Cuban and Soviet Jewish Refugees in the United States

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Cuban and Soviet Jewish Refugees in the United States
Shraybman, Olga
Espinosa, Cristina ( Mentor )
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Gainesville, Fla.
University of Florida
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Cuban and Soviet Jewish Refugees in the United States

Olga Shraybman

PolitC1al reifu eeS from different parts of the orlj I. escape their countries ifor different reasons; the, .311

look for civil liberties in countries like the United States. These refugees face the challenge of assimilating in

their host countries, and, depending on the circumstances of their exile, they might either long to return to

their homeland or burn the bridges behind them. These different attitudes are shown by political refugees from

Cuba and the Soviet Union. My study describes Soviet Jews who left the Soviet Union during the early 1970s

and Cubans who left Cuba in the 1960s and in the 1980s, the latter group known as the Marielitos. Specifically,

this article describes their experience and attitude as political refugees in the United States, considering the

reasons for their exile.

Cuban and Soviet Jewish refugees faced danger and persecution in their escape from totalitarian regimes.

Both groups of refugees highly valued education and achievement of higher economic and social status. This

study will explore how their experience in the new country contrasted with their experience in their homeland

and how this has affected their process of assimilation. Differences and similarities in assimilation between Cuban

and Soviet Jewish refugees will be explored based on literature review, film analysis, and fieldwork conducted

in Moldova (republic of the former Soviet Union) and Miami during the summer 2005. Fieldwork included

interviews to Jewish and Cuban refugees and research at the Cuban American Foundation.

Similarities and differences between Cuban and Soviet Jewish refugees are better understood when considering

their place in their societies of origin. In 1959 in Cuba the dictator Fulgencio Batista was expelled by a revolution

lead by Fidel Castro. After this revolution, aristocrats, the educated and the wealthy class, left Cuba, as they did

not agree with the radical reforms imposed by Castro. They fled to the United States where they received the

status of political refugees. Many of them had close economic, political and ideological tides with Batista and

a capitalist country like the United States.

These high and middle class refugees left everything behind in Cuba. They had already visited the United

States, experienced American culture in Cuba, and knew more English than later Cuban refugees. These

refugees were older than the subsequent waves of Cuban refugees, which might explain why they kept their

Cuban identity. They saw the United States as a temporary residence and wanted to return to Cuba after

Castro's removal. Furthermore, they had the political support from the United States' government in their anti-

Castro campaigns.

While the first Cuban refugees came for political reasons, the following waves came for economic ones. The

majority of these refugees established themselves in and around Miami. Even though first-wave refugees were

mostly professional and knew the United States from prior visits, many still did not speak English fluently and for

that reason they had to accept the first job they could find. This group experienced economic and social

success because they adapted well, were talented, and worked hard. Dulce Beatriz, one of these exiles, became

a distinguished Cuban painter. The Spanish government awarded her with the Great Order of "Isabel la

Catolica." These refugees showed solidarity with the later waves of refugees, advising them on how to find a

home, get a social security card, enroll children in schools, and find free medicine.

In 1980, after the refugees were allowed to visit Cuba and the incident in the Peruvian embassy in Cuba, (1)

Castro, in order to relieve domestic pressures, let Cubans leave the island. This wave of refugees was

slightly different from the earlier refugees. Many of them came as Marielitos.(2) Some of these refugees

had previously agreed with the revolution, but, after having experienced Castro's politics, became dissidents.

These refugees, unlike the first refugees, have experienced the communist system for more than 20 years and

were looking for a different life.

Another element that sets these refugees apart from the earlier refugees is that Castro sent criminals from jails

and mentally ill people to the United States. This wave of immigration resulted in a higher crime rate,

unemployment, and a housing shortage in the United States. The movie Scarface showed how one of these

criminals from Cuba established his gang in the United States. Nevertheless, many artists, writers, and

musicians came with this group of refugees, including the writer Reynaldo Arenas, who represents those who

left because they did not have freedom to write and choose their sexual orientation. He was a homosexual who

did not hide his homosexuality in his writings.

Strawberry and Chocolate, made by Tomas Gutierrez Alea in the 90s,shows the difficulties of being a homosexual

in revolutionary Cuba, and the challenge this presents when trying to do business as a marginalized person.

Diego, the protagonist, drinks whiskey, listens to foreign music, and has religious statues and paintings in his

house. Another character, college student David, initially represents a revolutionary society who does not

accept Diego's lifestyle and beliefs. David likes literature; however, he studies political science because that is

what revolutionary Cuba needs. Furthermore, this movie shows the difference between the propaganda

literature and authentic art when Diego calls David's writing a work full of slogans. The slogan type literature

was common during el Quinquenio Gris(3) period in the 70s in Cuba.

