changes that will improve the lives of everyday Cuban people. In Miami, however, critiques from Cuban Americans tend to center around narratives of personal injury and vague concerns for “democracy,” a narrative that is unravelling with acceptance and support of Trump’s authoritarianism. Whether conservative or liberal, Cuban American politics are largely defined by a lack of concern or action for social justice. Instead, the notion of “freedom” that seems to unite many Miami Cubans boils down to valuing the ability to become wealthy and powerful (again).
Of course, Cubans are not the only group in Miami, or even the majority. There has been a sizable Black American population in Miami since its early days, which now makes up about 17% of the population. About 34% of Miami residents are of Cuban descent, another 30% are of other Latin American origin, and just 16% are white American.
Despite making up only 34% of Miami’s population, Cubans represent the largest single ethnic group in the city and became key influencers of Miami politics after the mass departure of white Americans starting in the 1960s. Miami is also a relatively young city, with much of its population and economic growth occurring in the last 100 years. And so Cubans, being largely unified in their political goals for the last six decades, have played a significant role in shaping conditions in Miami today.
All of these dynamics set the stage for what happened on January 26. Mayor Carlos Giménez, a Cuban Republican whose family relocated to the United States in 1960 (the year following the Cuban Revolution), commanded city officials to obey Trump’s executive order. Rather than expressing any concern for immigrants and refugees who are facing increased threats and intimidation in the current political atmosphere, Giménez justified his decision as a cold economic calculation. “I want to make sure we don’t put in jeopardy the millions of funds we get from the federal government for a $52,000 issue,” he said, referring to what it would have cost to keep 100 individuals wanted by the federal government in jail last year. Then, despite public outrage from many of Miami’s residents, Miami-Dade commissioners voted to uphold Giménez’s decision 9-3 on February 17. The “yes” votes included six Cuban Republicans, five who present as white, five who are men, and two who participated in the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion.
Although right-wing Cuban Americans continue to dominate Miami politics for the time being, there are signs that this may not continue to be the case, one factor being divisions that have emerged in Miami’s Cuban community over time.
During the “Special Period” of the 1990s, Cuba experienced a severe economic depression following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main trade partner and international ally. Virtually isolated from the global economy due to the U.S. embargo against Cuba (which many Miami Cubans supported), large numbers of Cuban people fled to Miami to escape the desperate conditions on the island. Unsurprisingly, these newer waves of immigrants were more racially diverse, with more Cubans of African and mixed descent compared to Miami’s largely European-descended population, and did not share the same politics of many Cubans who migrated earlier on. Meanwhile, younger generations of Cuban-Americans (like me), who were born in Miami and grew up amid its contradictions, have matured into a voting bloc that is decisively more progressive compared to previous generations.
At the same time, organized resistance from Black, Brown, undocumented, queer people and women of many ethnic backgrounds in Miami is increasing. Groups like the Dream Defenders, Black Lives Matter Alliance Broward, Cosecha Homestead, Power U, the Miami Worker’s Center and the Miami Climate Alliance, many of which include Cuban leaders, are fighting to disrupt historical power relations.
Time will tell if the balance of power will shift in Miami, and I hope it does, because the consequences of allowing hard-line conservatives and corporate-friendly liberals to set the political agenda will have increasingly dire consequences. In addition to immediate threats that the Trump administration poses to the city’s large undocumented population, which now includes many Cubans with the end of the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy, groups that are already vulnerable in Miami stand to face further crises and displacement as local effects of climate change increasingly impact South Florida.
Although Miami’s political history is unique in many respects, it has lessons that ring true for many places in the United States. It is a case study in how a well-organized political elite can influence the broader political landscape against the interests of the majority. It is a cautionary tale about the assimilation of privileged minority groups with problematic politics into dominant U.S. institutions. And it is a reminder that our best hope against the Trump administration and the major crises of our time is organized resistance from a diverse coalition of groups fighting for a just and equitable future. Whether in Miami, Pittsburgh or another city it is time to come to terms with our flawed histories, build solidarity across difference, and take control of our future before it is stolen from us for good.