Twenty-three winters ago, Miami’s Cuban American community was in a frenzy over Elián González, a six-year-old boy who was miraculously found alive in the waters off Fort Lauderdale strapped to an inner tube on Thanksgiving Day, 1999. The Cuban boy’s mother, Elizabet Brotons Rodríguez, had fled Cuba with him in tow but drowned at sea before reaching American shores. An international tug of war followed, pitting the boy’s biological father living in Cuba versus one of Elián’s Miami-based uncles and his family. Fidel Castro firmly backed the claims of Juan Miguel González, who had never sanctioned the escape attempt and wanted his son back. Given South Florida’s zealous anti-Castro exile community, it’s no wonder that Cuban American politicians and media personalities lined up behind Lázaro González’s bid to keep the boy in Miami at a time when the Cold War had ended. However, Fidel was still very much alive, and any rapprochement feelers put out by Bill Clinton’s administration had gone nowhere.
The real-life telenovela was consuming not only South Florida but also the nation. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News had found a story they couldn’t ignore throughout the first 100 days of 2000, nor could that year’s crop of presidential candidates, including Republican front-runner George W. Bush, the Texas governor and brother of Florida Governor Jeb Bush. (The two would have other business in the Sunshine State later in 2000.)
The media circus only ended when heavily armed U.S. marshals stormed Lázaro González’s house in April and whisked away Elián to return him to Cuban authorities. Attorney General Janet Reno was adamant that American and international law required the boy’s return despite the exceptional measures granted to Cuban migrants since Castro had come to power during Dwight Eisenhower’s administration. By the end of June 2000, the boy was back home with his dad and relatives in the city of Cardenas, Cuba—seven months and one week after he left the island with Brotons and her boyfriend, who also perished at sea.
The outcome left a bitter taste in the mouths of Miami’s Cuban Americans. Months later, they punished the lame-duck Clinton administration by voting overwhelmingly for George W. Bush over Vice President Al Gore.
More than two decades later, Elián is a 29-year-old technician working for a state-run company on the island. In recent weeks, however, the emotional and psychological scars from 2000 have been reopened by a new book on U.S. immigration policy. Authored by Susan Eva Eckstein, a Boston University sociologist specializing in Cuban affairs, Cuban Privilege: The Making of Immigrant Inequality in America rests on the argument that Cubans have historically “enjoyed rights to work, they were spared the risk of deportation, and they qualified for the most generous set of benefits the United States had ever offered immigrants or refugees.”
Eckstein documents how Republican and Democratic administrations lavished unprecedented entitlements, benefits, and exemptions from U.S. immigration rules and regulations on the Cuban American diaspora in South Florida and elsewhere, for reasons relating to domestic politics and foreign policy. Cuban Privilege was six years in the making, the scholar said earlier this month. The 342-page manuscript is studded with 1,092 footnotes.
Cuban Privilege is Eckstein’s third book on the island nation. The professor fully expected it to receive the usual amount of attention from academics, journalists, and editors of peer review journals focusing on sociological topics. After the volume was issued in October, she appeared at low-key book presentation events at Harvard, Brown, Boston University, and the University of California, San Diego. Her last event of 2022 was scheduled for the Miami-based Books and Books chain on December 9. The Cuban Research Institute (CRI) of Miami’s Florida International University (FIU) agreed to sponsor the talk.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, the proverbial excrement hit the fan.
On November 28, a newly elected member of the Miami-Dade County Commission named Kevin Cabrera tweeted that “it is shocking that @FIU’s Cuban Research Institute would welcome such hate-filled, inflammatory, anti-Cuban rhetoric to Miami-Dade County, home to the largest Cuban diaspora and the global capital of Cuban-American exiles.” Attached to the tweet was a scathing press release that blasted “one of our public universities” for giving “credence to those repeating the Castro regime’s talking points.”
Never mind that the 32-year-old Cabrera hadn’t formally taken office and hadn’t read the book or any of Eckstein’s other books about Cuba. (Cabrera now says he’s read portions of Cuban Privilege.) Within hours of the tweet, Miami’s right-wing Spanish-language AM radio stations were buzzing with calls from outraged listeners. An organization calling itself the Cuban-American Republicans of Florida slammed FIU President Kenneth Jessell for “going out of his way to accommodate a bigoted professor who wants to peddle hate” and demanded a public apology from the university. A local influencer, Alexander Otaola, used his podcast to compare Eckstein’s appearance at the Miami bookstore to the screening of a pro-Nazi film in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood and asked Cabrera whether the county government could punish FIU by withholding funds. (The commissioner-elect told Otaola the university actually receives its financial assistance from the state government in Tallahassee.)