The Memory of Underdevelopment, by Tomas Gutierrez Alea, shows the social, economic, and political situation

in communist Cuba. This movie is not anti-Castro but it offers a critique of communist Cuba. For example, it

shows North American products being substituted by Soviet ones of lower quality. The movie also criticized

Cuban intellectuals for being elitist and isolated from common people. The movie starts with documentary footage

of the Bay of Pigs invasion, where Cuban refugees trained in Everglades Camp, Florida, by the CIA tried

to overthrow Castro. The main protagonist, Sergio, is an individualist, alienated both from Cuban society and

from the exiles, since he does not consider himself a revolutionary or a contra-revolutionary. The woman he has

an affair with refers to him as nothing because of his neutral political views. Sergio lives on a high floor, which is

a symbolic of his idea of being above everyone that remained in Cuba or left Cuba and above everything

happening around him. Sergio does not have a job and lives from the lease of his apartments. He spends his

time observing people, having affairs with women, looking at the paintings. His lifestyle is not acceptable

to revolutionary Cuban society, especially because ownership of property for leasing was not allowed. A

question addressed toward Sergio, "If you don't work, how do you live?" emphasizes the idea that a Cuban

citizen had to be employed and that individualist business class could not exist. Consequently, authorities

took properties away from Sergio.

A contra-revolutionary movie, Bitter Sugar, showed other problems in Cuba. One of the main themes of this movie

is Cuba portrayed as a prostitute for foreign investment. The prostitution is shown through various characters.

For instance, a psychiatrist had to become a pianist at the hotel for foreigners for economic reasons. A young

woman, Yolanda, had an affair with a foreigner in order to leave Cuba. Another character, Zoraya, was a

mother during the day and during the night a jinetera.(4) Another annoying problem is the constant waiting in

lines, portrayed when two main characters, Yolanda and Sergio, had to wait in line in order to get a room in a

motel. This movie shows how a previously revolutionary person can become anti-revolutionary after

experiencing Castro's Cuba. At the beginning of this movie, Gustavo is an excellent student who believes

in communism and in revolutionary Cuba. By the end of the movie his views have changed and he tries

to assassinate Castro.

Guantanamera criticizes a revolutionary Cuban bureaucracy and presents the economic and political situation

after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when there is a shortage of everything. For instance, a character Adolfo had

a plan to put two bodies in one coffin in order to save the money. The movie is a critique of the absolutist

rigid system whose plans fail. For instance, Mariano, an engineer, has to work as a truck driver to make a living.

This movie shows some commerce legalized in Cuba, like the small restaurants on the roads and people

criticizing socialism when Mariano says: "ya esta probado que el socialismo no sirve."(5) This movie

shows professionals forced to change to nonprofessional jobs, since that paid more than professional position.

These later refugees had more trouble finding employment in the American community due to the bad image

of Marielitos (Lopez 2006). Nevertheless, the Cuban community in the United States did not discriminate

against them, helping them with employment and advice. They frequented the same social places as other

Cubans (Lopez 2006). The government treated them equally as earlier Cuban refugees based on the

Cuban Adjustment Act 1966.(6) Later, some of these refugees moved to New Jersey where they found

better employment. Omar Lopez mentioned that Marielitos maintained communication with their families in Cuba

if they had family left there.

Similarly to Cuba, the Soviet Union had a communist regime where minorities like Jews experienced a lack of

civil liberties. After 1967, the number of Jews who demanded to emigrate grew. This was the year Leonid

Brezhnev consolidated power and imposed tight control on freedom of expression. His government produced

anti-Semitic pronouncements and publications, thus reigniting deep-seated anti-Jewish feelings and creating

a threatening environment for Jews in different parts of the Soviet Union. Israel's victory in the Six-Day War of

1967 gave hope to Russian Jews, as Alexander Sirotinin recalls, "It really helped to revive hope after the long time

of fear and terror" (Orleck 49). Some Slavic neighbors did not react with happiness to this victory. Physician

Khaya Resnicov recalls what her Jewish husband experienced, "Your place is in Israel. We don't need

you here."(Orleck 51). During the second half of the 1970s after various demonstrations in the Soviet Union, in

major European capitals and at the United Nations, after letter-writing campaigns, hunger strikes, and

individual protests, 110,000 Soviet Jews received permission from the Soviet government to leave, and they

entered the United States with refugee status.

