The transnationalism of the Cuban migrant

The use of the term transnational to define the relations of emigrants with Cuba has gained popularity in Cuban governmental circles and academic spaces. This is not without importance since the concept of “transnationality” implies the existence of a qualitatively different relationship between emigration and its country of origin. The issue is to analyze if this relationship really exists and what would be the attributes that are required to affirm it.

The concept of transnationalism was introduced in migration studies at the end of the last century. The purpose was to establish differences between what was considered a “traditional migrant,” say one who leaves his country of origin and maintains few ties with it, and what we could call a “contemporary migrant,” who, thanks to the development of transportation and communications, and imbued by the culture of globalization, does not break these ties but maintains them through various means, to the point of developing live-in lives to both countries.

A classic definition of transnationalism could be one provided by the first researchers on the subject, who said, “The set of processes by which immigrants forge and sustain intertwined social networks, linking their societies of origin and host.” In Cuban studies on the subject such a definition has been interpreted “as a complex system of exchange networks, not only of people, but also of capital, goods and information that go beyond territorial borders and create economic, political, cultural and social fields that transcend the limits of the state.” Summed up, according to these authors, as “being and belonging to the society of origin and host” or “having two homes,” to put it more simply.

As the word that defines it indicates, the concept is intended to explain the migrant’s relations with specific nations, especially with his or her nation of origin. Therefore, it is not enough to maintain ties with the family or circumstantially travel to the country to define transnationalism. It entails a certain degree of social integration of migrants in both places, common interests and a hybrid culture, and adapting to both the canons of the host country, as well as the country of origin of these persons. Although one of the characteristics of transnationalism is to transcend borders and act, on occasions outside state policies, these policies are always decisive in establishing the margins and scope of the transnational action of migrants.

One of the consequences of U.S. policy against Cuba has been to limit the possibilities of transnationalism in the case of Cuban migrants, most of whom live in the U.S. or are affected by the global effects of the blockade. Prohibiting investments in Cuba or the exercise of trade and financial transactions, limiting travel in both directions, and restricting cultural and sports contacts between the two countries, ostensibly limit the possibilities of integration into Cuban society for most migrants. In fact, there is a network of international actors, in many cases financed by the U.S. government, whose objective is to prevent or hinder the development of these relations since they are opposed to the climate of hostility that is intended to be maintained.

One of the reasons (not the only one) why it is convenient for Cuba to promote transnationalism in relations with its emigrants is precisely because of its neutralizing effects on U.S. policy. However, so far this has not been the case. Until 1978, due to participation and leadership of many emigrants in the counterrevolutionary activity, the Cuban migratory policy was clearly designed to hinder links with emigration. But even later, despite the fact that the political differences that exist within emigration were recognized and spaces were opened for contacts and dialogue, it has never been broad and inclusive enough for the promotion of transnationalism.

Paradoxically, at times Cuban policy has had the undesired effect of ‘managing’ the U.S. blockade. This has been the consequence of the reluctance to promote investments in Cuba by emigrants despite the fact that the law has authorized them for years, or the restriction of imports and the high taxes and marketing prohibitions that have been imposed on products that arrive in the country in this manner. Apparently this is changing, at least in the field of possible investments and other economic activities in Cuba, which would be an advance in the conceptions that govern the policy towards emigration as a whole.

Some actions, such as facilitating the participation of emigrants in the constitutional debate in 2019, and more recently regarding the Family Code that is being discussed in the country, are signs of the government’s will to provide a space for participation of emigrants in Cuban political life. In reality, although scarcely disseminated and studied in its practical effects, as of the 2013 immigration policy reforms, a broader window was opened in this regard since those who emigrate do not lose their political rights, as was the case previously, and is still valid for those who left the country before that date. This includes the ability to vote in elections if you are in the country at the time of the election.

In any case, to speak of the existence of transnationalism in the relations of the emigrants with Cuba, at least to consider it a predominant tendency and not a quality limited to a certain number of people, a much deeper and more encompassing degree of integration is required in the national life, which does not exist today. Perhaps the growing use of the term transnationalism in official language reflects the intention to move in that direction. If so, we would be in the presence of a qualitatively different stage of the policy towards emigration, a necessity for the future of the nation since it connects with demographic, economic, ideological, even sentimental, problems that Cuban society faces today.