Blindsided, FIU officials began damage control mode even as demand for tickets to see Eckstein spiked, forcing the Cuban Research Institute to move the book presentation event to a 300-seat auditorium on the FIU campus. To mollify Cuban American politicians and media personalities, Jorge Duany, the institute’s director, invited a Miami-based human rights activist named Orlando Gutiérrez-Boronat to share the stage with Eckstein as a “discussant” of the book.
On the appointed evening, a gaggle of about 20 Trump supporters gathered behind a police barricade opposite the entrance to an FIU center for the performing arts to protest her presence. Inside the venue, the mood was tense. During the initial 15 minutes, Eckstein sketched out the main themes and findings of the book with the aid of PowerPoint slides before yielding the microphone to Gutiérrez-Boronat, a Havana-born author and the cofounder of the Miami-based Cuban Democratic Directorate nongovernmental organization.
The critique Gutiérrez-Boronat delivered that evening never directly addressed Eckstein’s central thesis about the privileged status enjoyed by Cuban exiles and immigrants for 63 years. Instead, he took the author to task for devoting insufficient space to the Havana regime’s appalling human rights record and the totalitarian nature of its governance, among its other abuses. Gutiérrez-Boronat described the social science of the book—which he had read cover to cover—as “deficient,” and he accused Eckstein of harboring an “ideological bias” in favor of the regime.
The ambiance evoked comparisons with the overheated political climate that suffused the Elián González melodrama at its worst. Each salvo launched against the visiting professor was greeted with raucous applause and loud whooping more reminiscent of a Miami Dolphins home game than a sober review of an academic study’s strengths and weaknesses. Eckstein was never given a chance to refute Gutiérrez-Boronat’s comments. In his role as moderator, Duany, the CRI director, instead opened the floor for questions from members of the audience, some of whom unleashed personal attacks against the professor.
By her own admission, the entire episode has left Eckstein utterly flabbergasted. “I have noticed throughout this controversy that if I report something, it is assumed to be my opinion,” she told me. “This is incorrect. I am a scholar; I report information irrespective of my personal beliefs.”
And not all of Miami’s Cuban Americans embrace the backlash against Eckstein and the book. As the Miami Beach–born son of Cuban immigrants who fled the island after Castro seized power in January 1959, former Representative Joe Garcia acknowledges the volume’s argument. “The basic premise of the book is factually correct,” the one-term Democratic member of Congress says. “[Cuban Americans] tend to be defensive since it is a privilege that you want to keep because it benefits you.”
In a lengthy interview, Gutiérrez-Boronat acknowledged that Cubans received “unprecedented aid in resettling and in rebuilding their lives,” but he hastened to note that the U.S.government “was also dealing with the unprecedented establishment of a totalitarian state in the middle of the Western Hemisphere.” He maintained that the central thesis of Cuban Privilege is captured on the ninth page, where Eckstein wrote, “The Eisenhower administration was quick to imagine Cubans as refugees, even when their lifestyle but not lives were at risk.”
Gutiérrez-Boronat accused Eckstein of downplaying what he called “the very real and overwhelming fears of persecution” that have spurred successive waves of immigration to the U.S. But when asked about Eckstein’s supposed “ideological bias,” he could not name an ideology to which she subscribes.
One of the outstanding issues in this swing state is when and if Cuban Americans will shed their overwhelming support for Republican candidates and be less animated by anticommunist, revanchist politics. Given the Republican strength shown in South Florida during the 2020 and 2022 elections, the answer is probably not anytime soon. Among the casualties of Florida’s 2020 general election was Reno’s fellow cabinet member, Donna Shalala, the former secretary of health and human services and president of the University of Miami.
What will be the legacy of Cuban Privilege? Cabrera says he supports the First Amendment and never wanted FIU to cancel the December 9 event. But he still condemns FIU’s use of public funds to partially subsidize Eckstein’s visit to Miami. (Duany said a standard $500 honorarium was paid to Eckstein but added that FIU did not cover her travel expenses.) As for Books and Books owner Mitchell Kaplan, he reports that the chain sold more than 100 copies of the volume, which retails for $39.99. “That’s one hundred more than we would have sold under normal circumstances,” he noted with a chuckle.
Joseph Contreras is the former Latin America regional editor at Newsweek and the author of In the Shadow of the Giant: The Americanization of Modern Mexico.