Similar to Cuban refugees, Soviet Jews have experienced a lack of civil liberties. For example, the musician

Butkin could not play jazz because it was considered to be capitalist music. Economic reasons also played a big

role in their decision to leave. People in the Soviet Union were not allowed to own property. Waiting in lines for

food and everything else, lack of variety of products available, and lack of foreign products were common issues

in the Soviet Union. As well as in Cuba, the quality of Soviet products was lower than Western and North

American products. When Jewish families in the Soviet Union received gifts from the Jewish American

organization "Joint," they could compare quality of products and were later as immigrants surprised to see such

a variety of products in American stores. The movie On Derebasavskaya the Weather Is Good and on Brighton

Beach ItIs Raining shows the difference between American and Russian stores.

For Jewish refugees exile was a way to get access to better education and jobs, since Jewish people were not

easily admitted to Soviet universities. This discouraged my mother to not apply to medical school, as she was

afraid that the admission committee would not accept her due to her Jewish last name. Despite the difficulty

of getting into the University, most of the Soviet Jewish refugees were educated and professional, and the majority

of them were living in the big cities in Russia and Ukraine.

For most Jews exile was the only way to be Jewish without fears of persecution. While some Jewish refugees

escaped in order to be able to practice Judaism, the number of religious refugees was relatively small, since

most Jews grew up in a communist system where religion was forbidden. They had more knowledge of

Russian culture than of Jewish rites. The crucial difference between them and Cuban refugees is that they

never perceived the Soviet Union as their homeland, for they were a minority without strong sense of belonging

or identification with the Soviet Union. In the beginning their experience in the United States was different

from early Cuban refugees, who settled in Miami. Soviet Jewish refugees had to start with the lowest jobs and

learn English. Similar to Cuban refuges, many Soviet Jewish refugees were professional. The majority of them

settled in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Many of them started a small business despite having no business

education. Just like Cuban refugees, Soviet refugees received help from Jewish federations like HIAS and NYANA

that provided financial and employment assistance, education, and care for elderly people. Soviet refugees

found advice and assistance on employment from earlier immigrants from the Soviet Union. Just like the

Cubans, Soviet Jewish refugees succeeded in their education, business, and professional careers. Those

who succeeded moved out of Brighton Beach.

Soviet Jewish exiles never entertained the idea of returning to the Soviet Union once the communist regime

was overthrown. They stated the United States was their new homeland and there was nothing left in the

former Soviet Union for them. Soviet refugees have applied fast for the American citizenship. Nevertheless,

elderly Soviet Jewish refugees feel nostalgic for the former Soviet Union. Many of them have a Russian TV

channel. Sophie Spector, English teacher for elderly immigrants in Brighton Beach, mentioned that, "The old ones

are like plants that have been taken from one soil, one kind of earth to another. They wither and are weak. And

they need time to make new roots and to become strong again" (Orleck 149). Yuri Feldman, born in Minsk

and emigrated at age three, said, "Yeah, I am an American.... not Soviet American or Russian American,

just American" (Orleck 149). It was easier for younger Soviet refugees in general to adapt to the United States.

The Soviet Union does not exist anymore. However, the economic situation in Moldova and in many other republics

of the former Soviet Union is precarious. Salaries are very low and the crime level is very high. For Jews

the situation has improved, as they are less afraid of their ethnicity and religion. After the collapse of the

Soviet Union, many Jewish organizations from Israel and the United States established their offices in Moldova.

There are two Jewish public schools and two Yeshivas(7) in Kishinev. Furthermore, an organization Hesed(8)

assists elderly Jews with food, doctors, medicine, and house cleaning. In addition, there are two Jewish

newspapers: Istoki(9) and Evreiskoye Mestecko.(10) Even the Jewish cemetery now looks better than

other cemeteries in the city. Despite these changes, Jews do not desire to return to the former Soviet Union. Due

to exodus outside of the Soviet Union and to ethnic mixing, the Jewish community in Moldova has been

diluted. Jewish refugees do not have a defined ethnic identity, or sense of belonging or homeland because

they were a minority escaping from persecution and anti-communist ideology prevalent in the Soviet Union.

A Brighton businesswoman replied impatiently when asked if she followed the news from home, "America is

my country, not Russia. I have no one left there to worry about. My family is all here or in Israel" (Orleck 185).

