A poll conducted for The Herald found that Mariel refugees have views that differ from those of Cubans who arrived in South Florida before and after 1980.
1980 CUBAN BOATLIFT
BY OSCAR CORRAL
Cubans who fled during the Mariel boatlift tend to have more middle-of-the-road views than Cubans who arrived before or after the 1980 exodus on issues such as invading Cuba or traveling to the island, according to a new poll.
About half of Mariel exiles polled feel that U.S. citizens should be allowed to travel to Cuba compared to about 34 percent of exiles who came before 1980 and about 60 percent of those who came after 1980.
The poll—conducted by Coral Gables-based Bendixen & Associates for The Herald’s coverage of the boatlift’s 25th anniversary—also found that about half of all Mariel refugees questioned would support a military invasion to depose Cuban President Fidel Castro compared to 60 percent of exiles who came before 1980 and just 38 percent of those who came after 1980.
‘‘Mariel exiles tend to have an intermediate point of view on most issues that impact Cuba policy,’’ Pollster Sergio Bendixen said. ``They are likely to be more conservative than those who arrived after 1980 but more progressive than those that came in the 1960s and 1970s.’‘
However, there are many points of agreement among exiles. While most support the economic embargo of Cuba, most also want to invest in their homeland post-Castro. Few, however, want to move back and many feel they may never see the day when Cuba is free.
Forty-two percent of all exiles feel they ‘‘will probably die before democracy and freedom are restored in Cuba,’’ according to the poll.
The polling firm interviewed 200 Mariel refugees as part of a larger poll of 600 Cuban Americans from Miami-Dade and Broward counties between March 21-31. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points for all interviewees; the margin is seven percentage points for the Mariel group and the two other subgroups of pre- and post-Mariel exiles.
Regardless of when they came, very few plan to move back to Cuba when Castro is no longer in power. Only 17 percent said they would return.
However, a much larger percentage of all exiles said they would invest in Cuba after Castro is gone—a suggestion of Cuban American capital that is poised to flow to the island. Fifty-five percent of exiles said they plan to invest in business or properties in Cuba once Castro goes.
Many are already sending over money. Sixty percent of all Cuban exiles said they send money to family in Cuba, and 51 percent feel that they should be able to send as much money as they like to their relatives.
But in a contradictory revelation, the poll also shows that 68 percent of exiles support the $100 monthly limit on remittances imposed last year by the Bush administration. Even Mariel exiles and those who came after them—most of whom still have family in Cuba—heavily support the restrictions.
Economically, Mariel refugees have become part of what Bendixen calls the Cuban ‘‘economic miracle.’’ They have practically caught up to older exiles in their levels of success and are in almost every respect a model immigrant class, much like the Cuban exiles who arrived in South Florida in the 1960s.
Even Cuban refugees who arrived in Miami after Mariel, including the balseros who came in the 1990s, have shown a remarkable ability to advance themselves in South Florida in a relatively short time, the poll shows.
‘Even though the Mariel exiles were perceived to be a very `different’ group of exiles when they first arrived in South Florida in 1980, now their lifestyle choices and level of acculturation are similar to those of other Cuban exiles,’’ said Bendixen.
Regardless of when Cuban exiles arrived in Miami, they have blended almost seamlessly into the fabric of Miami society. Of course, those who have been here longer have slightly higher levels of education, income and voter registration. But the more recent arrivals seem to be well on their way to catching up—even if the perceptions of them by older exiles haven’t.
The poll found that the Mariel exiles’ average annual income their first year here was $6,607. Today, it’s $31,210. For all Cuban exiles in South Florida, the figure is $37,440.
To put it in perspective, the average annual income in Miami-Dade is $31,045 for men with full-time jobs and $24,171 for women. Exiles who came before 1980 average $44,000 a year; those who arrived after 1980 average about $31,360.
Despite the Mariel’s success, about 40 percent of exiles who came to South Florida before 1980 feel that Mariel refugees have hurt the image of Cuban immigrants.
Among all exiles who arrived either before or after the 1980 boatlift, 73 percent have a positive image of Mariel refugees.
It’s a dose of schizophrenia within South Florida’s exile community.
‘‘A small but significant percentage of exiles still harbor opinions about Mariel exiles that seem to originate from the original stereotype,’’ Bendixen said.
That’s the story of Ricardo Perez, 53, of Hialeah. Perez came to Miami during Mariel in 1980 and fell in love with a woman whose father came from Cuba in 1967.
‘‘He didn’t want me to marry his daughter because I had gotten here in Mariel,’’ Perez said. ``He said I was no good. But slowly they started to realize that I wasn’t so bad. A few bad apples that had criminal problems caused the problems for us in Mariel.’‘
Castro took advantage of the boatlift to send convicts and in some cases the mentally ill to the United States. They constituted a tiny minority of the 125,000 people who fled the island.
Ada Torres, 55, came to Miami with her family in 1970. She said that when Mariel happened, she looked down upon the new arrivals. But things have changed.
‘‘At the beginning, their image hurt the Cubans that were here,’’ Torres said. ``They were killers, and people with problems who didn’t work and stole from others. But afterward, they’ve done well, and my best friends today came here in Mariel.’‘
While Mariel exiles are less likely to go to church every week than Cuban immigrants who came before and after them, they are still likely to attend church at least a few times a year.
But in other cultural aspects, Mariel refugees and other Cuban exile groups mirror one another, the poll found. Most root for the U.S. team, not the Cubans, during the Olympic Games. Most cling to Cuban culinary and festival traditions at home.
The biggest legacy of the exile community, Bendixen said, has been its economic success.
‘‘As Cubans, we all came here to work hard, whether we came in Mariel, or another time,’’ Perez said. ``That’s why we’ve done well. We haven’t stopped working from the moment we got here