A Short Reflection on Cuban and American Mobility

Camila Ruiz Segovia

When thinking about the cultural and human exchanges between Cubans and Americans, who have challenged and continue to challenge the political divide between these two nations, it is difficult to overlook the barriers that impede such exchanges in the first place. This history has been characterized by governmental efforts to divide nations and the people who inhabit them, but these are questions that also define the time in which we are living. Although the right to freedom of movement is, in theory, universal, we know that in practice it is restricted by nation-state policies and by hierarchies of global power. Not all of us have the freedom to move. In the particular context of contemporary relations between Cuba and the United States, the balance of power generally favors American citizens who, unlike their Cuban counterparts, enjoy more economic means and fewer legal restrictions to move freely in the world. In Cuba, the inability to move goes beyond the restrictions imposed by the Cuban government, and is reflective of the economic and power inequalities that exist between the island and the United States. Given these inequalities, it is important to recognize that encounters - cultural and human exchanges - often occur unilaterally.

While some policies have restricted Cubans’ mobility worldwide, other have enabled it. Of great relevance to the relationship between Cuba and the United States is the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, which afforded Cubans fleeing the island the opportunity to legally reside in, and eventually become citizens of, the United States. A 1995 revision to this law, known as the “Wet foot, dry foot” policy, altered this somewhat, with those privileges extended only to Cubans who made it to U.S. shores (as opposed to those who were intercepted at sea). In January 2017, former President Barack Obama ended the “Wet foot, dry foot” policy, dramatically altering the legal terms through which Cubans can enter the United States. For the first time since the Cuban Revolution, Cubans who fled the island “illegally” would no longer enjoy their relative privilege as recognized migrants and refugees in the United States. Instead, they may well become part of the undocumented migrant community, joining the estimated 11 million people who currently live in the United States without state recognition and who predominantly come from Latin America and the Caribbean.

In light of this recent political development, the editors of "Beyond the Sugar Curtain" acknowledge the urgency to reflect on the right and ability of Cuban and American citizens to move across time and spaces. For the second edition of this project, the theme of "mobility" serves as an axis to reflect on the freedom of movement of actors in Cuba and the United States, both in the past and the contemporary era. We define mobility broadly, focusing on legal, political, and economic issues. Taking into account that individuals from other countries also reside in these nations, we have included pieces that reflect on mobility rights and experiences of immigrant communities in Cuba and the United States. We hope that, by reading this collection of texts, the reader will be able to give a human face to those whose lives have been affected by conditions that go beyond their will and political power.