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the situation in Cuba got worse since it lost their major support. According

to Cuba Report from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, "Cuba is a totalitarian state controlled

by President Fidel Castro, who is Chief of State, Head of Government, First Secretary of the Communist Party

and commander-in-chief of the armed forces" (Cuba Report 18). Education in Cuba is bombarded with politics.

The letter from a Cuban teacher Yailin Fernandez Santana mentions that everything is controlled including

the breakfast and lunch schedule for the primary and secondary schools. The teacher has to reaffirm the values

of "Cuban Revolution." Even television programs have to deal with politics. If the professor does not talk

about politics, he will be evaluated as (M).(11) Furthermore, in Castro's Cuba, speaking against injustice is a

crime (Cuba report 66). Human rights activists and dissidents are arrested and beaten. For instance, human

rights activist Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet was sentenced in February of 2000 to three years, and he still remains

confined in Cuba Si prison in Holguin. Despite this, Cuban exiles want to return to their homeland once

the Communist regime is over because Cubans have a strong sense of belonging, a strong national identity.

In addition, the first wave of Cuban exiles was a privileged upper middle class that lost their privilege and want

to regain it. Cubans negotiate better conditions in exile and were able to influence the mainstream culture in

Miami. This is opposite to Soviet Jews who do not want to return even though the Soviet Union does not

exist anymore. A businessman, Horacio Garcia, who came to the United States in 1960, said that Cuba means

for him, "Tal vez esta pasi6n, este compromise y este deber para no abandonar a nuestra patria, para tratar

de recuperar su libertad" (Castell6n, Iglesias 82).(12) Another Cuban refugee Cecilio Lorenzo said that, "No,

coho, Cuba esta en mis sueios por verla libre, son mis lagrimas cuando canto el himno cubano en el

suelo extranjero" (Castell6n, Iglesias 140).(13)

First wave Cuban exiles were mostly professionals with a high economic status. They had a defined national

identity and considered Cuba as their homeland. Upon their arrival they considered the United States as a

temporary residence. Furthermore, they influenced Miami with their national identity and their culture and never

lost links to and pride for their country. Therefore, they were less assimilated than the exiles in the 80s. Many

of these exiles were ethnically mixed, were not professionals, and did not have a high economic status. Thus,

the United States was not perceived as a temporary residence for them as it was for the first wave. Contrary

to Cuban exiles, the Soviet refugees were an ethnic and religious minority who experienced anti-Semitism.

They lacked a national identity, a sense of belonging, and they burned all the bridges behind them. Comparing

Cuban and Soviet refugees, we can conclude that the assimilation of refugees into a new country will depend on

the power and privilege they had in their home country; their sense of belonging, pride, and national identity;

and their ties to their homeland.


1. On March 28th, 1980, a bus with Cubans seeking political asylum crashed into the Peruvian Embassy. A

Cuban guard was killed in the cross-fire. Then, on April 6, 1980, 10,800 Cubans forced their way into

Cuban embassy.

2. The term Marielitos comes from port Mariel, where the ship departed.

3. A period of time in literature, art, and music when simple and pro-revolutionary work replaced complex art.

4. prostitute for foreigners

5. it is proved that socialism does not work

6. Its main provision was to treat Cuban immigrants as political refugees and provide with automatic

permanent residence status. This law affords the Cuban immigrant to work legally, to governmental welfare,

to unemployment benefits, and to free medical care.

7. Jewish religious schools

8. a Hebrew word for compassion

9. the sources

10. Jewish small settlement

11. "Mal," which means "bad" in English

12. "Maybe this passion, this commitment for not abandoning their homeland in order to recuperate its freedom."

13. "I dream that Cuba is free, these are my tears when I sing Cuban hymn on the foreign ground."


1. Gonzilez-Pando, Miguel. The Cuban Americans. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group.,1998

Llanes, Josd. Cuban Americans. Abt Books: Cambridge, 1982

2. Orleck, Annelise The Soviet Jewish Americans. Greenwood Press: Westport, 1999

3. Panish, Paul Exit Visa. Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1981

4. Perez, Castell6n Ninoska Cuba Mia Hablan Tus Hijos Testimonios. Zunzun: Coral Gables, 2003

5. Santos, Jorge Mas Cuba Report Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor U.S. Department of State. Jorge

Mas Canosa Freedom Foundation: Miami, 2001

6. Simon Rita J. New Lives. Heath and Company: Lexington, 1985

7. Zaldivar, Rodriguez Rodolfo, Madan Bienvenido Golden Pages of the Cuban Exiles 1959-1983. United States, 198.


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